Breeders’ Cup Saturday started for Team Sherman and their champion racehorse, California Chrome, with a race-day jog under cover of darkness, around 5:30am. All week long, the barn has been really busy with media and visitors, so I chose to stay at the house and get a little more, much needed rest.
As my friends returned, they shared with me the morning dance moves that Chrome had thrown down for his exercise rider, Dihigi Gladney and his dedicated groom, Raul Rodriguez. While everyone returned to the barn without a scratch, it’s still unnerving when this talented horse walks on his hind legs like a human. But it’s also a sign that he knows it’s time to run, and he’s ready.
As my friends were heading back to the track, I was heading for the shower, choosing to arrive at Santa Anita Race Track around noon. The main event - the Breeders’ Cup Classic - had a post time of 5:40pm. I didn’t feel the need to make a long day even longer.
For those who know me, you know that the races aren’t actually the part of the process that I like. It’s exciting and beautiful, but I much prefer quiet time in the barns on the backside during training. Add the substantial crowd in attendance for the Breeders’ Cup, and you’ve got a recipe for me to visit the infield.
As I came through the tunnel and out into the blazing sun, I knew that finding some shade was going to be a top priority. As it turns out, I found that and my intended target in the same place, as I rolled up to the pony rides operated by Dihigi. There I found solace, away from the crowds, with Dihigi and his family, as championship racing continued in the oval that encompasses the infield.
If you’ve never been on the infield of a race track, you should try it. Watching the races from this fresh perspective is a lot of fun, and there is always a lot going on. For those who are not heavy betters, or families that visit the track, the infield holds many attractions to help fill the time between races.
But there are handicappers there, too. I found a few diehard race fans who had staked out their spots, behind a hedge that offered them some shade, while still providing a great view of the races from a standing position.
For the Breeders’ Cup, VIP tents were set up adjacent to the finish line, as well as in the area where a band performed throughout the afternoon. A variety of food trucks offered interesting menu choices, and race fans lined the inside rails whenever a race was run. Overall, the infield was a much more relaxed place for me to mark time. And I got a few nice photos of a couple of juvenile races.
Finally, after the tenth race, Dihigi and I started our walk toward the barn, taking a route that I loved - through the tunnel that riders use to get from the main track to the turf and training tracks for morning works. As we started down the incline to the tunnel, the entire grandstand was in view, but from this distance, there was a sublime silence.
As we emerged onto the backside, I was searching for a route to our barn that avoided the sun. I was modestly successful, finding a spot in the shade while I waited for Dihigi to change from work clothes to his dress clothes for the walk over prior to the race. I adore Dihigi and the stories and laughter he shares with me, but I was only half-joking when I told him that he needed to hurry or we would miss the 20 minute call to be in the receiving barn. NOT a quick change artist.
Finally, we were back with the team in the barn, as Raul and his wife, Florentina Saldivar, Chome’s hot walker, were getting the colt ready for the race. Joining assistant trainer, Alan Sherman, were long-time friends Jordan Olsen, Bobby Hobbs and Matt Smoot, as well as Sherman family friend and turf writer, Jay Hovdey.
On race days, it can seem as if we are always waiting. To head back to the barn, to leave the barn After some false starts with the communications/security on the backside, Alan urged Raul to put the bridle on Chrome, as we were told that we were going to be late to the receiving barn.
The team stepped from the shed row into the fading afternoon sun, and wound its way along the paths that lead to the receiving barn, the paddock area, and eventually, the frontside.
As we arrived at the receiving barn, we were told that California Chrome was just the second horse to arrive, causing me to wonder what the mix up had been with being told we had missed the 20 minute call.
Regardless, as the rest of the field entered the receiving barn, the crowd in the paddock was building. By the time we stepped back onto the walking path, the fences leading to the paddock and saddling area were stacked four and five deep with race fans hoping for a glimpse of their favorite equine stars. Even as the crowd erupted in cheers as Chrome and his escorts entered the walking circle, the champion colt just appeared to take in all of the attention and fuss.
Alan and the team disappeared into the saddling area, and I braved a very crowded walking circle with my friend and team supporter, Margaret Luckey. After snapping a few shots of the Sherman family in their race day finery, I stood back to wait for the horses to exit the saddling area.
While I waited, I was thinking about the paddock in 2014. I honestly felt that it was more crowded that year, and perhaps it was. This year there were passes issued to grant access to the walking circle, and while I know a few folks snuck in, things seemed to be fairly well controlled.
As the jockeys mounted their horses and the field for the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Classic made its way toward to the tunnel and onto the track, I double-timed my way to a spot on the rail, just beyond Clockers’ Corner, with a view of the starting gate, as well as the final turn toward home.
It seemed like the horses were dancing around the track forever before making their way to the far end of the track to enter the starting gate, and as I watched Chrome, he seemed calm and relaxed, walking at a relatively slow pace before breaking into a gentle trot.
With the horses finally in the gate, I trained my lens to capture the first few steps onto the track. As the gates sprang open, all the horses appeared to get a decent start. Chrome got a good jump and was already taking the early lead as the field ran past me.
Once they had run out of my view, I resorted to watching the projection screens on the track and listening to the race call, feeling good about how Chrome was running. He looked comfortable, and though he was leading instead of sitting back off the pace, I was less nervous about his position because he had very comfortably run from the front in his last three races.
As the horses cleared the backstretch and ran toward me, through the final turn, Chrome was in good position, but I was surprised to see his jockey, Victor Espinoza, looking behind him and not fully riding his horse until they were several strides into the home stretch.
As I watched the race unfold, I thought that Chrome had it won. Until the last few strides, when Arrogate, piloted by Hall of Fame jockey, Mike Smith, came on strong to cross the finish line a half a length ahead of Chrome.
There are many horses and trainers who would be thrilled to place second in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. But this was not the result the team had hoped for - prepared for. I walked to the test barn and waited for Raul and Florentina to arrive with Chrome. As they walked up the path, the chestnut colt turned his head toward me, and Raul threw me a brief wave of acknowledgment. I’m sure they were not surprised to see me.
Back at the barn, the team commiserated, and extolled the fine performances of two dominant horses. Several people asked me if I was disappointed. That emotion didn’t register with me. California Chrome ran a great race, and when he returned to the barn he was sound and incredibly happy. He looked as if he would be game to run the race again, he seemed so fresh.
I only got emotional when my friend, Mark Muhlhall, was wheeled into the barn to see Chrome. I met Mark two years ago, trackside at Los Alamitos, and we became close. He has been a devoted fan of Chrome, and an appreciator of my photography and writing.
I last saw Mark at the San Diego Handicap, and we talked by phone after the race. When I sent him an email about leaving him passes for the Pacific Classic, and did not hear back from him, I feared the worst. Two other emails went unanswered. And that’s not typical.
I thought about him, the morning of the race. Wondering if he would be there. So I got a little choked up when I saw him, just outside the test barn, in a wheelchair and with his speech significantly affected by what I was to learn had been a serious stroke. This was his first outing since starting his recovery, and he was having a good day.
I walked back to the barn with Raul and Margaret, followed shortly by Mark and his family. After Chrome was put back in his stall, Mark was parked right in front of him, so he could see him clearly. He simply said, “Hi buddy! I was so proud of you today!”
That sums it up for me, too. An amazingly talented equine athlete with an enormous heart ran a great race, exactly the way his jockey instructed. As it turned out, he crossed the finish line in second place.
Remarkably, the barn was not very crowded after the race. I’ve been with the team for over two years, and I can tell you, when Chrome wins, the place is packed. When he doesn’t win, it’s typically the same, steady folks who stop by…to have a beer and see that the colt returns to his stall happy and sound.
California Chrome has one more race to train up to before retiring to stud, with the Pegasus Cup’s inaugural running at the end of January at Gulfstream Park. It’s sure to get a lot of attention, as it will now be a rematch between California Chrome and Breeders’ Cup Classic champion, Arrogate.
If Chrome’s running, I’m there. The outcome of this weekend’s race has absolutely no impact on my opinion of nor my affection for the gorgeous chestnut colt whose photos grace my walls.
Tomorrow I’ll begin curating photos for my 2017 calendar. And looking forward to one last race.