By Julian Muscat
For three weeks after California Chrome landed in England, the weather gods smiled. It was almost as if they decreed he should be drenched in his own sunshine.
Newmarket can present a hostile environment in this part of the season. Winds whistle in from the North Sea to the east, unchecked by flat terrain. The Thoroughbred capital of the country may be 40 miles inland, but it can feel like a Siberian outpost.
Not this time. Temperatures soared to unseasonal highs as the darling of American racing flew in from Dubai. There was little climatic contrast for him to adjust to as he bedded down in Rae Guest’s stables on the southern edge of Newmarket.
But on the morning of April 25, when California Chrome was asked to raise his exercise tempo, the rains arrived. It made a portent for the horse with designs on Royal Ascot and the June 17 Prince of Wales’s Stakes (Eng-I).
The sunshine siesta was over. It was time to return to work.
The 4-year-old chestnut was certainly up for it. As he followed his lead horse around Guest’s trotting ring, he was full of swagger. He resembled a prize fighter in shadow-boxing mode.
But that wasn’t how he looked when he arrived in Newmarket a few days after he ran second to Prince Bishop in the Mar. 28 Dubai World Cup (UAE-I). “He was very thin then,” Guest says. “He looks a lot better now.”
That draining effort in Dubai took its toll on “Chrome”. For the first two weeks he did little but sleep. He was hand-walked every morning around Guest’s stables and allowed to recharge his batteries. The question now is whether he can wow British audiences as he has back home.
“It’s very sporting for his connections to bring him over,” Guest says. “He could have been winning $500,000 every month in America but he wouldn’t really have enhanced himself. Now he has the chance to get into the history books.”
It will not be easy. California Chrome may be the reigning Horse of the Year and last year’s 3-year-old champion male who came close to winning the Triple Crown. He may have bankrolled in excess of $5 million, but to give of his best at Royal Ascot, before the Queen of England and thousands of expectant eyes, the California-bred son of Lucky Pulpit must first go back to school.
Chromies everywhere should consider that the learning curve is steep. The sole taste of home for this equine warrior is the sacks of horse cookies dispatched in abundance by doting American fans.
Everything else is new—not least the wide-open spaces of Newmarket Heath, where King James I built the town’s first royal palace in the early 17th century.
On this morning California Chrome reached it via a strip of woodland at the back of Guest’s Chestnut Tree Stables. All he could see was thousands of acres of grassland stretching out in every direction. It’s a world away from the backstretch at Los Alamitos Race Course, where the horse exercises every morning when at home.
He was led for a mile by Montecristo, Guest’s trusty old hack, seemingly going nowhere but for a pleasant morning stroll. From our vantage point the two horses were like distant ships, barely moving, far out at sea.
When California Chrome peeled away from his lead he covered seven furlongs at a brisk canter. In his time Montecristo won 18 races for Guest, but he is now 22 years old. He couldn’t be expected to match strides with Chrome, no matter how sedate the pace.
Here came Chrome now under his daily exercise rider, Robbie Mills. He ran straight and true between marker-strips on the Summer Gallop, until he met a strip of gently rising ground.
The colt hesitated momentarily as he re-gathered his balance from the subtle but significant change to the rhythm of his stride. The new terrain asks him questions he has never previously confronted. On Mills’ prompting he knuckled down and galloped out comfortably—but not before he cocked his ears at the familiar sound of a whirring camera shutter.
Mills was pleased. “That was his fourth time on that gallop and it was the best he’s been,” he said. But it makes for a sobering thought.
Even at a canter, California Chrome needed to recompose himself on meeting the rising ground. Come Royal Ascot, he must gallop hard and true down a home straight with undulations far more pronounced than he encounters in Newmarket.
“He is used to going round in a circle on a flat dirt surface with another 50 horses around him,” Guest said. “You can see him thinking that he’s never seen this before. He wants to have a good look around as he goes, which he will do until he gets used to it. In time he will realize that when we bring him up to the Summer Gallop, it’s because we want him to go a bit faster (in his morning exercise).”
For all that, California Chrome is showing himself to be a willing pupil. He has undeniable presence, a trait shared by many of his inherent ability, and his eye is as relaxed as it can be. The one thing he isn’t is excited or overawed.
These are the early steps, the formative blocks on which California Chrome must build en route to Royal Ascot mid-June, but one facet of the daunting challenge that lies ahead.
In this respect, his progress is visible to the eye. A less tangible factor is how the horse is feeling inside.
“When he arrived he spent the first two weeks more or less asleep,” Guest says. “He’d flown from California to Dubai, which is about as far as it gets, he then ran his race before flying from Dubai to here. It was a tough two weeks. He has also had to deal with time-zone changes and climate changes, so he’s probably just starting to feel he is back to normal.”
California Chrome will have absorbed another week of tuition by the time assistant trainer Alan Sherman arrives in Newmarket May 4 to assess the colt’s progress for his father, trainer Art Sherman. California Chrome will also be reunited with longtime groom Raul Rodriguez, who was by his side through last year’s Triple Crown campaign and the trip to Dubai.
Mills was the conduit through which the father-and-son training alliance stationed the horse with Guest when owners Perry Martin and Steve Coburn of DAP Racing decided to send him to Newmarket.
Mills, 27, spent two winters riding out for the Shermans at Hollywood Park towards the end of the last decade. He took the Guest-trained Mirza, a horse owned by his parents, out to run in Dubai last month, where he met his former employers and hatched the plan.
Those California winters leave Mills well-placed to tutor California Chrome. Back then he rode up to 17 horses daily for the Shermans and became friends with Alan.
“I learnt a huge amount from working for Alan and his father,” Mills said. “The whole family are horsemen and I know how they like things done. This horse is pretty straightforward: he’s a colt in the way he behaves, and he is showing all the (behavioral) traits he shows at home, which is a good sign. He likes a shout and a roar, and his mind is good.
“He got into the (stable) routine very quickly,” Mills added. “He settled in so well that you can sometimes forget all this is new to him. Obviously it is early days on the gallops, and he is just learning how to get up that slight incline on the Summer Gallop. The only incline he’s probably ever seen before is the ramp on a horse box (van).”
Guest, too, is well versed in the demands of long-distance equine travel. With his string of 50 horses he frequently tilts at big prizes beyond Britain’s shores. His resume includes stakes winners in the U.S. and Canada, together with the Prix Vermeille (Fr-I) triumph of My Emma in 1996.
He well understands what California Chrome is up against and has formulated a training program designed to best familiarize the horse in the available time.
In the end, however, the single biggest influence over how California Chrome fares will be the horse himself. When the Shermans arrive Guest will suggest that the JLT Lockinge Stakes (Eng-I), over a mile at Newbury May 16, may come too soon.
“Obviously it will be up to them,” Guest said. “There’s a lot for them to consider, but when it comes to racing, the horse’s fitness will not be a problem.
“It is much more down to the way the horse feels. He has had a break since he came here from Dubai and now it’s question of waiting for him to tell us when he is spot on. It could be a week, it could be longer; it’s hard to say.
“You’ve got to remember that this is a 4-year-old horse who has never seen anything like this in his life. Even as a foal, raised in California, he probably never saw so much grassland before.”
More than Dubai, California Chrome’s British mission represents a greater challenge. The European horses aligned against him have been preparing for their Royal Ascot date for four years and beyond. America’s finest must do it all in the space of six weeks.
“His connections deserve a good ending to this and the horse has a lot to gain,” Guest remarked. “If he becomes a Kentucky Derby winner who wins a group I race at Royal Ascot, he will become even more famous.”