Final preparations for the San Antonio Stakes at Santa Anita Park on Saturday morning were as routine and uneventful as expected for the team that trains champion Thoroughbred, California Chrome. While key team members - assistant trainer, Alan Sherman, and exercise rider, Willie Delgado - were delayed slightly due to another motorist’s accident on the freeway leading to the track before dawn, both arrived just in time to get their trainee to the track for an easy jog.
A large group of visitors accompanied co-owner Steve Coburn back to the barn and stood waiting for a glimpse of the chestnut colt as groom, Raul Rodriguez walked him on the far end of the yard between the shed rows to cool him down. After a very brief audience with the newly named Horse of the Year, visitors were ushered from the barn and the team settled into a quiet routine, allowing Chrome a few hours of peace before the afternoon’s race.
I walked up to Clocker’s Corner with trainer Art Sherman and Willie, where they stopped to chat with colleagues and fans, posed for photos and handled interview calls before stopping by the racing office on our way to the parking lot. I grabbed the chance for a quiet cup of coffee with Art and his wife Faye, where we chatted about fashion and renovating our old farmhouse in Georgia before we each went our separate ways to enjoy a couple of hours of solitude before the afternoon got underway.
A couple hours later I was guiding my car into a parking spot on the backside of the track, behind barn 14. My walk to the barn was made easier by this advantageous parking spot, which helped to balance out my race day outfit. (I’m always careful to wear shoes that I can walk in, but when you cover 3-4 miles walking back and forth from the backside to the frontside in the hours prior to a race, even the most comfortable shoes can become a liability.)
I stopped at the barn to check on California Chrome, who was well-attended by Raul, his wife, Florentina (aka Mama) and Willie, as well as the full-time security detail who would also walk with us to the paddock before the race. Having a few items with me that needed Art’s signature, I headed to the clubhouse with Willie. We had the good fortune of catching a ride with the fire marshal as a light, misty rain made a brief appearance.
Horses for the first race were being called to the post as we reached the suite where the Sherman family was entertaining family and friends. Willie and I agreed to head back to the barn around the fifth race, but the time spent in the clubhouse was necessary for Chrome’s team to pass the hours until the race. The hardest part of race day is waiting.
After a couple of hours of socializing and enjoying the view from the suite level, it was finally time to make the trek back to the barn. When we arrived, the team was already in motion, getting Chrome dressed and ready for his race.
When the announcement came over the loud speakers on the backside that horses for the eighth race were due in the receiving barn in twenty minutes, Raul and Willie flanked their horse and began to walk in silence along their familiar route.
Chrome was the first to arrive, and a light rain was picking up a little as I stood outside the receiving barn and watched as the other eight horses entered. When they finally emerged it was in post position order, with each groom wearing a numbered vest in the corresponding color.
Fans lined the walkway and as Team Chrome came into view of the crowd in the paddock, cheers rang out and the colt’s head was up and his ears forward as he danced toward the saddling area. Raul and Willie kept Chrome walking as fans packed the viewing area just outside the jockey’s room.
As trainers began saddling their horses, I walked out to take up position at the edge of the walking ring, where I waited until everyone had passed. As quickly as I found Chrome’s connections at the number eight position in the paddock, the call was made for riders’ up, and after another lap of the walking ring, entrants in the San Antonio Stakes were making their way through the tunnel and out onto the track.
Santa Anita is a remarkable track. Being there makes you feel as if you are on a movie set, which lends to the other-worldly feeling of following such talented horses onto the track. I’ve been blessed with an abundance of incredible experiences in the past sixth months, but walking through the tunnel and reaching trackside at Santa Anita is one of my favorites. Rain or shine, it gives me chills.
The horses made their post parade past a crowd of 21,000 fans, and cheers erupted again as the No. 8 horse was announced. As they loaded into the starting gate, a track steward walked the rail in front of us and video and still photo camera operators took up their positions just before the bell sounded and the gates opened.
A few short seconds after their clean start the horses raced past the grandstand for the first time, then rounded the turn and settled into the backstretch. When you are standing on the rail across from the finish line, this is when the field disappears from view - behind the giant screens that display odds and other race statistics.
I was standing behind and to the right of Alan as the horses entered the final turn and jockey Victor Espinoza made a move to take the lead as they rounded the turn and headed for home, but less than 20 seconds later I could see on his face that the race was over, as Shared Belief pulled ahead of Chrome and reached the wire ahead of him, Chrome finishing a strong second and well ahead of the rest of the field.
As riders slowed their horses and made their way back to the finish line, Art came down to the track to thank everyone on his team and set eyes on his horse, seeing him healthy and sound, before Raul and Willie walked him to the detention barn for routine testing and observation. As I walked alongside the trio, back through the tunnel and around the paddock, a smattering of fans shouted their ongoing support and gratitude for this stunning equine athlete.
Shortly after Raul and Willie handed Chrome off to Mama and they entered the detention barn, the team escorting the race’s winner, Shared Belief, walked up the path. And while I had my camera lens covered to protect it from the rain, I was touched by the show of sportsmanship as Raul and Willie each congratulated this team. (Raul’s nephew is Shared Belief’s groom - illustrating the tightly intertwined world of horse racing.)
The rain was coming down harder now, and we happily jumped into the security truck that rolled up and offered to drive us back to the barn. Sherman Racing had a filly in the final race of the day, and once that race had run they began to show up at the barn to wait for Chrome. While the atmosphere was more subdued than after Chrome’s win at Del Mar in his turf debut, the team talked openly about his solid performance, and had nothing but praise for the efforts of the winning horse and his jockey.
Around 5:30 p.m., as the last of the light was fading from a gray afternoon sky, Mama led California Chrome past his team to the wash station for his final clean up before being loaded on the trailer for the ride back to Los Alamitos. Happy and healthy, he will rest there and resume training later in the week in preparation for his next race, currently planned for the Dubai World Cup at the end of March.
Tonight the Shermans, Coburns and Martins will collect additional California-bred honors at the CTBA awards. Next week both Art and Chrome will mark their birthdays, and though I will be on our Georgia farm with my husband for a week, I’ll return to file an update as the fiery colt steps back onto the training track at Los Alamitos to do what he does best.