Sunday morning, on our way to LAX, my friend, Matt Smoot, asked me what the highlight of our partial week in LA had been for me. I searched for a response, but my experience had been, simply relaxed.
Last month, after champion race horse, California Chrome’s stunning victory in the 2016 TVG Pacific Classic, my publishing relationship with America’s Best Racing ended. The result has been writing and sharing my diaries at a more manageable pace. One that allows me more time to just enjoy the experience and being with my friends.
Saturday was race day, and Chrome knew. I think he actually knew that it was October first, and a Saturday, as well…. While I stayed in bed past 5:00am PT to catch up on some rest, when Smoot returned from the barn he told me stories of Chrome dancing on his hind legs….for an extended period of time, and repeatedly. I’m glad I was not there it for the circus stunts. They make me really nervous.
But, circus stunts were an indication that Chrome was sharp and ready to race. If anything, he was over prepared. When we arrived at the barn on Santa Anita’s backside, just before 1:00pm, it was hot, but the team was calm and going about their work.
Groom Raul Rodriquez and his wife, Florentina Saldivar, were tending to their prized trainee, and Alan was studying the Racing Form and talking with owners by phone. A crew from TVG was onsite, preparing to broadcast, and we traded stories with commentator Mike Joyce and his team. One of the stories came from Alan’s childhood friend, Bobby Hobbs.
These men have known each other their entire lives. Their mothers were friend before they were born. Bobby, Mark North and Alan have told numerous tales of trips to the barn, as children, while Art trained horses. On this morning they shared the story of a San Francisco Bay fishing trip gone awry.
When they were boys, aged sixteen, they took an unseaworthy boat out into the bay to fish for a few hours. All they had with them was some squid for bait, and cold beverages. They intended to be out for a few hours, and to return to shore so that Alan, an apprentice jockey, could ride his mounts that afternoon at Golden Gate Fields.
Things did not go as planned. The tide dragged the boys into the soft mud, and they were stuck. Two cold nights and thirty six hours later, they were picked up by a helicopter and flown to safety. To most it would seem a harrowing event, but when I asked if they ever felt scared, their answers were….no. Just inconvenienced.
Most of the story was peppered with humorous perspectives on how they stayed warm and the newspaper report the following day. (Alan: “Hey Bobby, we’re in the paper!” Bobby checks it out: “Jockey Alan Sherman and a friend….” I told him I know how he feels. The times I have driven Art or jockey Victor Espinoza, or ridden with Alan, I always felt that, if something had happened, I would have been an “also dead”. As in: “Hall of fame jockey Victor Espinosa was killed this afternoon in a tragic car accident on his way to compete in the 142nd running of the Kentucky Derby. Also dead, Catherine Palmer.”
Stories like this one are the reason I love hanging out at the barn. Teams have been together for years, and lifelong friendships have weathered seasons with few winners. In the current moment, basking in the shadow of a champion colt, the stories unfold to shed light on a life that most of us could not begin to imagine. And it always seems to be colored with humor.
Returning to the present, our security guard informed us that the call to the receiving barn had been made, and the team stepped up to make final preparations to lead California Chrome from his stall to the start of the 2016 Awesome Again Stakes.
My view of the day was that a happy horse was counting the minutes until he was let loose to do his job. Swinging his head back and forth, pacing his stall and trying his best to sneak up on team members who were not paying attention - Chrome was playful and bursting with energy.
The walk over - the trip along the backside from the barn to the paddock - is my favorite part of race day. Capturing the team as they step from the shadows into the light, and watching the entourage make its way through the picturesque setting that is the backside of Santa Anita, is the stuff of storybooks.
I love getting a clear photo of Raul and exercise rider, Dihigi Gladney, as they lead out their champion trainee. Alan always walks ahead of the team, not saying a word, with Smoot and Bobby laughing and chatting as we make our way to the receiving barn.
As we reached the receiving barn on this afternoon, we picked up another team member, Margaret Luckett. Margaret has been a supporter of Team Sherman for the two years that I have been around, and is a kind and generous soul. I wrapped my arm around her shoulders and pulled her onto the path that leads to the paddock, so that she could join the team as we waited outside the receiving barn for our horse and team.
For those who were not at Santa Anita yesterday - it was hot. For those who WERE there, you know it was brutal. As Chrome was led from the receiving barn by Raul, the team fell in line, and everyone chuckled as the horse called out upon seeing the crowd as we approached the paddock. This colt loves the show.
Raul, Dihigi and Alan took Chrome to the saddling area, and the rest of us stood in the blazing sun, waiting for the next phase of the race. When the horses did exit the saddling area, it was apparent that California Chrome had been helped by a new cooler - provided by CoolAid. This is a nifty product that is soaked in ice water and wrung out before being placed on the horse. Chrome wore his CoolAid from the barn to the saddling area. As the horses made their way to the starting gate, everyone else was washed out and sweating, but Chrome looked relatively dry. (Just look at my photos, of Chrome and Dortmund coming out of the gate. Big difference.)
Without media credentials this trip, and desiring to be respectful of what is acceptable, I decided to take up a favorite spot and position my self at the final turn into the home stretch. As the horses from this very short field were loaded into the starting gate, I was able to take some images of the start of the race.
From post position #1, for the second race in a row, jockey Victor Espinoza expertly piloted Chrome to a good position at the front of the field, even with trainer Bob Baffert’s star four year old, Dortmund, putting on the pressure.
This was my first race where California Chrome was entered where I felt absolutely no anxiety. I generally have felt it after the horses pass me and run into the back stretch, but on this occasion, I felt sublimely certain of the outcome. This is meant with no disrespect for the time and talent involved in bringing the other entrants to this race to the track. I had watched Chrome train, and even with my limited knowledge or horse racing, I know it when I see it.
From my position on the turn into the home stretch, I was able to capture a much different perspective than in previous races. Watching this champion race horse stretch out as he headed for home was inspiring, and as the field ran past me, I knew I was headed to meet Raul and Florentina in the test barn. From the path near the paddock I heard the race announcer describe the scene as Raul walked Victor and Chrome into the winners’ circle, and shortly after that I joined Raul and his wife as they led Chrome to be cooled out and tested. Big smiles, all around.
At this point, there is always a lot of waiting. Florentina and Dihigi stay with Chrome, waiting for him to provide the urine sample needed for the routine tests that are performed on winning horses, and Raul busies himself with cleaning out Chrome’s stall and preparing everything for the trip home to Los Alamitos.
It is in the quiet time, with no one else around, that I enjoy chatting with Raul and getting his take on the race. I’m sorry that this can’t be easily translated into prose. Perhaps I’m just not that good a writer. But I delight in listening to this learned horseman’s take on the racing tactics of competitors, and the eventual, superior performance of the horse in his charge.
Very soon, there was a crowd. Owners, numerous now, along with family and friends of the Shermans. A happy group, all shouting congratulations at a champion race horse who might even understand what they are saying.
Shortly after the champion chestnut colt arrived back at his stall, the transport van was ready to take him back to his home at Los Alamitos. Raul and owner, Frank Taylor, accompanied by transportation chief, Allen Servrinson, from Bob Hubbard Transportation, ensured that both Chrome and Raul would be safe and comfortable for their trip back to Los Alamitos. Chrome let out several whinnies as he got settled in, and Raul just smiled and waved.
Once horse and groom were safely enroute, Alan Sherman, Bobby, Smoot and I headed back to the Sherman homestead for the typical post-victory celebration. Pizza and an early bedtime.
Sunday morning Smoot and I headed to the airport, looking forward to our return in a few weeks for the Breeders’ Cup. At LAX, I ran into a grinning Frank Taylor, while wearing my newly gifted California Chrome ball cap. Frank went out of his way to talk with me, exclaiming, “He ran a big race yesterday, didn’t he?” We spent a few moments replaying the events of the past few races, and looking forward to Chrome’s next start.
I shared with Frank my appreciation for the positive impact Taylor Made Farms has brought to the California Chrome experience, and my gratitude for the access I am given. When I tied on two years ago, it was just a small group of friends, devoted to a horse we all felt was special. The walkover at Parx Racing for the 2014 Pennsylvania Derby included then-exercise rider, Willie Delgado, Raul, Alan, Bobby, Smoot and his wife, Courtney (my soul sister). And me.
The next race for California Chrome is the North American Championship - the Breeders’ Cup Classic, on Saturday, November 5 at Santa Anita Race Track. My birthday is November 7. I’m hoping for Chrome to give me an extra reason to celebrate. #GOCHROME.