At 5:30 a.m. PT Thursday morning on the backside at Del Mar, trainer Art Sherman was animated and asking his son and assistant trainer, Alan Sherman, and groom, Raul Rodriquez, why they were already out on the track.
In two days — on Saturday at about 9:15 p.m. — his star trainee, champion California Chrome, will compete in the $1 million TVG Pacific Classic Stakes against a field of talented and accomplished horses. A pre-dawn training routine prior to a race this big can help to keep down the traffic on the training track, and it seemed pretty clear that Art is anxious to have this phase of the work day completed.
I walked out quickly to wait trackside in the spot where the track turns into the backstretch. Within a few minutes, the 5-year-old, multiple graded stakes winner glided into view, his copper coat gleaming under the stadium lights.
At the turn, exercise rider Dihigi Gladney paused and let Chrome relax and look around before guiding him left, along the rail, to backtrack toward the grandstand. The next time I saw them they were galloping, counter-clockwise, at a gentle pace and in relative solitude.
Chrome’s signature blaze makes it easier to pick him out of a crowd than a lot of horses, but this morning I was able to make out his shadowy form, recognizing his stride, before he stepped into the light and removed all question.
Art and Alan stood watching without exchanging any words as the well-muscled racehorse ran past us twice before walking to the practice starting gate positioned in the chute. I stood just off Art’s left shoulder as Alan and Dihigi led California Chrome into one of the open gates, where he stood with ears pricked and head high, calmly waiting for the cue to move out and head back to the barn.
He stood for a while — a couple of minutes, maybe — far longer than horses ever have to stand before the gates spring open at the start of a race. And, he was almost nonchalant, casually looking around and tugging on the lead shank in Alan’s right hand. I’ve seen horses run right out of the gates during schooling, but Chrome just stood there, never even shifting on his feet, and looked at Art.
Another sign of maturity and patience was shown at the wash rack, when he waited for a long stretch for his soapy face to be rinsed. He didn’t fuss, or try to shake off the foam; he just stared silently at his handlers and waited.
The rest of the morning was a filled with strategy discussions, routine visits from veterinarians and dentists, training of the rest of the horses in the Sherman Racing Stable currently residing at Del Mar and plenty of joking around and laughter.
Once Chrome was back in his stall, I could feel his entire support team relax.
The building excitement and anticipation for the upcoming race must be a considerable strain on everyone involved in preparing this horse for success. As I’ve said many times before, the outcome of a horse race is never guaranteed. For this team, on this day, a “boring” morning was just what they had needed.