Getting up this morning at 5 a.m. seemed perfectly reasonable, thanks to my body still being on “Georgia Time.” I peeked out the window of my hotel, just across from Santa Anita Park, and was grateful to see dry pavement, indicating that rain showers from yesterday morning were not putting in a repeat performance.
My close proximity to the track meant that I arrived at the barn to connect with the team that trains 2014 Horse of the Year California Chrome just minutes after leaving my hotel. Cheerfully assembled, some holding steaming cups of coffee, chatting and laughing were exercise rider Dihigi Gladney, assistant trainer Alan Sherman, head cheerleaders Matt and Courtney Smoot and Frank Taylor, vice president of boarding operations for Taylor Made Farm. You may recall that over the summer Taylor Made acquired Steve and Carolyn Coburn’s ownership interest in the flashy colt.
Frank is a genial and enthusiastic horseman, with an encyclopedic knowledge of bloodlines and breeding and an easy smile that seldom leaves his face. If I’m excited to be here, I can only imagine the feelings that he and the team from Taylor Made are experiencing as the date of Chrome’s return to racing approaches.
It was clear this morning that the champion was feeling good, as he breathed in the crisp morning air and steam rose from his nostrils on each exhale.
The colt danced around a bit, making it more challenging for groom Raul Rodriquez to get “Higi” on board, but once firmly in the saddle, the excise rider stroked Chrome’s neck and rode out to the main track with Alan leading and the rest of us in tow, picking up our pace in a vain attempt to keep up with horse and rider.
There are two gaps in the main track at Santa Anita - one that is an extension of the home stretch that leads down to the finish line, and another that deposits trainees at the top of the final turn. It was from that second gap that “Higi” and Chrome entered the main track this morning and began to backtrack - jogging clockwise around the track, close to the outside wall.
Before galloping, the pair stood in the starting gate located in the chute on the backstretch, and, as it was later reported to Alan and Frank, Chrome performed perfectly.
When it came time to gallop on the rail, California Chrome seemed to require more from his exercise rider than the previous day, to keep him collected and at a safe speed. But after a furlong or two the pair appeared to be understanding each other, dancing along the rail as they passed our position, a furlong or so off the finish line.
As they coasted along the backstretch and paused to take in their surroundings, the lights and alarms that alert riders to a loose horse were engaged and my heart jumped into my throat, finally settling down when the outriders had the horse safely secured and I located Chrome and “Higi.” Seeing what was happening on the homestretch, they turned around and were calmly backtracking, far from the potential for a collision.
As Chrome and “Higi” completed their circuit, Alan walked out to meet them and led them through the tunnel to school in the paddock. Just as the team was remarking about how uneventful the paddock visit was, compared with previous race-day preparations, a filly entered the saddling area and “circus stunts” ensued. Once again I was in awe of the calm and quick reactions of Chrome’s handlers as they ensured their own safety and collected their charge, who was very obviously “feeling his oats.”
I’ve seen Chrome “go rodeo” in advance of every race, with the exception of the Pennsylvania Derby in September 2014. It’s an indication that he knows what’s coming.
And he’s ready.