Better get it while it’s hot.
The timing of the entrée’s appearance on the Los Alamitos bill-of-fare is suspicious, roughly coinciding with the emergence of California Chrome as a serious 3-year-old colt who just happens to be trained by Art Sherman at – where else? – Los Alamitos.
California Chrome is the impressive winner of two straight races for products of the California breeding industry. That’s usually not enough to get your trainer enshrined on a menu. But in these early days of the Los Alamitos transformation into a key component of the Southern California Thoroughbred community, management is giddy over the idea that a bona fide Kentucky Derby horse might be training at the track better known as the Quarter Horse capital of the West.
Los Alamitos owner Dr. Ed Allred is on his way to spending millions in such necessary items as the expansion of the main track to a full mile oval and the renovation of the cinder block backstretch barns. The Los Alamitos grandstand is scheduled for refurbishing in anticipation of a two-week Thoroughbred meet early this summer and three-week meet in December, and to fulfill a commitment for 700 Thoroughbred stalls, there are plans to begin building a new barn this spring.
A visit to Los Alamitos during training hours reveals that, contrary to the most dire predictions, Thoroughbred people and Quarter Horse people are getting along just fine without degenerating into a backstretch version of Hatfields and McCoys.
Thoroughbreds are housed in barns to the north of the main stable road while Quarter Horses are in barns to the south, but they train at the same time, and it is a jolt at first to see the breeds parading to the track together – the short-couple Q’s with their massive hind ends alongside leggy, narrow-waisted Thoroughbreds. Somehow they make it work.
“I’ve got Thoroughbred guys asking me, ‘How do we get a Quarter Horse?’ and Quarter Horse guys wanting to get Thoroughbreds,” said Brad McKinzie, the Los Alamitos point man during the transition.
Having trained Thoroughbreds for Allred for a number of years, Art Sherman has a foot firmly in both worlds. And even though California Chrome races for his breeders, Steve Coburn and Perry Martin, it never hurts to be in the same barn with horses owned by the track boss.
“They’ve bent over backwards for us here,” said Alan Sherman, the trainer’s son and assistant. “And I mean for all the Thoroughbred trainers.”
Still, there is only one recognized Derby horse on the grounds, and in order for California Chrome to be at his best for the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita on Saturday Art Sherman needed to work his colt last Sunday morning, when the Los Alamitos dark loam surface was closed and sealed tight because of recurrent storms. The rain abated long enough for the track to be opened and a path harrowed to accommodate a work, which California Chrome accomplished in style under his San Felipe jockey, Victor Espinoza.
On Tuesday, after a day off, California Chrome was heading back to the track under exercise rider Willie Delgado, but not before he tossed in an energetic couple of hops on the tow ring with Alan Sherman at the shank. Satisfied, the colt allowed himself to be led to the track where he stood for five minutes, staring at the Quarter Horses come and go, before commencing his jog.
A butterscotch chestnut with flashy white trim, California Chrome has his people believing he is blooming at the right time.
“When you see them every day you don’t notice it as much, but he’s really maturing, thicker all over,” Alan Sherman said. “His blinkers are tight on him now.”
Delgado, younger brother of jockey Alberto Delgado, has been galloping California Chrome since last fall.
“He’s much stronger,” Delgado said. “He really gets into it, and you feel the power.”
These are all hopeful signs for any 3-year-old, but especially one about to be thrown into the deep end of the competitive pool. After winning the seven-furlong King Glorious at Hollywood Park by 6 1/4 lengths and the California Cup Derby at Santa Anita by 5 1/2, California Chrome enters the San Felipe as a colt with a following. Art Sherman, who at 75 has yet to run a horse in the Kentucky Derby, is trying not to get too excited.
“I was just amazed at his last two races,” the trainer said. “All I could think was, ‘Wow, maybe he’s even better than I thought.’ You know when your horse is on the improve, but you never know how much until you see it.
“I know the San Felipe will be tougher,” Sherman added. “But that’s the way it’s supposed to be if you’re on the Derby trail.”
Brad McKinzie will be watching the San Felipe with fingers crossed.
“Obviously, to have a horse on the Derby trail training here right off the bat gives us one little brick in the wall of credibility,” McKinzie said. “If he goes on and does well, that’s only good for us.”
And if he doesn’t? Art Sherman laughed.
“They’ll probably take me off the menu.”