01/07/2016 3:51PM

California Chrome returns, seeks to reclaim spotlight


CYPRESS, Calif. – After an odyssey that took him from California to Dubai to England to Illinois and then Kentucky, California Chrome is back in his home state and ready to return to action, and those closest to him are hoping he can pick up right where he left off, beginning in the Grade 2, $200,000 San Pasqual Stakes on Saturday at Santa Anita.

Turns out, you can go home again. The prodigal son has returned here to Los Alamitos, from where the father-and-son team of trainer Art Sherman and his assistant, Alan, launched California Chrome’s trip into the stratosphere in 2014, when he won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, came within two lengths of sweeping the Triple Crown, and was named Horse of the Year.

That spotlight was yielded in 2015, a year in which California Chrome made just two starts, failed to win, and saw the rope holding his ownership group fray and then break. He was out of sight, out of mind, the second half of the year, what with Triple Crown winner American Pharoah casting a giant shadow over the sport.

Now, though, with American Pharoah having been retired to stud, California Chrome is in position to reclaim the mantle as the most popular horse in training. It’s an exciting scenario, especially to jockey Victor Espinoza, who rode California Chrome in 2014, American Pharoah in 2015, and now is back with California Chrome for 2016. Reunited, and it feels so good.

“I thought California Chrome, he will never be able to come back to race again, and I thought it was a bummer that he was done and I didn’t say bye to him,” said Espinoza, who initially feared that California Chrome would be headed to stud at the end of 2015. “Next thing I know, he’s coming back, and he looks great, and now he’s gonna run again.”

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California Chrome’s presence has put a spring in the step of those at the Sherman barn.

“When he’s not around, I really miss him,” Art Sherman said. “You have your star back. It means a lot for the stable to have a horse like Chrome in it. He’s got such a great following, and he’s such a cool horse to be around.”

Having California Chrome back is “great,” said Alan Sherman, who said it’s a “pretty big, empty void when he’s gone. It’s really nice to have him back.”

The scope of California Chrome’s popularity extends far beyond the Shermans. Visitors arrive daily to see California Chrome at the barn, and there are regular deliveries of fan mail and horse cookies for California Chrome.

“He’s the people’s horse, he really is,” Art Sherman said. “I get cookies in the mail, Mrs. Pasture’s cookies. And all kinds of cards with Chrome’s name on it. He’s got such a fan base, from all over the United States, it’s unbelievable, and even foreign countries, like back in Europe. Postcards from England and France. He’s really a celebrity.”

Even with California Chrome regularly training and working around dawn, his fans – the Chromies – have come out in droves.

“We’ve had old faces come out to see him again,” said Anna Wells, an exercise rider for the Shermans. “We’ve always had new people eager to see him. I’ve never seen anyone so excited to see a horse.

“People come from all over the world just to look at him in the stall. I love people coming out to see such a cool horse,” she said. “It’s crazy. I’ve never seen people come out just to watch a horse breeze. Especially right now, we’re doing it early in the morning, at 5:30, and there are still fans that cover the entire stretch of the track, and that’s crazy. Who wants to get up at that hour? Obviously, they’re die-hards for California Chrome. They come out in all their Chrome gear, so that’s great to see.”

“All the Chromies,” Espinoza said, “they’re so excited to see him run, come back, for this year.”

They will see a California Chrome, now age 5, who is much more physically mature than he was during his Triple Crown run. The downtime last summer and fall in Kentucky at Taylor Made Farm – which bought out former minority owner Steve Coburn and partnered with majority owner Perry Martin – was beneficial.

“Physically, he’s gotten a lot bigger, a lot stronger,” Alan Sherman said. “Taylor Made did an absolutely wonderful job putting the weight on him and freshening him up at the farm. Attitude-wise, he’s a lot more aggressive, kinda turned into a man now. He’s not a boy anymore.”

“He’s turned out to be a beautiful horse,” Art Sherman said. “He looks like a stallion. I look at him now, from when he was a 2-year-old, it’s awesome to see the difference, what three years will make with a horse.”

California Chrome has had a sharp series of drills for his return.

His training has largely gone to plan, save for one morning in mid-December when he nearly collided with a loose horse trained by Jerry Hollendorfer.

“All of a sudden, I see this horse peel out of the pack, and he’s coming right at me, and my first instinct is just bolt straight to the rail,” said Dihigi Gladney, California Chrome’s current exercise rider. “And the thing about Chrome, he’s not afraid of anything. This horse sees danger come, he wants to run to it, not away from it.”

“He ran right in front of Chrome, and I about had a heart attack,” Alan Sherman said.

Now that the prep work is done, it’s time to see if California Chrome is as good a racehorse as he was all those months ago. Though he has not won a race since the Hollywood Derby at Del Mar in November 2014, both of his 2015 efforts were solid – a second behind Shared Belief in the San Antonio and a second in the Dubai World Cup.

Espinoza has been doing his homework, recalling the quirks he’s learned about California Chrome that he needs to be cognizant of in his races, beginning with the San Pasqual.

“For me, during the race, my biggest challenge has always been, for him, he’s so excited to be in there in the race, and in the gate, that he can’t wait to break out of there,” Espinoza said. “For that reason, he’s always moving around. That’s my biggest challenge, that I have to be prepared and be with him so I don’t miss a step, because one wrong step, that’s it, it could cost me the break.”

Once the race starts, California Chrome “likes to be in the group, next to the other horses,” Espinoza said.

“If he’s right next to the other horses, he loves that. He likes the challenge, to be right next to them,” Espinoza said. “The other thing I discovered he doesn’t like really much – and it’s only certain places on the racetrack – when it’s the turns, when he’s a little tight close to the rail, he don’t like that. Even if he’s in the backside or the stretch, he don’t mind. But just in the turns, for some reason, he just doesn’t like to be close to the rail.”

The Shermans have mapped out a tentative plan for 2016. After the San Pasqual, California Chrome will return to Dubai. He is scheduled to depart Jan. 21.

“Obviously, the Dubai World Cup is the main goal,” Alan Sherman said. “We’re gonna get one race, possibly two into him before then. It’ll be a fun trip to Dubai this year. I kinda know a little bit more about it. Won’t be a deer in the headlights this year.”

Unlike last year, though, California Chrome will return to California after Dubai and be rested for a summer and fall campaign whose main goals are the Pacific Classic at Del Mar and the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita.

It’s an ambitious schedule, but if California Chrome can make all those dances, it could be 2014 all over again. Regardless, Art Sherman is glad he’s back.

“This game needs heroes, and I think he could be one of the heroes again,” Sherman said. “I know he’s my hero.”

Video by Molly McGill