It occurs to me regularly just how fortunate I am to do the thing that I love and to share it with race fans. Yesterday afternoon, as I was guided into a parking spot in the turf writers’ lot, the energy at Del Mar was high and the crowd substantial. My joy for what I get to do for my work was only just beginning to surface.
A gathering in the paddock area of “Chromies” - the fans of champion race horse California Chrome and his team – had just gotten underway as I arrived. Lovely people, with a fervent affection for this horse and his team, they greeted me with shouts and laughs and I was happy to snap a few photos of them before heading out to touch base with a few other friends at the track.
Another brief photo opportunity presented itself a little later when California Chrome’s majority owner, Perry Martin, his wife Denise, trainer Art Sherman, his wife Faye and their granddaughter Savannah, and jockey Victor Espinoza were wrangled together with this crew of fans. A delighted crowd of Chromies!
Now it was time to start to walk back to the barn, to wait. As I entered the backside and turned to look at the grandstand from this new perspective, the noise of the crowd was lessened and the peace that I find so appealing about a racetrack began to take root.
These are the photos that I love to share. The points of view that fans don’t get to see for themselves, and my hope is that I can help to show the activity, beauty and relative calm that unfolds just a little ways from the chaos and party atmosphere of the grandstand.
Good timing was on my side. As I approached the point where I generally cross over from the middle parking lot to the area that holds most of the barns on the backside, the barriers were closed to prevent me from crossing. The sixth race, a seven furlong effort on the dirt, was leaving from the gates buried deep in the chute at the back of the track. Once the track has been prepped for the horses, no footprints are allowed to create an uneven surface, so the humans wait while the horses and their jockeys make their way around from the post parade to load into the starting gate.
This pause provided me another lovely perspective that most miss. A pleasant breeze was blowing across the backstretch on this balmy afternoon, and I got to see the many inhabitants of the dorms on the backside, built with balconies that help them to peek over the security fencing, watch preparations for the race. Outriders and entrants jogged back to the gate for loading, and I was greeted by a friendly call from a jovial man names Jose. Positioned behind a grill - a brave move in the heat - he implored me to take a photo of him and his friend, and in exchange offered to make me a taco. Who says no to that? (by the way - best taco….ever!)
Moments later, the gates opened and the horses in the sixth race streamed by me, kicking up dirt. Now the barriers across the track were opened, and I walked back toward the barn that was home to the team preparing California Chrome for post time.
Groom Raul Rodriquez was the first to greet me, with his gentle smile and assurance that all was well. I found assistant trainer Alan Sherman in the office and looking sharp. Arriving together a few minutes later were my friend, Margaret Luckett and exercise rider, Dihigi Gladney, who had walked from the grandstand together. Shortly after their arrival we heard the “20 minute call” over the backside public address. Horses entered in the ninth race - The San Diego Handicap - were needed in the receiving barn in twenty minutes. No time left to wait and pace, the team took their positions to ready their horse to leave the barn.
As the security guard for the team called over his radio that “Horse No. 6 for the ninth race is headed for the receiving barn”, Raul and his wife, Florentina, led California Chrome out into the sun to start the journey to the track. (And, by the way, one of my favorite shots of the day.)
A small team walked with the champion chestnut colt this afternoon, with smiles and a lightness to them that outshone most of their post-race anxiety. I love the energy and humor of the team, that I feel is fostered by Dihigi. Everyone is focused on this horse, with humility and appreciation for all he makes possible, but a smile and a joke are never lacking with “D” around.
Arriving at the receiving barn, Raul was adorned with the yellow vest indicating his horse had drawn post position no. 6, and they circled in the shadows with the other race entrants. Art stepped into the barn for a brief moment, quickly expressing “he looks good” as he exited to head back to the paddock. Then the horses came out.
First was Dortmund, the enormous and leggy four year old colt from the stable of Triple Crown winning trainer, Bob Baffert. Eyes wide and nostrils flaring, he looked keyed up and ready to run.
As Chrome’s team exited the barn, I took up position just off the horse’s flank, behind my friend, Raul, to walk through the tunnel and out into the sunshine, greeted by the cheers of a throng of fans anticipating a great race.
After circling the paddock - crowded to capacity for this running of the San Diego Handicap - the horses were saddled and quickly walking again. Jockeys were soon exiting their quarters with Dortmund’s jockey, Gary Stevens, leading. The affable Mike Smith, who was on in the No. 7 horse, Win the Space, followed close behind, and then Victor joined Art at the edge of the walking ring to watch Chrome round the turn and wait for the call for “riders up”.
The parade of horses headed through the tunnel to the track and I walked along with Art and his granddaughter, Savannah, and then stepped out with the other photographers to find a position that I liked along the rail, as close as I could manage to the finish line. The crowd was frenzied, in high anticipation of the start, and before I could even get a good shot lined up for the start, the gates sprang open and the familiar sound of race announcer, Trevor Denman, recently returned from “partial retirement”, rang in my ears like music.
At a mile and a sixteenth, the field passed the home stretch once before entering the turn and heading onto the backstretch. As California Chrome flew by me, he was right where he likes to be, just off the shoulder of the leading Dortmund.
About a minute passed as the horses made their way down the backstretch, coming into the final two turns of the race. I could have closed my eyes and been fully aware of when Victor and Chrome began to make their move, the crowd reacted so strongly. And as the horses came around the final turn and headed for home, I was able to capture an image of Alan, holding his grandson, cheering his top trainee on to victory.
Dortmund ran a great race. In my opinion, and with no disrespect to this talented challenger, it looked to me as if Chrome knew exactly how hard he needed to run, and had his neck and nose just where they needed to be to win the race. A finish line photo that I adore.
Cheering, celebration and congratulations for the team who have so ably prepared this horse to win came from all directions. A beaming Duncan Taylor, President and CEO of Taylor Made Farm, was without words. Joe Harper, President and CEO of Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, chatted briefly with Art, who was elated, and relieved. As I offered my congratulations and stood on the track with my friend, he turned toward the winner’s circle, filled to the brim with cheering connections. He whispered to me “Where’s there any room for the horse?” and chuckled before following his team to take up position for official photos.
I stood back and waited for Raul and Dihigi to walk Chrome along the track for his curtain call, fans shouting their approval and delight as they got one last glimpse of this amazing champion before he headed to the test barn for a bath and a walk to cool down.
The mood back at the barn was light. Truly happy, but not in frenzied celebration. While this had not been a “big” race, it was a big race. The outcome was what all had hoped and prepared for, and the feeling was of calm and peace. Quietly, everyone said their goodbyes and Margaret and I walked back to the front side.
This morning, California Chrome and his team made the trip back to Los Alamitos where they will devote the next 27 days to preparing for his next contest - The Pacific Classic - on August 20. For now, a few days of rest and repose are in order for this talented colt and his hard-working team.
Stay tuned. August is going to be hot.