John Harris owns an agricultural empire of beef and pistachios, and a hotel known to most Californians who have ever traveled Interstate 5 through the Central Valley, but on a recent day his attention was fixed on a message spelled out in red Solo cups.
The sixth-graders at Centerville Elementary had put 150 of them in a chain-link fence to write "Go Cali Chrome."
"I get a real kick out of that," said Harris, who owns the horse farm where California Chrome was born.
Students in Centerville come to school in cowboy boots with shorts — the children of fieldworkers and farmers. They blasted country-rocker Kenny Chesney while they transformed the school fence.
They're into the blue-blood sport of thoroughbred racing these days, ever since they figured out that California Chrome — racing Saturday in the Belmont Stakes in a bid to become the first California-bred Triple Crown winner — comes from where they call home.
The copper-penny 3-year-old with the white blaze down his nose was born at Harris Farms in Coalinga. A landscape of cattle, oil wells and the center of California drought, it's an awful long way from Kentucky bluegrass.
As a yearling, California Chrome trained at Harris' home, River Ranch, next to Centerville, population about 350.
The far-fetched story of a horse from a place a lot of people call nowhere — outrunning what the establishment considered a limited pedigree — resonates in the Central Valley, where many people are trying to do the same.
"That horse was born, bred and fed here," said John Alkire, chief executive of the Big Fresno Fair. "But it's more than that. We're blue-collar. And this horse fits right in."
The day California Chrome won the Kentucky Derby, David White, a sportswriter turned Porterville pastor, was officiating a wedding. The wedding started at 6 p.m., the race at 3:24.
"It was all valley people and the whole wedding party crowds into the hotel lobby — including the bride and groom — to watch the race," he said. "Everyone is just screaming. I'm going ballistic. We watched our horse make history."