The week of a race always means long days - getting up before the sun, walking five or more miles back and forth from the barn to the track, and staying for the afternoon races, which are the point of all the work. A big race means even more time and attention focused on the final outcome, and when I’m working with Sherman Racing, sleep always seems to be at a premium for me. On the team, we call it “Chrome life”, or “getting Chromed.” And I’m not complaining.
After a very early morning, race day jog for champion California Chrome, I was back at the barn on the backside of Santa Anita Park with the team from Sherman Racing as they readied a 3-year-old chestnut that we refer to as “Chrome’s Stunt Double” for his first race. Mucho Chrome, purchased at the Keeneland sale in September 2014, was racing for the first time – the distance, 5 ½ furlongs.
As the No. 4 horse, in the fourth race at Santa Anita Park on this January Saturday, the newcomer had a great first start, finishing fourth. Upon reaching the barn, we found the colt being cleaned up, cooled out and cared for by a loving team of grooms and stablehands who showed true affection for him.
Whenever I see this - with highly rated stakes horses or no-name claiming and allowance horses, I feel compelled to share my observations with the non-racing public. It breaks my heart when I hear people, not familiar with Thoroughbred racing, talk about “how badly horses are treated”. These are highly valued and not-so-inexpensive equine athletes, whose care and training cost more than your mortgage, car, insurance and utility payments combined. To even think that these horses are not well cared for, considering the investment that their owners and trainers have made, is beyond ridiculous. Observing the relationships between horse and caretakers removes all doubt.
Fast forward a couple of hours, and the support team for champion race horse California Chrome was actively pacing the barn, anxious for his 5-year-old debut marking his return to Thoroughbred racing after an almost 10-month hiatus – his last start being a second-place finish in the 2015 Dubai World Cup.
Race day routines were standard, as groom Raul Rodriquez and his wife, Florentina, got Chrome dressed and ready, and assistant trainer Alan Sherman gathered the new blinkers the colt would be sporting in his first race for his new co-owners - California Chrome LLC. For me, it seemed that no time at all had passed on the backside before we heard the announcement over the loud speakers that entrants for the eighth race needed to begin to head for the receiving barn.
If you have read my blog and looked at my photos in the past, you’ll acknowledge that I generally follow Chrome and his team from the barn to the paddock and the track. On this afternoon I was determined to get a different perspective, and chose to get in front of the team to capture images of them leaving the barn. Rather than feeling separate from the entourage accompanying California Chrome to the front side of the track, I was more than pleased to document a fresh perspective on race day.
After a long stop at the receiving barn, we watched the champion Thoroughbred step onto the path leading him to the paddock. As the team walked toward the crowd waiting for them, I have to say that I was surprised by the small turnout at the race track for this fan favorite’s return to competition. Additionally, I’d have to say that my overall reaction to the dismal attendance at Santa Anita Park for the Friday and Saturday that comprised this weekend was that it was unimpressive. To my mind, this is something that we need to address in the horse racing community. For the time being, it was disappointing to see so few fans at the races.
Once we entered the paddock, we were surrounded by fans and family of the Shermans, all happy to be anticipating California Chrome’s appearance. As we waited for him to join us in the walking ring, fans displayed signs welcoming the champ back to racing and expressing their support for his success.
Grooms and horses barely made one revolution of the outer ring of the paddock before the call for “riders up” was heard and horses and jockeys made their way through the tunnel to the main track. The crowd was sparse for this journey compared to the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Classic when it was wall to wall people navigating the tunnel.
Nevertheless, my friends and Team Chrome supporters found their positions against the rail outside the winners’ circle to watch the race as the post parade commenced on the track. I found my spot across from the finish line and watched as the Santa Anita starting gate was pulled past the grandstand, into its position for the start of the 1 1/16-mile stakes race.
Thankfully, with a seven horse field, the process of loading horses into the starting gate went smoothly. No sooner had the horses entered the gate than I heard the call of “racing” come over the loud speaker from the track announcer.
Within seconds, the field, led by California Chrome, raced past the grandstand for the first time. As I saw the colt leave the starting gate clean and get a jump on his competition within the first furlong of racing, I felt my nervousness subside and I relaxed to watch the race. As soon as they entered the first turn, I felt the jockey Victor Espinoza and California Chrome had the race won.
As they came out of the back stretch and rounded the final turn, Chrome stepped out into the lane and opened up his stride as he entered the home stretch, I watched through the view finder of my camera and voiced encouragement for my favorite horse and rider under my breath, trying to keep my camera steady to capture images to share with all of you. As the field approached the finish line, I could see that my favorite chestnut was going to be successful in his return to competitive racing, and that the team that trained and supported him were thrilled with the result of their efforts.
While I was eager to congratulate assistant trainer Alan Sherman, trainer Art Sherman, Raul, Victor and the owners of California Chrome as they celebrated in the winners’ circle, I felt a deep desire to thank and congratulate Chrome himself for this win. I had visited Chrome in Kentucky in September, as he rested in the luxurious accommodations provided by Taylor Made Farm. At that time, I wondered to myself if the colt would compete again, after having experienced such a lush and relaxing existence. I wondered if he would race.
People who say that this horse should be retired - that he has done enough - don’t understand that he loves his work. Thoroughbreds are bred to run just like draft horses are bred to pull heavy things. And while many Thoroughbreds embrace their breeding, it is a special few who truly love their work, engage with the crowd and the cameras, and emerge as stars.
As we embark on the 2016 race calendar, I look forward to seeing how Chrome decides to hang the moon. Next stop, Dubai.