The San Gabriel Mountains were shrouded in fog and held a light dusting of snow this morning, presenting a breathtaking backdrop to welcome me back to Santa Anita Park after a hiatus that lasted nearly a year.
The hiatus was far too long for me to be away from this track, and from the team and horse closest to my heart. But after a cross-country flight from Georgia to San Diego, and an early morning, rain-drenched drive, I strode to the gap in the track near the backside just as California Chrome’s assistant trainer, Alan Sherman, my friend, was heading back to the barn with a 3-year-old trainee.
We reached the barn in no time — keeping up with the Shermans requires stamina — and after hugging groom Raul Rodriquez ‘hello,’ I stood in front of the stall that is home for this week to 2014 Horse of the Year California Chrome. All was right with the world.
The handsome chestnut is 5 years old as of Jan. 1, when all Thoroughbreds in the Northern Hemisphere celebrate their birthdays. (This helps to alleviate any confusion that might arise due to racing eligibility based on the age of a horse.) To say that he looks good is an understatement.
Chrome is well-muscled and more mature. While I hate the way that the 2015 racing season unfolded for him after the Dubai World Cup, I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to see him racing as a 5-year-old.
Raul got Chrome ready for his gallop on the training track, and I stood back to watch, smiling as the colt looked over his shoulder from time to time to see me. I chatted and joked with exercise rider, Dihigi Gladney, a man with a delightful sense of humor and an infectious, endless smile, until Chrome was brought out of his stall. Raul gave “Higi” a leg up and we started the brisk walk out to the track.
While rain has been soaking Southern California, the ground crew at Santa Anita have been a step ahead of the weather, sealing that track and moving all workers to the training surface for a few days to preserve the main track for racing.
Stepping onto the main track, I followed Alan out to get a good view of “Higi” and Chrome as they jogged and galloped, with the exercise rider laughing, waving and calling out to Alan across the turf track that separated them.
Chrome galloped smoothly, pulling up easily under his rider before calmly exiting the practice surface to stand, gazing longingly at the main track with steam pouring off his body.
California Chrome's focus never seemed to waver, and I found myself counting the hours until the San Pasqual Stakes reaches the post on Saturday.
Stay tuned. This is going to be fun. GO CHROME.