By Jay Hovdey
As a full moon began to set over the Del Mar stables Thursday morning, a superhero in a horse suit was trying to ignore the golden Labrador nosing around his stall.
“Jasper, knock that off or Chrome’ll nail you,” chided Alan Sherman, Jasper’s owner.
It wasn’t exactly a scene from Town & Country, but it was business as usual in the Art and Alan Sherman shed row, where the sober routine of preparing the richest Thoroughbred in the history of North American racing for a return to competition is tempered by the grateful joy of being so close to such a remarkable creature for so long.
“He’s been good here,” said Art Sherman, Alan’s dad, as he headed for the track to train another horse in the barn. “Eating good, acting good. Handles the track fine. What could go wrong?”
At this, Sherman let fly one of his cackling laughs, knowing full well that things go wrong in racing all the time, and only a diligent attention to detail can at least reduce the chances. For all his accomplishments, California Chrome is still an equine athlete whose value, at least for now, is based upon running faster than the horses arrayed against him.
To that end, his return Saturday in the $200,000 San Diego Handicap will provide a solid test of his status four months removed from his glorious victory in the $10 million Dubai World Cup. The fact that California Chrome did it with his saddle slipping steadily back to his haunches as the race progressed was only one of the many remarkable stories from that memorable desert night.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” Sherman said, “we’re not using that new English chamois we used over there again. I thought it wouldn’t make any difference, and, boy, was I wrong.”
It’s the little things that count, but it is a very big thing California Chrome will be facing Saturday when his main opposition in the San Diego comes from Dortmund, the towering winner of the 2015 Santa Anita Derby who is making his first start since winning the Native Diver Handicap at Del Mar eight months ago.
“I figure he’ll go to the lead like he does,” Sherman said of Dortmund. “After that, I’m hoping he needs the race.”
The San Diego Handicap has been around forever, which in the case of Del Mar means since 1937, and for all but eight of its 73 runnings, it has been a 1 1/16-mile main-track event.
Native Diver himself won the San Diego three straight years, 1963-65, and ended up in the Hall of Fame. Bates Motel won the San Diego on his way to an Eclipse Award. Skywalker took the race in 1986, then later added the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
More recently, the San Diego has been won by Dubai World Cup winner Well Armed, Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile winner Dakota Phone, Godolphin Mile winner Grey Memo, and Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo.
So much for history. What counts on Saturday is that California Chrome brings the same vibrant energy to the San Diego that he displayed in his Dubai campaign earlier this year. If the last few mornings at Del Mar are any indication, he should be a handful.
“Let him go,” cried exercise rider Dihigi Gladney to the pony boy as California Chrome went up on his back legs and bounded out of a saddling stall in the Del Mar paddock.
The muscles around Sherman’s heart tightened slightly as he watched Gladney slip free of Chrome’s gray pony and trot around the ring. The red stallion calmed to a walk and immediately dropped one of his trademark erections, which was enough to let his people know all was well.
“He doesn’t do that back home at Los Alamitos,” Sherman said. “But here he’s got new sights and sounds, a different kind of atmosphere. Gets him a little stirred up.”
Once on the track for his gallop, California Chrome was all class. He put in a smooth mile and a half and then walked easily to the training gate at the back of the seven-furlong chute.
“That’s just the way he is,” Sherman said. “I am a little concerned, though, what he might do running against that mare.”
“That mare,” of course, is Beholder, who looms on California Chrome’s horizon for the $1 million Pacific Classic on Aug. 20. Her trainer, Richard Mandella, was in the paddock with his own horses Thursday morning when California Chrome put on his show. The idea of a robust female horse distracting a virile stallion from the focus it takes to win a million-dollar race is one of those jokes that has plenty of basis in experience.
“I was thinking about sending Beholder to the gate with him this morning,” Mandella deadpanned. “But there’s not enough money on the line.”
Once the San Diego in the books and Beholder has dealt with the Clement L. Hirsch Stakes on July 30, the excitement for their Pacific Classic showdown will begin to boil.
The respective camps are already getting into the spirit. Owner B. Wayne Hughes, who normally keeps his cards close, let loose with a mischievous “Chrome who?” line when asked about the pending showdown with Beholder, the apple of his eye. Perry Martin, California Chrome’s majority owner, countered with a respectful nod to the three-time champion mare but then warned with a wink, “When Chrome goes by her, she’ll go from Beholder to bewildered.”
Is this going to be a fun summer or what?