In every life, there are those who inspire us. As a writer and photographer, I am always aware of people, horses and moments. Glimpses into the character and nature of human beings, exhibited through their words and actions. Raul Rodriquez inspires me.
“Good morning! Good morning!” The greeting is always issued twice, with great enthusiasm regardless of weather or day of the week. Rodriquez, groom for Sherman Racing Stables and primary guardian of the richest racehorse in North American history, California Chrome, is perhaps the most even, positive and hard working man I’ve ever known.
He wakes every day around 4:00am and takes care of the horses before addressing his own needs. He never asks for anything, is happy in his work - which is practically constant - and is grateful for whatever he is given. He counts among his blessings the five year old chestnut colt that has been in his care since he was a two year old. And while the world of Chromies envies his position, it is one earned through hard work and dedication to hundreds, if not thousands, of horses that have come before Chrome.
A gentle humor has been revealed to me over the past two years, as I have patiently lurked in the background, capturing images of this learned horseman. He artfully navigates the scores of visitors to the barn, clamoring to see Chrome, while he never stops. When the crowds dissipate, there is perhaps a story or two about a past race, his sons and grandchildren, his wife, the ranch in Mexico that is home to his cows and horses, all waiting for his retirement.
My favorite moments are the quiet times after a race. Having stayed around for the festive celebration in the winners’ circle just once, I prefer to walk briskly with Raul and his wife, Florentina, and California Chrome, as they leave the track. Lately, there is a lengthy stop at the test barn, post-win. When Raul is ready, we walk back to the barn together leaving Florentina and exercise rider, Digihi Gladney, with Chrome until he is cleared to return to his caretakers.
The stroll to the barn it is often in peaceful silence. When words are spoken, I listen intently to my friend as he breaks down the race and extols the talents of the champion racehorse in his care. There is admiration, reverence, and love.
Back at the barn, there are chores. As curious passersby inquire as to the colt’s whereabouts, Raul readies the stall for Chrome, and often prepares all of the equipment and personal affects that have been brought to this temporary domicile for their return to home base at Los Alamitos Race Track. Depending on traffic and race time, they head home as soon as Chrome is ready.
When they travel, it is together. Raul rides in the transport alongside his equine compadre. His focus is always on Chrome’s safety and comfort, and Florentina’s focus is on Raul, typically handing him a snack for the ride home. There is never a complaint. Only a smile and a wave out the window of the transport as it pulls away and California Chrome pokes his nose out, with a whinny of farewell.
As I browsed my photos, selecting images for this post, I found myself smiling broadly. It was lovely revisiting each day I’ve had with Team Sherman, and while I have piles of photos that include Raul in an ensemble, I’ve chosen those where Raul is the only human in the frame.
Last week, the Thoroughbred Industry Employee Awards presented by Godolphin, were awarded at the opening of Keenland’s fall meet in Lexington, Kentucky. Raul Rodriquez was selected a finalist in the category of Dedication to Racing, and was present with his wife, Florentina. Another man received the award. Deserving, I am certain. But being personally close to someone nominated for such an honor, I was in Raul’s corner. While I have not spoken with him, I’m sure that he was humbly content with being a finalist and enjoying the trip to Lexington, and was anxious to return to the barn at Los Alamitos, his team at Sherman Racing, and California Chrome.
At the risk of getting sappy and potentially embarrassing someone as hardworking and self-sacrificing as Raul, there are many words that I could use to describe this gentle man I am honored to call “compadre”. Each is fitting and descriptive, but there is one that remains in my thoughts.