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Spring is easing its way into my home in central Georgia, with the first Monday in March showing up on the cooler side, which was welcome to me.
It’s been three years since I moved East of Atlanta from Southern California, and winter has changed too quickly to summer two out of three years since I became a resident.
I’m a fan of spring. It’s my favorite season. I love how everything is new and how the days get longer as the world is reborn. Trees and flowers bud and bloom, and I’m reminded of what is possible.
I’ve watched Kentucky Derby prep races with significant interest, and stood in my living room to urge on my favorite in last weekend’s Fountain of Youth Stakes. (Good Magic was third, coming on down the homestretch and running well, in my opinion, after a four month layoff.)
In truth, I miss the track. I miss the barns on the backside and the workouts and the anticipation of race days.
It’s been a little over a year since the remarkable chestnut stallion who monopolized my lens for three years retired to the rolling green pastures of Taylor Made Farms in Nicholasville, Kentucky. I miss my friends - the team at Sherman Racing Stables and the “support staff” who traveled to be at every race they could manage. And I miss that gorgeous champion, California Chrome.
My last trip with Chrome and his team was the inaugural running of the Pegasus World Cup Invitational at the end of January, 2017, at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, Florida. My experience with Team Sherman and California Chrome was serendipitous. My initial impulse was to just walk away and accept that it had been an ordained moment that could never be recreated.
I still believe that, and feel certain that my tenure with this team will likely never be eclipsed….but I’ve got an itch.
Lexington, Kentucky calls to me.
In early January of 2017, and again in September, my friends at Taylor Made invited me to work the Thoroughbred sales at Keeneland. The work was incredibly challenging, and the weather in January was daunting, but being around the horses made it all worthwhile. I encourage everyone I know who is a horse lover to visit Lexington, and to experience a sale at Keeneland at least once in their lifetime.
This past October, my family made their annual pilgrimage to Lexington. My older brother and his family moved to Kentucky more than twenty years ago, and going to the races at Keeneland is a family-favorite outing. Without press credentials or a team to follow, I was a general spectator, and it was fun. I enjoyed the afternoon with my family, strolled out to the rail for each post parade, watched Eclipse Award winning owner/breeder Ken Ramsey walk his triumphant colt into the winners' circle, and saw three-time Kentucky Derby winning jockey, Calvin Borel, at work.
Keeneland is a special place, and the track lends itself to exceptional photography opportunities without the need for the special access that a press pass provides. I enjoyed my time as a “civilian” and loved the images I captured. But it left me wanting more…
It’s time to get back to work.
The Blue Grass Stakes will run opening weekend of Keeneland’s spring meet, on April 7. I’ll be in attendance, taking photographs and writing about the experience. If everything works out, I should have a “warm up” at Laurel Park next weekend with four stakes racing on March 17.
Let me know which horses you like, and come along for the ride.
Watching Ken Ramsey walk his winning horse into the winners' circle was a special treat!
All week long, the mood outside barn #2 on the backside of Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, Florida was light. Each morning, close connections of champion race horse California Chrome gathered to share coffee and pastries, and to laugh and chat about past experiences and the upcoming Pegasus World Cup Invitational on Saturday, January 28.
The morning of the race, it was no different. Though the crowd was smaller, for most barns it would have seemed unimaginable to have so many people arrive prior to 5am to stand in the dark while their favorite horse had his pre-race jog. But Chrome’s connections are devoted, and this was the last time they would have this opportunity.
To be honest, I almost skipped it, as I have the past couple of races. The morning of a race can be a little tense compared to other mornings, so I have opted to reduce the crowd by one and get some sleep to carry me through the long day.
But my friend and travel companion, Margaret Luckett, insisted I should not miss it, and she was right. When it was time to jog, I fell in line just behind groom Raul Rodriquez and assistant trainer, Alan Sherman, as they led Chrome to the track, with exercise rider, Dihigi Gladney aboard.
Chrome jogged and had his bath before going back into his stall, and by 8am Margaret and I were back at our condo. A few hours to rest and get ready to go back to the barn.
Shortly after 1pm we packed up some beach chairs and a cooler that were available at the condo and drove back to Gulfstream. Traffic into the parking lot was already building when we were exiting in the morning, and now it was looking pretty full. But thank goodness for our media passes and the wonderful security team at Gulfstream who had become familiar with us over the previous few days. We drove cleanly onto the backside and joined our friends to wait.
As many of you know by now, this is my favorite part of Thoroughbred horse racing. While it could be incredibly stressful, marking the time until a race, I enjoy being at the barn with the team. There are always stories and a lot of laughter, and I get some of my best photos of the anticipation and preparation for the race.
The routine at Gulfstream does not include a visit to the receiving barn prior to the race. Instead, each entrant is visited in their stall for pre-race checks and the mandatory blood draw. That meant we would walk straight to the paddock and not have to stop and wait enroute.
It wasn’t long before we were joined by the stellar team from TVG, with hugs and big smiles for everyone. They have been backside with us prior to every race over the past thirteen months, and commentator Mike Joyce can always be counted on for his humor.
In addition to Alan’s friends, Bobby Hobbs, Jordan Olsen and Matt Smoot, award-winning turf writer and family friend, Jay Hovdey sat quietly in a folding chair at the side of the barn in the shade of a perfect afternoon. Upon closer inspection, I saw that Jay was wearing his Pegasus tie - which he told me he had acquired years ago. The perfect accessory for the occasion.
As Alan and Raul began the final stages of preparing Chrome to leave the barn, the mood became more serious. Not sad, but bittersweet. Everything reminded the team that this was the last time.
And then the call came over the public address system on the backside, that horses for the twelfth race needed to make their way to the saddling paddock. I quickly walked out ahead of the team, to be in good position to capture images as they stepped from the shade of the shed rows into the temperate afternoon sun and made their way toward the track.
Trailing an impressive security detail and three video crews, Raul led Chrome on the short walk from the barn to the gap at the rear chute in the track, then along the inside rail. The closer we got to the grandstand, the larger and louder the crowd. At a couple of points in our trek, Chrome stopped, lifted his head and looked around with curious eyes. It felt as if he also knew - that this was the last time.
To say that the saddling paddock at Gulfstream Park is not ideal is being generous. It is a narrow alley, with stalls on one wall and not much space to walk horses under normal conditions. For the Pegasus Cup, every team was augmented, video crews were everywhere, security details were quadrupled, and the scene was just this side of chaos.
So I kept walking, through the paddock, and stopped to wait with Savannah Sherman, Art and Faye’s granddaughter. In a protected corner we watched the crowd, now substantial, filling every imaginable space on every observation deck facing the walking paddock and pushing toward the narrow avenue the entrants would pass through to travel from the paddock to the walking ring.
Thankfully, saddling went smoothly and the horses and teams were soon filing out through the tunnel, to the delight of the waiting throng. Cheers went up as Raul and Dihigi led Chrome to the walking circle, where again, Chrome stopped to look around.
By some miracle I found the Sherman family and was able to grab a few images of Chrome with jockey, Victor Espinoza in the irons, as they paraded in front of the crowd before climbing the slight incline to walk back through the tunnel and paddock to reach the track.
As the mass of supporters flooded the tunnel, I waited to walk with Art, Savannah and Faye. By the time I reached the track, the gate allowing teams access to trackside positions was closed, and as I had done for the Pacific Classic at Del Mar, I implored the security team to allow me to join my team at the rail.
Once in position, we waited again, as horses and riders embarked on their post parade and the track announcer ran through the post positions and horses for the inaugural Pegasus World Cup Invitational.
Just to my left, I scanned the rail to find my friends, standing silently, taking in the moment. Then the starting gate was towed past us and into place, followed shortly by the field for the race, who all entered the gate without incident….until it was Chrome’s turn.
For the first time in my experience, he did not step fluidly into gate #12, but rather he hesitated - if only briefly - until being coaxed in by the gate crew and his jockey. The gates sprang open and the horses bolted onto the track.
As they entered the first turn, everything looked good. Chrome got a good jump out of the gate and by the time they exited the turn and opened up into the back stretch, Victor had him in a stalking position, just behind the leaders, with his prime competitor on the inside rail.
About the half mile mark, you could see it. As the horses began to move into the final turn, some making their move toward the lead, California Chrome was not accelerating as in the past. While he continued to run, his turn of foot seemed off, and collectively we all knew that a trip to the winners’ circle was not in the cards.
As the horses cleared our position, Alan, Raul and Dihigi walked out to watch their horse run back, checking his stride to look for any sign of significant injury. Their main concern is the welfare of this beautiful and talented athlete, regardless of the race outcome.
Now there was a quiet, almost solemn mood as I fell in stride with Raul to walk back to the barn with Chrome. His immediate comment was that Chrome just didn’t like the track. Later we would discover that he had twisted his knee, a minor issue that would be corrected with rest to his complete recovery.
I wonder now, if the pauses along the way to the starting gate were his way of saying that he knew it wasn’t his day. He's an incredibly intelligent horse, so it’s possible, if not likely.
Back at the barn, a small group gathered while Chrome was cooled out and bathed. The sentiment was just as I had expected - not an ounce of disappointment. This horse has done more than enough.
As people began to depart, warm hugs and words of gratitude were exchanged. Team Sherman will return to training at Los Alamitos, the crew from TVG will head to their next assignment, and owners and close connections will continue to attend training and races.
Something hung in the air that was almost palpable. It made me want to linger a bit, to let it settle on me, to sink in and be carried away. A great horse, an impressive career, and an awaiting retirement and the potential for pretty and talented babies will certainly keep us all engaged for years.
But this is an imprint on the soul. A mark that will be visited from time to time, and remembered with fondness and longing. The final race may not have ended in a win, but this last waltz was victorious.
In August of 2014, I met two men that would forever change my life. One, my dear husband Scott, I married. The other was Art Sherman.
To be fair, I knew my husband in high school, when he was 18 and I was 16. And I technically met Art on July 31. But this lead makes for a better story....
Knowing that the ride I have been on with Team Sherman and their champion trainee, California Chrome, would be coming to its conclusion with the inaugural running of the Pegasus World Cup Invitational on January 28 at Gulfstream Park, I've been understandably nostalgic. Not melancholy, but in gratitude and appreciation for so many experiences over the past two and a half years.
While I have written about almost every visit I have made to the barn that houses Sherman Racing Stables - whether at Los Alamitos Race Track or a temporary home at Santa Anita, Del Mar, Parx Racing or Gulfstream Park, and hope that my feelings for my friends have been evident in my writing and photography, I would be remiss if I were to fail to be explicit.
From my observation, everyone loves Art Sherman. Race fans, the media, fellow trainers, jockeys, owners, his employees...I've not met a single person who has ever had anything but kind words to say about him. And because of Art, I have had the opportunity to meet scores of folks in each of these categories, as well as his family and close friends.
Ambassador is the word that my husband always uses when referring to this jovial, dedicated and direct gentleman, who has had the earnest task of training the world's most beloved race horse for the past four years. It is a job he has embraced with the zeal of youth, his focus being on what is best for California Chrome, while always being available to accommodate an interview request or to sign an autograph.
During morning training at any track, Art is easy to find. If you are not tipped off by TV cameras or a crowd of Chromies, all you have to do is listen for his laugh. It is pure joy and it travels well.
I treasure the stories, the sense of family and the laughter that are central to life in the Sherman barn. I am warmed by every welcome back I received whenever I showed up the week of a race. I am humbled to have been included as part of a team and a family that I respect and admire so deeply.
I cherish the good-natured ribbing about my golf cart driving skills, the manner in which I devour a lobster, and the ragged straw hat that made it to every morning training session, even when it had to travel by airplane from Georgia.
My affection and regard for his entire team, and for Art personally, are genuine and profound. You will find no finer people in Thoroughbred horse racing, or in life. To say "thank you" seems insufficient.
Bless you, my dear friend. For in knowing you I am truly blessed.
Wednesday morning I pulled up to the gate of the farm that I share with my dear husband and our menagerie of animals to embark on my trip to south Florida for the inaugural running of the Pegasus World Cup Invitational at Gulfstream Park in Hallendale Beach. It was the seventh time since last January that I would travel to be with my friends from Sherman Racing Stables and their champion trainee, California Chrome, as he contested races in the United States. Each time my Scott has sent me off with a kiss and his unwavering support for what I do, while he has tended to farm and family. Every time I have thanked him for his love and encouragement, and this time I added, "This is the last race."
The flight from Atlanta to Fort Lauderdale was a breeze, and after collecting my friend and travel companion, Margaret Luckett, we were on our way to the track to pick up our media credentials and visit the barn. We were greeted by groom, Raul Rodriquez, who had a big smile and a hug for each of us. He was standing in the stall with Chrome while a routine, pre-race treatment was being administered. Both horse and human were happy and at ease. It was good to see them.
The following morning we arrived at the barn before sunrise and there were hugs and smiles all around. Trainer Art Sherman gave us a warm greeting, joined by his lovely bride, Faye. Assistant trainer, Alan Sherman, was working with Raul to get Chrome ready for his morning jog, and the yard outside the shed row quickly filled up with the close connections to this incredible horse that include family, friends and owners.
The most remarkable thing that I have experienced with Team Sherman is that the line between owners and friends gets blurred almost immediately. A certain type of client is drawn to work with this team, and you see a closeness develop with ease. The addition of Taylor Made Farms and the Taylor family has been a natural fit to the ownership of California Chrome and his training team.
Shortly after everyone was assembled, Alan and Raul brought Chrome out to walk the shed row and his exercise rider, Dihigi Gladney, got a leg up and headed to the track. Chrome's full security detail followed behind and led the entourage to a safe area to watch Chrome jog.
There are many things for which I am grateful with regard to this horse, and in the morning it's his distinctive blaze that cuts through the darkness to let you know that he's coming around the turn and jogging toward you. Over the years I've learned to pick up Chrome's stride, when I can see him in the distance, and I've gotten familiar with the way that Digihi holds his hands and positions himself on the horse.
After two leisurely laps around the track, Chrome stood in the starting gate positioned int he chute at the north end of the track. As he exited to walk back to the barn, Alan and Art thanked the starting gate team for coming out so early, allowing them to school their horse before the crowds arrived on the track, keeping Chrome's pre-race routine.
After a shower and walking the shed row to cool out, Chrome was tucked back in his stall for some rest and the crowd outside his barn was entertained by Dihigi as he took over interview duties from Zoe Cadman at XBTV. He did a wonderful job getting Art, Alan and Frank Taylor's thoughts on race preparations and Chrome's condition, to the delight of everyone present.
With the promise to connect in the afternoon for the races, we headed to the paddock to check in with a group of Chromies as they were taping a segment for CBSN to be aired on Thursday morning.
A peaceful start to what is sure to be a memorable trip.
Almost three weeks have passed since champion Thoroughbred California Chrome skipped across the finish line to win the 2017 Winter Challenge at Los Alamitos Race Track, and I have endeavored to post my perspective on the day.
A new track record was set as Chrome finished twelve lengths ahead of his closest competitor, and jockey Victor Espinoza considered the stick in his hand as a modest amount of extra weight, unnecessary to his end goal.
I’ve started - and even completed - full articles, detailing the day in my typical fashion, but I haven’t published a thing. I’ve considered for hours and days why I have not shared all of my photos and the behind the scenes account of the race day preparations and post-race celebration that are enjoyed so much by Chrome’s fans.
It finally dawned on me, as I talked with my dear husband about this final trip to Southern California to watch my favorite chestnut colt race, that this was far too personal for me to just be another blog entry. Another play-by-play account of arriving at the track, waiting at the barn, walking over to the race and celebrating a brilliant victory.
My journey with this team and their impressive trainee all started at Los Alamitos Race Track. On August 1, 2014, trainer Art Sherman rode with me, in what he would later discover in the light of day was a purple Scion, to work the horses he trained at the understated track that was used primarily for Quarter Horse racing.
In those mild, pre-dawn hours, I was introduced to Art’s son, assistant trainer, Alan Sherman, groom Raul Rodriquez, exercise riders Anna Wells and Willie Delgado, and “the Big Horse”, California Chrome. I stood back and watched the team work, shot lots of photos, and listened intently. At the end of the morning, I was invited back.
I rarely missed a week at Los Alamitos the remainder my time as a resident of Southern California, and made trips to Pennsylvania and to Santa Anita and Del Mar when Chrome raced. My regular entries to “The Chrome Diaries”, a constant joy for me, shared with his adoring fans the day-to-day devotion of his team as they prepared him for each contest.
When I returned to Los Alamitos on December 16, traveling from my home in Covington, Georgia, via my temporary post in San Diego, two years and four months had passed since my first visit. But what had drawn me to this “assignment” remained, having changed only for the better.
The track and the barns at Los Alamitos have undergone an expansion and renovation, but the walk from the track kitchen to the barn that houses Sherman Racing Stables was the same. The cordial introductions I had received that first morning were replaced with warm hugs and smiles, with my friend Raul throwing open his arms and asking, “Where have you been!”
On that stormy morning, the quiet dedication of the teams employed to train and care for horses was witnessed only by a few, as they walked the shed rows, out of the rain. It was peaceful, and pure, and perfect. And I did not take a single photograph.
Race day was different. I was privileged to be invited to join Frank Taylor, VP of Boarding Operations at Taylor Made Farms, and his guests as they watched the races leading up to the Winter Challenge. I connected with the Chromies that have been a source of motivation and inspiration for me during my tenure with Chrome and Team Sherman. And I enjoyed the races for the first time since I started as a pseudo-turf writer and photographer - sitting with shareholders of California Chrome LLC and enjoying their warmth and their enthusiasm for their horse.
When it was time to walk out to the barn, the trek was so comfortable and familiar to me that I felt no sense of “build up” to the race. Just peace and enjoyment of the pleasant afternoon sun as I walked in solitude alongside the track, toward the Sherman barn.
Preparations for this race were just as I have chronicled on numerous occasions, but on this day, the team was on their home turf. We sat in the familiarity of the team office, enjoyed the six foot burrito that Alan had catered in, and watched the undercard races.
Raul and his wife Florentina Saldivar, Chrome’s hot walker, were able to access all of the tools and equipment they use every day, without having to pull them out of storage bins that had been packed and transported to a remote track. The mood was happy and light, while still focused on the very serious business ahead.
Our walk to the receiving barn took us past the deck outside the track kitchen. The railing that is generally populated by a handful of trainers and owners during morning training was now packed with giddy fans, calling out encouragement and support for their favorite race horse and his team.
In the saddling area, I felt a tug at my heart as I stood behind Art while he watched Raul parade their prized pupil in a lazy loop, along with the field of contenders, before stepping out into the paddock to wait for horses and jockeys and the call for “riders up!’
I found a comfortable place at the rail, away from the other photographers, to document this race, and felt a grateful smile spread across my race as the horses made their way down the back stretch. Victor kept Chrome out of traffic, and they began to make their move to a commanding lead as they exited the final turn. Crossing the finish line was sheer poetry.
I heard the cheers of the crowd ringing in my ears as I turned to see my friends in celebration and immediately ran to congratulate them with hugs and laughter. All too quickly they were leaving the Winners’ Circle, heading for the test barn. I got a couple of my favorite images of the day in those final moments, as Chrome was led into the fading light.
Back at the barn, connections talked of the upcoming trip to Gulfstream Park, not mentioning or wanting to think about what happens after the inaugural running of the Pegasus World Cup Invitational on January 28. Easy smiles. Relaxed laughter. Pure joy.
So, dear readers, that is why you had to wait so long for this installment. I needed to sit for a while with the sheer perfection of it all.