It was still dark as I drove up to Los Alamitos Friday morning. Intent on beating the traffic, I left my home in San Diego earlier than the week before, and while I was not in the middle of an Iowa corn field, the stadium lights shining down on the green oval amidst the store fronts and office buildings on Katella Ave. as I made my approach brought to mind a scene from Field of Dreams.
“If you build it … he will come.”
This morning was my last regularly scheduled visit to document champion Thoroughbred California Chrome’s preparation for the Dubai World Cup.
Next week the team leaves for the United Arab Emirates, and I leave for Georgia with my husband, our dog and our cat in our box-like, deep purple Scion.
Before I could climb the steps to the track kitchen, I was greeted by fans on their first visit to Los Alamitos. As I led them to the best vantage point, we reached the top of the steps together and found trainer Art Sherman with a group of his “usual suspects” from Los Al, along with Jerry Hollendorfer, trainer of stellar four-year-old Shared Belief, among others.
Art and Jerry have been friends for decades, and they were enjoying a mild morning, watching their trainees gallop while chatting and joking with each other.
The morning air warmed quickly as the sun came up. Riders finished their training runs as the announcement was made that the track was closed for renovations and the tractors took to the dirt track. I might have been the only person trackside who was happy to have lost an hour of sleep last Sunday, as the start of Daylight Savings Time brought with it a delayed sunrise. The early morning light is always my favorite, and having dawn break an hour later gave me better light to photograph my main subject, the chestnut colt who was working a little after 8 a.m.
I stopped at the office of Sherman Racing and caught up with assistant trainer Alan Sherman, Art’s son. He was discussing final preparations for the team’s travel to Dubai on Monday with exercise rider Willie Delgado and groom Raul Rodriquez. Everyone sounded like they were prepared and looking forward to the trip — the first any of the team was making to the UAE.
A lot has been written about the special transportation that the horses competing in the Dubai World Cup will enjoy, along with concern being voiced about connections traveling separately. Alan explained to me that this is a security measure that has been in place since Sept. 11, 2001. Only employees of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum are allowed on the fully equipped equine transport, which is staffed with thoroughly experienced handlers and veterinarians.
Rest assured, the owners and trainers of this beloved horse would not be sending him overseas if they were not certain of his safety, even for the most prestigious race in the world.
The break in the action on the track while the tractors do the work doesn’t mean a break in the action back at the barn. With Chrome set to be the first horse on the track when it reopens, the half hour prior to him being led from his stall occupies all of Raul’s attention as he prepares his prized stallion for his workout. While Chrome knows the drill and is cooperative, for the most part, I always enjoy hearing Raul chide him softly if Chrome gives him any resistance.
This morning, I left the barn ahead of the team in order to get some photos of them walking out to the track, instead of from behind, as I usually follow them out. (The technical term for this is “Chrome Butt”, and I have hundreds of these shots.)
As in past weeks, exercise rider Anna Wells sat comfortably in the saddle as they waited calmly for the announcement that the track was open, before being led out by Danielle and her escort pony, Marzipan. Last week Danielle was away, and while we waited this morning she showed me the mark on her shin where Chrome had given her a “welcome back” love bite.
Chrome was incredibly light on his feet this morning as he and his escorts started backtracking toward the finish line, where he would reverse direction to begin his counterclockwise, seven-furlong workout. As they trotted along the backstretch, the new morning sun glistened on the stunning colt and horses and riders cast long shadows on the fence behind them.
The rail along the homestretch was crowded with onlookers — all employees at the track who had put their work on hold for a couple of minutes to watch a champion breeze. Anna was perfectly poised as she guided the colt down the backstretch, holding her lane as they rounded the turn and headed for home, each foot fall throwing dirt in its wake.
Anna let Chrome gallop out a bit after his workout was done, and he eased himself up as they cleared the backstretch for the second time where they were met by Danielle and Marzipan.
Back at the barn, as tack was removed and clean up began, Chrome seemed to be fully recovered fairly quickly after posting an impressive time of 1:23.80 for his seven-furlong work.
While the team was tending to Chrome, Art and Alan conferred in the office. Some reporters and the Los Alamitos video crew were on hand to ask for Art’s thoughts on Chrome’s final preparations from the Dubai World Cup, and they were told that the four-year-old is training as well as his trainers have ever seen.
With morning work almost complete, I talked with Anna about some of the younger trainees that she galloped earlier in the morning, and what fun it is seeing a young horse start to “get it,” to understand and have fun with racing. That prompted a discussion that dovetailed off of a thought I had while driving in this morning … that this work is art and science.
More than 20,000 Thoroughbreds are foaled each year in the U.S. How many have actual talent? How many get missed or are not properly managed to develop their talent? How many develop later? There are so many variables that it must take decades to develop an understanding of these amazing athletes and determine the individual training path for each. Decades that Art and Alan, along with countless others, have devoted to the Sport of Kings.
Art said it simply, to get to the Kentucky Derby, you have to have a truly special horse.
A new crop of three-year-olds is lining up for the first Saturday in May, and racing fans will be watching to see if a potential Triple Crown winner emerges. It’s a cycle that starts fresh every year, and that keeps things exciting. But the legion of Chrome fans across the country will direct their eyes to Dubai, where Chrome will compete in the $10-million World Cup on March 28, and will wait anxiously for updates to be shared by his connections who will travel there with him.
For the first time since August, I’ll be reading the updates with all of you, rather than writing them myself. I hope to have the honor and opportunity to return to my post when Chrome races in the U.S., so for now, I’ll simply say - until next time. GO CHROME!