The running of the 2016 TVG Pacific Classic was a race day that I had been looking forward to for two years. I had missed the victory of Shared Belief in 2014 and last year’s romp by Beholder. When the signs began to point to 2014 Horse of the Year California Chrome being entered in this year’s contest, I made sure that I would be trackside at Del Mar to watch it all unfold in person.
After navigating traffic, which wasn’t that bad, and parking, which was monumentally bad, I spent some time in the clubhouse with friends and leveraged the invaluable assistance of the always helpful Betty Blair in the Del Mar’s executive offices. For the third time in less than 24 hours, she came through for me to effortlessly deliver on a request from Team Chrome.
With errands complete, I answered the call from my good friend Matt Smoot to meet the team back at the barn. It was more than an hour earlier than I had expected to be heading to the backside, but it felt good to get away from the crowd in the clubhouse and to laugh and joke a little with my friends as they prepared California Chrome for the big race.
While groom, Raul Rodriquez, and his wife, California Chrome’s hot walker Florentina Saldivar, went about their race-day chores, I chatted with Smoot and Chrome’s assistant trainer, Alan Sherman. California Chrome stood in the doorway to his stall, swinging his head from side to side, like a clock marking the seconds as they passed, bringing us closer to post time.
A security guard dutifully recorded the movements of every person who entered the stall or came in direct contact with the colt. (I learned a while back that they do this for big races. This security guard has been assigned to Chrome each time he has run at Del Mar, so he’s familiar with the horse and his team.)
All week, Chrome has looked fit, alert and ready to race, but any question was erased when Alan’s phone rang. California Chrome had walked to the rear of his stall for a moment, but when he heard the familiar “Call to the Post” that serves as Alan’s ring tone, he charged at the webbing that keeps him in his stall, thrust his head out into the shedrow with ears pricked and nostrils flaring. He was ready to go, but there was still more than an hour to wait before the walk to the receiving barn.
Thankfully, the crew for TVG showed up, and the subtle humor of Mike Joyce was welcomed to help alleviate some tension.
Jasper, Alan’s Labrador Retriever, added his own special brand of entertainment when TVG ball caps were handed out, quickly rendering one of them completely unusable by anyone but him.
Finally, the announcement was made over the public address system that horses for the ninth race had 20 minutes to report to the receiving barn, and the team brought out California Chrome and began the walk. With Mike and his crew live streaming the walk over, I did my best to stay 20-30 feet in front of the team, turning periodically to document their journey.
The team was in good spirits, alternating between broad smiles and game faces. In one of my photos, they are all in step with Chrome and look like a quirky little chorus line.
Alan gave his horse a quick once-over as he was checked in at the receiving barn, before taking up position to wait as the grooms circled their horses inside. Three-time champion mare Beholder was already inside when we arrived, and her trainer, Richard Mandella, waited quietly near Alan and Smoot.
Trainer Art Sherman was waiting when his horse arrived. He watched from inside the barn for a few minutes and then, satisfied that everything was going as expected, headed over to the paddock ahead of his team.
As Raul and Chrome exited the receiving barn, adorned with the trappings of post-position number one, they were led out by Alan and joined by exercise rider Dihigi Gladney. I took up position off Dihigi’s right shoulder, and the team made its way through the tunnel to the excited reaction of the large crowd waiting for them along the fence line and in the paddock.
Paddock access had been limited for the Pacific Classic, so it was bit easier to move around than I had expected, enabling me to greet the Sherman family and take some photos of them in their race-day finery before the jockeys joined their teams in the walking circle. I was navigating with Art’s wife, Faye, to ensure she made it to an optimal viewing spot on the rail, when the call was made for riders to mount their horses and head out to the track.
With Faye and her nieces, Diane and Karen, safely handed off to friend and team media liaison Tat Yakutis McCabe and tucked into a perfect viewing spot on the rail, I negotiated with a security guard to honor my media credential and allow me to join my colleagues on the track to take my race photos. Due to this momentary delay, I missed the entire post parade.
By the time I took my position — a few feet to the right of the finish line, the horses were approaching the starting gate. I heard my name called by a familiar voice and was able to find my best friend, Kiera Starboard, amid a sea of well-lubricated race fans, some threatening to throw beers at the credentialed media assembled trackside, blocking their unfettered view.
Then another familiar voice, race caller Trevor Denman, could be heard announcing to the crowd that the horses were at the starting gate. As the crowd roared, the starting gates sprung open and the field for the 2016 Pacific Classic thundered down the lane for their first pass of the grandstand.
Chrome’s jockey, Victor Espinoza, starting from post-position one, closest to the rail, took the first 50 yards or so to move his mount wide and out in front of the field. As they ran past me, the power coming from Chrome’s hind quarters was propelling him toward to first turn, and the point of the race where I generally get very anxious — the backstretch — was not as hard for me to tolerate as it has been in the past.
With the field strung out behind them, Victor slowed the pace a little … it was noticeable even to a trackside novice, like me. As talented opponents closed in on Victor and Chrome, the jockey tested them for a few strides and then let the chestnut colt have a little more room to stretch out, pulling away from the field once more.
As they ran into the final turn and Victor looked back to evaluate where the competition was, I watched the rest of the race through the view finder on my camera. In between my judicious shutter releases, I said quietly, but aloud, “Come on, baby. Come on, Chrome.”
I was grateful that a few select words from Trevor’s race call made their way into my ear. I heard “romp” and “canter” as I snapped a photo of California Chrome crossing the finish line to win the Classic.
As the rest of the horses passed us, and then the emergency vehicles, I turned toward the winner’s circle, where the connections of this champion racehorse were cheering and jumping up and down.
As soon as it was safe to do so, I ran toward my friends and practically leapt to hug Frank Taylor, vice president of boarding operations at Taylor Made Farms and part-owner of this prized racehorse, as he ran onto the field. (Sorry, Frank.)
The next few minutes were a blur of tears and congratulations, laughter and bear hugs. Then, I went back to work, happily capturing the sheer jubilation on the faces of Raul, Florentina, Alan, Victor, Dihigi and the rest of the team.
An hour later, back at the barn with the light fading, there was more laughter and the retelling of the race from each person’s perspective. (Until you are fortunate enough to experience Raul breaking it down, you’re just missing the best part of the day.)
As Dihigi, Raul and Florentina returned Chrome to the barn and got him settled in his stall, everyone remarked at how good he looked — like he was ready to go again. Slowly, we began to say goodnight, even as I conspired with Dihigi’s daughter, London, to start photography lessons the next time we are together. At the Breeders’ Cup, for sure … perhaps before?
If California Chrome is racing and Team Sherman is there, it’s my privilege and honor to have a ringside seat. This hard-working team dedicates its blood, sweat and tears to this remarkable racehorse, and he gives them his heart in return.
Time will tell, but it feels like history in the making …