By Jay Hovdey
There is an old-fashioned reliability about California Chrome that is taken for granted in this age of speed figures and big-day performances.
Put it this way: In a career of 23 races dating to his maiden special weight debut at Hollywood Park on April 26, 2013, California Chrome has never missed a start while under the training and management of Art Sherman and his crew.
The only time California Chrome had to bow out of a commitment was at Royal Ascot in June 2015, when he had been removed from the Sherman stable and trained in Newmarket, England. California Chrome’s scratch from the Prince of Wales’s Stakes was a humiliating blow for Sherman, whose name was still associated with the champion despite an absence of more than two months from his care.
Once California Chrome was returned to the Sherman stable last October, Sherman laid out a campaign for 2016 by the seasons, each season geared toward winning a major prize. The winter aimed for the $10 million Dubai World Cup with a comeback in the San Pasqual at Santa Anita and a minor prep in Dubai. Bull’s-eye. The spring was for World Cup recovery, followed by two races during the summer at Del Mar in the San Diego Handicap and the $1 million Pacific Classic. Nailed them both.
Now comes the autumn and Sherman’s two-step to the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 5. Step 1 comes Saturday in the $300,000 Awesome Again Stakes at Santa Anita, a race the trainer does not take lightly, even though he could if he wanted. Facing basically the same West Coast horses he has tamed three times this year, Sherman was asked if he was torn between letting California Chrome coast to a conservative score or uncork a doozy in hopes of scaring off Breeders’ Cup competition.
“I don’t know – what do you think?” he replied, keeping his cards close. “I’m just hoping the race goes. The racing secretary said he’d run if he had to.”
No doubt, Sherman has been blessed with a superior racehorse of intrinsic soundness, robust health, and strong recuperative powers. But the trainer takes nothing for granted.
“I think we’ve done a lot to make sure he stays the way he is,” Sherman said last weekend, shortly after California Chrome turned in his final work at Los Alamitos for the Awesome Again. “The double-wide stall he loves. The attention he gets from all our people. After every race, he gets X-rayed to make sure nothing’s changed. We take blood all the time to tell us if what we see is the real thing, because the good ones will sometimes fool you, and we don’t want something sneaking up on us.”
The Awesome Again, a 1 1/8-mile race under allowance weight conditions, used to be a handicap called the Goodwood. The name was easy to lose since there was no reason to continue to honor the relationship between the Oak Tree Racing Association and Goodwood Racecourse in England once Oak Tree had been booted from its lease at Santa Anita Park.
Oak Tree persists as a charitable entity by sponsoring meets at the Alameda County Fairgrounds in Pleasanton, Calif., so it is out of the big-race business. Goodwood, on the other hand, continues to run the Group 3 Oak Tree Stakes during its Glorious Goodwood meet in late July, further evidence as to why there will always be an England.
Everyone appreciates that Awesome Again’s 1997 record of six wins in six starts – including the Stephen Foster, the Whitney, and the Breeders’ Cup Classic – should have earned him some kind of recognition beyond a place in the Canadian Hall of Fame. And no one has anything but admiration for Awesome Again as a stallion who boasts sons and daughters like Ghostzapper, Game On Dude, Ginger Punch, Round Pond, Awesome Gem, and Oxbow.
We also get it that Frank Stronach raced Awesome Again and stands him at his Adena Springs Farm in Kentucky, and Santa Anita is Stronach’s racetrack. Still, the renaming would have gone down a whole lot easier if Awesome Again had run at least once at Santa Anita, which he did not.
You could slap the name of Trump University on Saturday’s race, and it wouldn’t make any difference to California Chrome. The last time he failed to fire his best shot was in the 2014 Pennsylvania Derby, when the size of the purse and the bonuses attached got the better of his people. Given the rare chance of campaigning a mature, 5-year-old stallion, Sherman awakens each day like a man with the weight of the game on his shoulders.
“He’s so honest, so straightforward, you just want to always do right by him, and for his fans,” Sherman said. “I think we have, but we’ve got a couple more challenges to go.”
Sherman stared off in the direction of California Chrome as he headed back to the stables after a work, then turned to his phone and punched in the clocker’s number.
“That’s what I got,” Sherman said, and then hung up.
“The clocker told me I’m getting better at the poles,” Sherman said with a wink. “He even offered me a job. Who knows, I might need one after Chrome’s gone. But I don’t want to think about that just yet.”