Shortly after champion race horse California Chrome’s romp to victory in the 2016 TVG Pacific Classic last month, I got a call from my friend, assistant trainer Alan Sherman, asking if I would be at Santa Anita Race Track for the Awesome Again Stakes on October 1. My response - “If Chrome’s racing, I’m there”.
Arriving at LAX on Wednesday morning, I met up with my travel buddy and good friend, Matt Smoot, to begin our adventure. We were awake - reluctantly - before 4:00am PT on Thursday, and at the barn on the backside of Santa Anita Race Track by 5:00am.
It was an uneventful morning, with Chrome training well and calm under exercise rider Dihigi Gladney. As other trainees from Sherman Racing Stables were bathed and cooled down, trainer Art Sherman fielded interviews from KTLA and NBC Sports while the rest of the team tended to business.
After a quick breakfast with Art and Alan, Smoot and I lounged by the pool and read the Racing Form before we turned in early. By race day, we’re typically completely wiped out from the early mornings and long days, so having the opportunity to get some decent sleep is something we don’t take lightly.
This morning the alarm on my phone sounded shortly after 4:00am PT, but we snoozed a little as our lodging is just across the overflow parking lot from the track. We pulled into the owner/trainer lot under the cover of darkness and walked the third of a mile back to the barn housing our team and Chrome for the week.
I like it back there. It’s quiet, without walk-by traffic. Anyone coming back to this barn has to pass the scrutiny of our vigilant security detail. This morning we were greeted by the ever cheerful Frank Taylor, from Taylor Made Farms, who had a small group with him - mostly family.
Shortly after the track reopened, following the first break of the morning for renovation, we all walked briskly behind Chrome and took up positions on the rail to watch him gallop. This morning I camped out at my favorite spot at Santa Anita - where the path beside the track begins to dip below track level. I love it in this spot, at the final turn into the home stretch, in a spot where I can shoot photos under the rail.
Once again, Chrome trained well, but he was more of a handful for his exercise rider. He’s a smart horse, and I’m thoroughly convinced that he knows what day of the week it is and that tomorrow is race day. He loves his job, and he’s acting as if he is ready to report to work.
Back at the barn we had more of a crowd as majority owners Perry and Denise Martin came to check out their champion with a few friends in tow. Tomorrow’s race is not quite as prestigious, but very important to keep California Chrome tuned up and to prepare him for the Breeders’ Cup Classic on November 5.
With training wrapped up for the day and racing this afternoon a few hours away, I can turn to the more subtle and charming aspects of being at Santa Anita. If you have the opportunity, you should go. Go to morning workouts and hang out at Clockers’ Corner. There’s no place like it. Trainers and jockeys and owners stand around swapping stories and regular folks can mix with horse racing legends.
This morning, as Smoot and I sipped our coffee, we chatted with Hall of Fame jockey, Gary Stevens. Gary is totally approachable, cool and even. Getting the opportunity to hear him tell a story should not be missed, and today was no different.
He asked where we were staying, and it happens to be a motel were he lived for the first six months of his career as a jockey. At the age of 16 his father drove him down from Idaho - and it was his first time away from home. After his father headed back home, Gary said he was miserably home sick, but when he talked to his dad by phone - there was only a pay phone on the first floor - he was informed that he needed to win a race before he could return for a visit. He said he had posted several second place finishes, but had not yet won anything. His father’s ultimatum inspired him.
The very next day, he told us, he won his first race, on a mount he picked up on a fluke. He won two the following day. Before the schedule was posted for the next day of racing, he said that he packed up his car in the middle of the night and took off for home. When he returned from his much-needed visit, he found a small apartment in Monrovia and continued his work.
The gentleman statesman of jockeys, he’s appeared in movies and on TV, in addition to posting over 5,100 career wins. And he’s still going. After knee replacement surgery last year, Gary is about as fit as anyone you’ll find trackside.
This is why I love being in the barns and on the backside and among the shed rows. The stars of this sport walk among us, happy to talk with folks who love horses and racing. Yesterday, one of them paid for my breakfast.