By Jeremy Balan
The early Saturday mornings remaining to watch the shiny chestnut with the white blaze train at Los Alamitos Race Course are dwindling.
On most of those weekends, trainer Art Sherman has been out on his perch at Schwanies At The Gap, the trackside grill right on the eighth pole, watching the best horse he’s ever had through his binoculars.
But Sherman has been away for about a month, first recovering from cataract surgery and then to attend to his string at Del Mar while the Southern California circuit raced there.
So as he walked toward Schwanies the morning of Dec. 10, to oversee California Chrome’s final work for the $100,000 Winter Challenge Dec. 17, he was welcomed by the regular weekend cast of characters, eager to wish him well. The contingent of “Chromies” decked out in their normal purple or gray garb greeted the nearly 80-year-old trainer with hugs after he addressed them with a loud “Did you miss me?”
Quarter Horse trainer John Cooper, with his usual “California Chrome” hat on arrived with his usual timing—seconds before the 2014 Horse of the Year broke off to begin his workout.
“Did ya run any last night, Coop?” Sherman asked.
“Ran second and fourth,” the fellow septuagenarian conditioner answered.
With his familiar audience looking on, the seven-time grade/group I winner delivered a familiar performance.
In the spotlight of the Los Alamitos overhead lights, California Chrome stood motionless at the gap for an extended period of time, surveying the domain he’s ruled over since early in 2014. He then backtracked and galloped slowly through the stretch to warm up for his work.
A model of consistency during the mornings at his older age, California Chrome logged his standard slow-early, quick-late breeze. The first quarter went in :24.95 and the half in :48.90. With a quick tap from regular exercise rider Dihigi Gladney at the eighth pole, the 5-year-old son of Lucky Pulpit finished up the five furlongs in 1:00.67 and galloped out to six furlongs in 1:13 2/5.
“I was just reminding him to finish up through that wire,” Gladney said.
“That’s it until next Saturday,” Sherman said of the upcoming Winter Challenge, a special stakes Los Alamitos is putting on specifically to serve as a prep race for the Jan. 28 Pegasus World Cup (gr. I) at Gulfstream Park, California Chrome’s final race of his career. “He’s just so cool and knows what’s happening. He knows when it’s time to go.”
The Winter Challenge has drawn 29 nominations through Dec. 9, including fellow Sherman trainee Mishegas. The reason for the increased interest is Los Alamitos’ offer of $10,000 to any horse who finishes the race, a tactic employed to attract entrants to take on the champ.
“I’m going to run Mishegas—well, he might not even get in now,” Sherman joked.
After the Winter Challenge, California Chrome is expected to get a final local workout in around Dec. 31 before shipping to Gulfstream Jan. 6.
As for the Dec. 17 race, Sherman feels it will only help California Chrome, who can get bored during lengthy stretches of training without a race.
“I haven’t pressed him,” Sherman said of his training for the 1 1/16-mile Winter Challenge. “He was just going a mile and a quarter and now he’s cutting back to a mile and a sixteenth. You want to have your horse kinda fresh, and then he has another six or seven weeks. The timing is great. A horse like him gets a little bored if he doesn’t run—just keeps working and working and working.
“He does what you want him to do, but he can get where he’s not interested if you’re just breezing him and breezing him. Then he gets lazy on you a little bit and putting on weight. This is a good chance for me to keep him tight and fit.”