Almost three weeks have passed since champion Thoroughbred California Chrome skipped across the finish line to win the 2017 Winter Challenge at Los Alamitos Race Track, and I have endeavored to post my perspective on the day.
A new track record was set as Chrome finished twelve lengths ahead of his closest competitor, and jockey Victor Espinoza considered the stick in his hand as a modest amount of extra weight, unnecessary to his end goal.
I’ve started - and even completed - full articles, detailing the day in my typical fashion, but I haven’t published a thing. I’ve considered for hours and days why I have not shared all of my photos and the behind the scenes account of the race day preparations and post-race celebration that are enjoyed so much by Chrome’s fans.
It finally dawned on me, as I talked with my dear husband about this final trip to Southern California to watch my favorite chestnut colt race, that this was far too personal for me to just be another blog entry. Another play-by-play account of arriving at the track, waiting at the barn, walking over to the race and celebrating a brilliant victory.
My journey with this team and their impressive trainee all started at Los Alamitos Race Track. On August 1, 2014, trainer Art Sherman rode with me, in what he would later discover in the light of day was a purple Scion, to work the horses he trained at the understated track that was used primarily for Quarter Horse racing.
In those mild, pre-dawn hours, I was introduced to Art’s son, assistant trainer, Alan Sherman, groom Raul Rodriquez, exercise riders Anna Wells and Willie Delgado, and “the Big Horse”, California Chrome. I stood back and watched the team work, shot lots of photos, and listened intently. At the end of the morning, I was invited back.
I rarely missed a week at Los Alamitos the remainder my time as a resident of Southern California, and made trips to Pennsylvania and to Santa Anita and Del Mar when Chrome raced. My regular entries to “The Chrome Diaries”, a constant joy for me, shared with his adoring fans the day-to-day devotion of his team as they prepared him for each contest.
When I returned to Los Alamitos on December 16, traveling from my home in Covington, Georgia, via my temporary post in San Diego, two years and four months had passed since my first visit. But what had drawn me to this “assignment” remained, having changed only for the better.
The track and the barns at Los Alamitos have undergone an expansion and renovation, but the walk from the track kitchen to the barn that houses Sherman Racing Stables was the same. The cordial introductions I had received that first morning were replaced with warm hugs and smiles, with my friend Raul throwing open his arms and asking, “Where have you been!”
On that stormy morning, the quiet dedication of the teams employed to train and care for horses was witnessed only by a few, as they walked the shed rows, out of the rain. It was peaceful, and pure, and perfect. And I did not take a single photograph.
Race day was different. I was privileged to be invited to join Frank Taylor, VP of Boarding Operations at Taylor Made Farms, and his guests as they watched the races leading up to the Winter Challenge. I connected with the Chromies that have been a source of motivation and inspiration for me during my tenure with Chrome and Team Sherman. And I enjoyed the races for the first time since I started as a pseudo-turf writer and photographer - sitting with shareholders of California Chrome LLC and enjoying their warmth and their enthusiasm for their horse.
When it was time to walk out to the barn, the trek was so comfortable and familiar to me that I felt no sense of “build up” to the race. Just peace and enjoyment of the pleasant afternoon sun as I walked in solitude alongside the track, toward the Sherman barn.
Preparations for this race were just as I have chronicled on numerous occasions, but on this day, the team was on their home turf. We sat in the familiarity of the team office, enjoyed the six foot burrito that Alan had catered in, and watched the undercard races.
Raul and his wife Florentina Saldivar, Chrome’s hot walker, were able to access all of the tools and equipment they use every day, without having to pull them out of storage bins that had been packed and transported to a remote track. The mood was happy and light, while still focused on the very serious business ahead.
Our walk to the receiving barn took us past the deck outside the track kitchen. The railing that is generally populated by a handful of trainers and owners during morning training was now packed with giddy fans, calling out encouragement and support for their favorite race horse and his team.
In the saddling area, I felt a tug at my heart as I stood behind Art while he watched Raul parade their prized pupil in a lazy loop, along with the field of contenders, before stepping out into the paddock to wait for horses and jockeys and the call for “riders up!’
I found a comfortable place at the rail, away from the other photographers, to document this race, and felt a grateful smile spread across my race as the horses made their way down the back stretch. Victor kept Chrome out of traffic, and they began to make their move to a commanding lead as they exited the final turn. Crossing the finish line was sheer poetry.
I heard the cheers of the crowd ringing in my ears as I turned to see my friends in celebration and immediately ran to congratulate them with hugs and laughter. All too quickly they were leaving the Winners’ Circle, heading for the test barn. I got a couple of my favorite images of the day in those final moments, as Chrome was led into the fading light.
Back at the barn, connections talked of the upcoming trip to Gulfstream Park, not mentioning or wanting to think about what happens after the inaugural running of the Pegasus World Cup Invitational on January 28. Easy smiles. Relaxed laughter. Pure joy.
So, dear readers, that is why you had to wait so long for this installment. I needed to sit for a while with the sheer perfection of it all.