Join Kat Waldvogel, official photographer for Sherman Racing, for a behind-the-scenes glimpse of life with the connections of Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome as he nears his return to competition in the $1-million Pennsylvania Derby on Saturday at Parx Racing. (All photos courtesy of Kat Waldvogel/forestbird photography)
Photographers, no matter their subject of focus, can be easily distracted by an image or scene that they have no choice but to frame up when it lands in front of them. I’m often compelled to pull my car over to the side of the road and take out my camera, especially in the early morning hours when the sun is turning the sky from dark blue to orange and pink as it makes its ascent.
Horses tend to be my focus, but their environment and the people connected to them are included in that, so the track, the rows of barns and their other inhabitants are included in the tapestry of life on the backside … along with the glorious Pennsylvania morning sky.
When we pulled up to the barn at 7 a.m. ET on Friday, a local TV crew was already setting up for an interview that had been scheduled with trainer Art Sherman. After a quick bagel run, my coffee firmly in hand, I was pulled aside by the reporter and asked for a quick lesson in all things horses. Although the little bit that I could convey might not have completely sunk in, Art is such a pro that he naturally puts people at ease and delivers in any situation. So he made it fun and easy for all involved.
Inside the barn, groom Raul Rodriguez, assistant trainer Alan Sherman and exercise rider Willie Delgado rolled through their morning routine with California Chrome, and shortly before 8:30 a.m. they began walking the shedrow to warm up, before Alan gave Willie a leg up.
Chrome was alert and curious as always, but more focused than the day before, walking with purpose, his head held high. As the tractors finished their rounds of the track, we waited, and a small group of grooms and stablehands lined the path, capturing photos and video of this stunning chestnut colt as he stood patiently with his handlers, shining like a new penny in the morning sun.
Once the track was clear, we stepped out to make our way to the chute for some schooling in the starting gate. Obviously, the horse walks faster than I do, so I had to really pick it up to get there in time. Chrome does well in the gate, but it’s been a few months since his last race, so ensuring that he’s comfortable and loads with ease is essential. It’s also a signal to him that it’s game time.
You can see it in his eyes, and as Willie guided him out for his gallop, I could hear him gently talking to Chrome to keep him settled and focused. When the work is done, with not a single word spoken, Art and Alan turned and walked from the track while Chrome carried Willie back to a waiting Raul and the barn.
After cleaning up and cooling down, Chrome’s trainers got a visit from John Servis, who famously trained Smarty Jones for his 2004 Kentucky Derby and Preakness wins and has his barn nearby.
The men talked and laughed as they shared their perspectives on the experiences, a decade apart. As John exited the barn, he and I laughed as we observed his barn cat, Lucky, lounging in the sun. Lucky has been a fixture with our team since we arrived at the barn on Tuesday and appears to be giving his full support to Team Sherman and California Chrome.
Art handled the morning press conference and interviews while team members got licensed, and we all relaxed and enjoyed some time with Chrome’s owners, Steve and Carolyn Coburn and Perry Martin. This was Perry’s first visit to see Chrome since arriving the previous night. As you probably know, Perry lost his mother a few days ago, and while this gentle and quiet man is excited to see his horse race on Saturday, one can only imagine the emotions he must be processing. The thoughts and prayers of the entire team are with him and his family.
Perry is the guardian of the silks, which he handed over to Alan with a smile and a little sigh, saying that he was happy to pass the responsibility to someone else. Now, all we need is the man who wears the silks, Victor Espinoza, and all the pieces will be in place.
As the team cleaned up and stepped out to enjoy a prerace dinner at the casino and track, he was most certainly making his way to Pennsylvania. Chrome knows exactly what it means when Victor is in the saddle, and we’re all anticipating a great race.
The evening ended with music and dancing, and Art threatening to “quit” me if I didn’t start letting him lead. Saturday, we’ll start with a light jog at 6 a.m. and then the main event.
It’s my first time seeing Chrome race live, and it’s hard to find the words to express my joy and excitement. May my shutter be swift.