It’s been six months since I was last in southern California with my friends from Sherman Racing Stables and their champion trainee, California Chrome. But it felt like we hadn’t missed a beat as I walked toward the team, heading for the paddock at Del Mar this morning, just after sunrise. Assistant trainer Alan Sherman was being led by his yellow lab, Jasper, and keeping up with them as we double-timed it past the large barns nearest the grandstand required a lot of effort on my part.
“Gato!” Alan called to me as I walked to meet him, and I got a customary smile and wave from exercise rider, Dihiji Gladney. As we walked through the tunnel that connects the path from the backside to the paddock, I saw trainer Art Sherman waiting for his team, in his signature stance - hands on hips.
Led by a track pony, Chrome carried Dihiji swiftly around the oval of the paddock before stepping into the saddling area. This colt is now five years old, and to say that he looks amazing seems trite. I recall thinking - two years ago, when I was blessed to connect with Art and Alan - that it would be wonderful to see this horse race beyond his 3-year-old season. The series of events that have come together to deliver us to this moment - when the highest earning horse in the history of Thoroughbred racing is poised to put an exclamation mark on his racing career - is remarkable.
While there were no circus stunts in the saddling area, it was only because Dihiji knows his mount so well, and moved the horse away from some pretty fillies and out the tunnel to the dirt surface of the main track. Art followed his horse and exercise rider and I went with Alan and Jasper along the barns and back to the turn in the track that meets up with the chute that holds the practice starting gate.
After a leisurely gallop, Dihiji stood Chrome in the gate - all signals firing for this talented chestnut that he’s getting ready to race. As morning work wrapped up, without issue or incident, the team embarked on the short walk back to the barn where the media was waiting.
Here I got to deliver another surprise as groom Raul Rodriquez was tending to his charge. It was several minutes before he saw me but when he did, he showered me with a warm smile and embrace. Chrome, however, had noticed me right away. I catch a lot of grief from Art and Alan about the beat up straw hat that I wear to the track in the mornings. But the horse likes it, and it helps him to recognize me. Ever the ham, he was posing right away.
Raul’s wife, Florentina (the team calls her “Mama”) has a special relationship with this champion racehorse. She spoke softly to him in Spanish as Raul removed the wraps from his legs and they walked over to the bathing area. Chrome has matured a great deal in two years, and while he is still playful, he seems more calm and composed as he stands for his bath, gently tugging on his lead shank as Florentina stroked his nose.
A few yards away, Alan relaxed against a saddle rack with Jasper at his feet, watching the work of the day unfold. As bath time finished up, the most beautiful horse in the world made eye contact with me. Sigh.
Florentina prepared to walk Chrome around the yard between the shed rows as Raul covered him with a new blanket, emblazoned with the logo of the V Foundation for Cancer Research, a new partnership. The ownership of California Chrome will be donating a portion of all of his future winnings to this foundation, which was formed in memory of coach James “Jimmy” Valvano.
Valvano led the basketball team at North Carolina State University to the 1983 NCAA Championship - a David vs Goliath struggle. He later was sought after as an inspirational speaker, delivering a moving and memorable speech at the 1993 Espy Awards ceremony, just weeks before he would succumb to bone cancer. It’s a great organization, and I’m proud to be associated with a team that sees their role and takes such a position in giving back.
The rest of the morning was sublime perfection for me. I watched my friends go about their daily routine. Raul watching the horse he has shepherded to this incredible position remains a hard working and humble man, in love with a chestnut colt. Art came to stand next to him, and though I was too far away to hear their conversation, their animated exchange was one I will forever remember.
More media stopped by, asking Art’s take on how the San Diego Handicap will shape up on Saturday for California Chrome. Ever the practical horseman, Art talked about how every race is important. Coming off of winning the Dubai World Cup - currently the richest in Thoroughbred racing - to be entered in a $200,000 Grade 2 stakes race is like a halfway decent horse dropping down into an allowance race. But Art takes nothing for granted, expresses the intention of this race - to prepare Chrome for the Pacific Classic on August 20 - and extolls the virtues of the competition, namely the Bob Baffert stand-out trainee, Dortmund.
Now we come to my favorite time on the backside. Media representatives have gone their way, horses have been worked, bathed, walked and put up. The team begins to relax, and champion racehorse California Chrome settles in for his morning nap, guarded by the ever faithful Jasper.
Saturday will be fun. But Wednesday morning was perfect.