All week long, the mood outside barn #2 on the backside of Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, Florida was light. Each morning, close connections of champion race horse California Chrome gathered to share coffee and pastries, and to laugh and chat about past experiences and the upcoming Pegasus World Cup Invitational on Saturday, January 28.
The morning of the race, it was no different. Though the crowd was smaller, for most barns it would have seemed unimaginable to have so many people arrive prior to 5am to stand in the dark while their favorite horse had his pre-race jog. But Chrome’s connections are devoted, and this was the last time they would have this opportunity.
To be honest, I almost skipped it, as I have the past couple of races. The morning of a race can be a little tense compared to other mornings, so I have opted to reduce the crowd by one and get some sleep to carry me through the long day.
But my friend and travel companion, Margaret Luckett, insisted I should not miss it, and she was right. When it was time to jog, I fell in line just behind groom Raul Rodriquez and assistant trainer, Alan Sherman, as they led Chrome to the track, with exercise rider, Dihigi Gladney aboard.
Chrome jogged and had his bath before going back into his stall, and by 8am Margaret and I were back at our condo. A few hours to rest and get ready to go back to the barn.
Shortly after 1pm we packed up some beach chairs and a cooler that were available at the condo and drove back to Gulfstream. Traffic into the parking lot was already building when we were exiting in the morning, and now it was looking pretty full. But thank goodness for our media passes and the wonderful security team at Gulfstream who had become familiar with us over the previous few days. We drove cleanly onto the backside and joined our friends to wait.
As many of you know by now, this is my favorite part of Thoroughbred horse racing. While it could be incredibly stressful, marking the time until a race, I enjoy being at the barn with the team. There are always stories and a lot of laughter, and I get some of my best photos of the anticipation and preparation for the race.
The routine at Gulfstream does not include a visit to the receiving barn prior to the race. Instead, each entrant is visited in their stall for pre-race checks and the mandatory blood draw. That meant we would walk straight to the paddock and not have to stop and wait enroute.
It wasn’t long before we were joined by the stellar team from TVG, with hugs and big smiles for everyone. They have been backside with us prior to every race over the past thirteen months, and commentator Mike Joyce can always be counted on for his humor.
In addition to Alan’s friends, Bobby Hobbs, Jordan Olsen and Matt Smoot, award-winning turf writer and family friend, Jay Hovdey sat quietly in a folding chair at the side of the barn in the shade of a perfect afternoon. Upon closer inspection, I saw that Jay was wearing his Pegasus tie - which he told me he had acquired years ago. The perfect accessory for the occasion.
As Alan and Raul began the final stages of preparing Chrome to leave the barn, the mood became more serious. Not sad, but bittersweet. Everything reminded the team that this was the last time.
And then the call came over the public address system on the backside, that horses for the twelfth race needed to make their way to the saddling paddock. I quickly walked out ahead of the team, to be in good position to capture images as they stepped from the shade of the shed rows into the temperate afternoon sun and made their way toward the track.
Trailing an impressive security detail and three video crews, Raul led Chrome on the short walk from the barn to the gap at the rear chute in the track, then along the inside rail. The closer we got to the grandstand, the larger and louder the crowd. At a couple of points in our trek, Chrome stopped, lifted his head and looked around with curious eyes. It felt as if he also knew - that this was the last time.
To say that the saddling paddock at Gulfstream Park is not ideal is being generous. It is a narrow alley, with stalls on one wall and not much space to walk horses under normal conditions. For the Pegasus Cup, every team was augmented, video crews were everywhere, security details were quadrupled, and the scene was just this side of chaos.
So I kept walking, through the paddock, and stopped to wait with Savannah Sherman, Art and Faye’s granddaughter. In a protected corner we watched the crowd, now substantial, filling every imaginable space on every observation deck facing the walking paddock and pushing toward the narrow avenue the entrants would pass through to travel from the paddock to the walking ring.
Thankfully, saddling went smoothly and the horses and teams were soon filing out through the tunnel, to the delight of the waiting throng. Cheers went up as Raul and Dihigi led Chrome to the walking circle, where again, Chrome stopped to look around.
By some miracle I found the Sherman family and was able to grab a few images of Chrome with jockey, Victor Espinoza in the irons, as they paraded in front of the crowd before climbing the slight incline to walk back through the tunnel and paddock to reach the track.
As the mass of supporters flooded the tunnel, I waited to walk with Art, Savannah and Faye. By the time I reached the track, the gate allowing teams access to trackside positions was closed, and as I had done for the Pacific Classic at Del Mar, I implored the security team to allow me to join my team at the rail.
Once in position, we waited again, as horses and riders embarked on their post parade and the track announcer ran through the post positions and horses for the inaugural Pegasus World Cup Invitational.
Just to my left, I scanned the rail to find my friends, standing silently, taking in the moment. Then the starting gate was towed past us and into place, followed shortly by the field for the race, who all entered the gate without incident….until it was Chrome’s turn.
For the first time in my experience, he did not step fluidly into gate #12, but rather he hesitated - if only briefly - until being coaxed in by the gate crew and his jockey. The gates sprang open and the horses bolted onto the track.
As they entered the first turn, everything looked good. Chrome got a good jump out of the gate and by the time they exited the turn and opened up into the back stretch, Victor had him in a stalking position, just behind the leaders, with his prime competitor on the inside rail.
About the half mile mark, you could see it. As the horses began to move into the final turn, some making their move toward the lead, California Chrome was not accelerating as in the past. While he continued to run, his turn of foot seemed off, and collectively we all knew that a trip to the winners’ circle was not in the cards.
As the horses cleared our position, Alan, Raul and Dihigi walked out to watch their horse run back, checking his stride to look for any sign of significant injury. Their main concern is the welfare of this beautiful and talented athlete, regardless of the race outcome.
Now there was a quiet, almost solemn mood as I fell in stride with Raul to walk back to the barn with Chrome. His immediate comment was that Chrome just didn’t like the track. Later we would discover that he had twisted his knee, a minor issue that would be corrected with rest to his complete recovery.
I wonder now, if the pauses along the way to the starting gate were his way of saying that he knew it wasn’t his day. He's an incredibly intelligent horse, so it’s possible, if not likely.
Back at the barn, a small group gathered while Chrome was cooled out and bathed. The sentiment was just as I had expected - not an ounce of disappointment. This horse has done more than enough.
As people began to depart, warm hugs and words of gratitude were exchanged. Team Sherman will return to training at Los Alamitos, the crew from TVG will head to their next assignment, and owners and close connections will continue to attend training and races.
Something hung in the air that was almost palpable. It made me want to linger a bit, to let it settle on me, to sink in and be carried away. A great horse, an impressive career, and an awaiting retirement and the potential for pretty and talented babies will certainly keep us all engaged for years.
But this is an imprint on the soul. A mark that will be visited from time to time, and remembered with fondness and longing. The final race may not have ended in a win, but this last waltz was victorious.