The barns on the backside of Santa Anita Race Track are one of my favorite places on Earth. Being back at 5am yesterday morning, well in advance of the crowds that were to follow, meant an hour or so of relatively quiet time.
I walked with my friend, Mika Caples, to the far corner of the grounds that houses the remote barn with a luxurious double stall for champion Thoroughbred, California Chrome. Mika had arrived with trainer, Art Sherman, who was circling back to his car to retrieve a book of photos he had for groom, Raul Rodriquez. She had coffee and donuts with her, and as soon as we set them down in the office, we did not hesitate to dig in.
Yes, I had a “Jesus donut”, and is was amazing.
By 6:30am, the entire team was assembled. Assistant trainer, Alan Sherman was in the company of close friend, Matt Smoot and Bobby Hobbs, who was celebrating his 50th birthday. Joining them was Frank Taylor, of Taylor Made Farms, and a contingent of owners who had traveled to see their star chestnut shine at Santa Anita.
Exercise rider, Dihigi Gladney, greeted me with a meow and a quick hug, (you know, my name is Kat…) before donning his protective gear and stepping into the darkness outside the shed row to get a leg up onto his mount, who was eager to quick-step his way to the track.
The gap where the horses enter the track is a busy place at Santa Anita, but this being Breeders’ Cup week, it was even busier. Having safely navigated his way onto the track, Dihigi backtracked with Chrome and stood the horse at the back of the first turn, behind a few palm trees. And he waited.
Clockers’ Corner, where everyone gathers at Santa Anita for coffee and to catch a glimpse of racing’s stars, was packed with onlookers. As Dihigi guided Chrome around the turn, onto the the home stretch, the crowd erupted in cheers. Two more turns, and they passed the grateful fans again, another roar erupting from the group, sending the object of their attention dancing forward along the rail.
As the hour approached 7am, the light was finally beginning to come up, and I joined Bobby just on the other side of the fencing that separates the backside from the rest of the track. There, we waited for Dihigi and Chrome to lead us back to the barn.
Just as the colt came in view, the alarm sounded and lights flashed, signaling that a horse was loose on the track. Instantly, Dihigi urged his mount forward and they practically ran off the track. Seeing Chrome moving toward us in such fashion made me nervous, as I watched Raul pick up his pace to catch up with exercise rider and horse, but I understood that getting Chrome away from a situation that could have evolved into something dangerous on the track was first priority.
Back at the barn we were joined by a throng of visitors clamoring for a glimpse of the heavy favorite in the Breeders’ Cup Classic - Saturday’s signature race. While the team moved through their routine, getting Chrome bathed and cooled out, everyone in attendance had their smart phone out to preserve for themselves a slice of history.
Before going back into his stall, Raul took Chrome back to the sand pile they had made for him so that the colt could get in a roll or two, pleasing his fans all the more. It took some urging by groom and trainer to get the horse moving back toward his stall, as he was more interested in standing in the morning sun than just about anything.
A relatively uneventful morning was repeated today, with Chrome heading to the track a little earlier than he had previously in the week. The move worked, as crowds had yet to form, eliminating the shouts and cheers from the day before.
As a side note, being around horses requires awareness and common sense. You just don’t make loud noises or sudden movements. They typically startle very easily, and their impulse is to run away. When there is a commotion at the track, I don’t really worry about how Chrome will react. He a smart horse, and I’ve never seen him shy at anything. It’s the other horses that concern me, and the chain reaction that can follow.
But the morning went smoothly, and as I was leaving around 8am to head back to the house I am fortunate to share with a group of friends this week, I was passed by wave after wave of race fans arriving to watch what remained of morning training, most likely settling in for the rest of the day.
I’m moments away from heading back to the track myself, and anxious to watch a few key races this afternoon before settling in for what I hope is an early evening. Tomorrow is the big day. The Breeders’ Cup Classic is the championship that is missing from this amazing horse’s resume. This is about to get real.