10/30/2014 2:36PM

California Chrome runs for the gold

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Barbara D. Livingston
California Chrome is back racing at Santa Anita, where earlier this year he won the San Felipe and Santa Anita Derby.

It was a sight for sore eyes. California Chrome was putting on a show Tuesday in the Santa Anita saddling barn, up on his hind legs, manhood on display, giving Alan Sherman fits on the ground and Willie Delgado all he could handle at the wheel.

“The reins were in my lap,” said Delgado, the man with the slick red chaps. “I had ahold of mane with one hand and used the other to push him away from the partition. Did I have him? Sure, I had him, just like he had me.”

This was the California Chrome his tribe had been waiting for – a sign that their Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner had shaken the cobwebs of his Triple Crown letdown and was back to the colt they knew last winter. A video of the moment went gleefully viral, and the message was clear: California Chrome was home, back at the track where he ripped through three straight victories in January, March, and April before heading east; where he would be facing his greatest challenge yet in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic four days hence.

“I heard about it,” said Art Sherman, who was training his horses across town at Los Alamitos the morning California Chrome schooled. “But I don’t think I wanted to see it. Just tell me he’s all right. Then I thought, ‘It looks like what I’ve been seeing in his training is for real.’ ”

A few hours later, California Chrome was sacked out in his Santa Anita stall, head deep in the straw and dreaming horsey dreams.

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“Was he snoring?” asked co-owner Steve Coburn later. “He will give you a pretty good snore. I just love to watch him sleep.”

Whether California Chrome is at rest or on his hind legs, to suggest that the colt is the top draw on Breeders’ Cup weekend is only a slight exaggeration. Without Wise Dan in the mix, no American runner owns a fraction of California Chrome’s name recognition. There is no Goldikova on the scene from Europe, no superstar from Japan. The event needs California Chrome as much as California Chrome needs the Breeders’ Cup to revitalize his reputation – hard-earned but distant – as the best 3-year-old in the land.

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When California Chrome and Victor Espinoza enter the starting gate for the Classic, at about half past 5 on Saturday afternoon, it will have been 173 days since they stood atop the sports world in the winner’s circle at Pimlico, with only three weeks and the 1 1/2 miles of the Belmont Stakes between them and Triple Crown immortality.

That they failed to win the Belmont was not a surprise, given the fact that no horse has won the Triple Crown since 1978. But the loss seemed to come with an extra dose of bitters. California Chrome, a child of Facebook, Twitter, and all things Internet, carried with him the hopes and dreams of an emotionally fragile audience, whose expectations ranged from the unreasonable to the surreal.

Once California Chrome was beaten by Tonalist, Commissioner, and Medal Count in the Belmont, the bandwagon emptied faster than a classroom on the last day of school. Horseplayers decried the colt’s inability to overcome racing strife. Bluegrass breeders claimed he finally stepped on his modest West Coast beginnings. And everybody jumped on Espinoza for his ride, even after California Chrome came back bleeding from a foot.

It did not help that Coburn took the opportunity to defend California Chrome by flaming, live and in color, the format of the Triple Crown. Thankfully, there were a few sane voices crying in the wilderness. Charles P. Pierce, a political writer who knows his racing, bore witness to the Belmont in a column on the website Grantland.

“The Triple Crown is not one event,” Pierce wrote. “It is three unique events leading to a single achievement, closer to winning a grand slam in tennis or golf than it is to anything else. Different races, different tracks, different challenges every year, and the last certainly always should include looking around the starting gate at Belmont and seeing horses you haven’t seen before. People came to Belmont on Saturday to watch a champion run. They got what they paid for. He just didn’t win, is all.”

For better or worse – and he has earned more than $3.3 million for Coburn and partner Perry Martin – California Chrome has been saddled with the evolving double standard being applied to the brilliant springtime 3-year-olds of recent years. If they disappear after the Belmont for one reason or another (Charismatic, Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex), they will continue to live on in the glow of warm memory. If they continue to campaign, however, they had better keep winning (Point Given, Big Brown) lest their earlier accomplishments be judged in a far less favorable light.

And lord help them if another 3-year-old emerges to take the breath away.

California Chrome was at the farm of his birth, grazing on the thirsty pastures of Harris Farms in central California, when Shared Belief emerged from his cocoon to win the Los Alamitos Derby in early July, running out of a stall in the Art Sherman barn, no less. Suddenly, California Chrome was not just yesterday’s news. He was on his way to playing second fiddle to a horse who strayed nowhere near a Triple Crown event.

When California Chrome was on his roll of six straight between the end of December and that glorious afternoon at Pimlico, Sherman was playing a stock that doubled in value with every race. His job was to keep doing more of the same, pulled along by a colt in the throes of a robust maturity that dwarfed the available opposition.

Since California Chrome returned to training in late July, Sherman has been patiently buffing away the rust, letting the colt find his way. The trip to Parx in September for the Pennsylvania Derby was unsatisfying – he finished sixth to Bayern – but significant. Espinoza contends that the colt was not 100 percent fit and therefore rode him carefully at the end. Sherman, 77, a former jockey who has heard it all before, argues that California Chrome was not undertrained for the trip east. But he was less than ready between the ears. The fire from the Santa Anita and Kentucky Derby had yet to be lit.

Now, it looks like the fuse is on the burn, and Sherman is convinced that the world will see a new version of the old California Chrome.

“I see it in his gallops,” the trainer said. “I see it in the way he goes after his feed. The way he acts around the barn. He’s just such a neat horse and such a smart horse. I hope I’m right, but I know he’s ready.”

The training profession is lonely, most of the dialogue is internal, and the spoken word has very little value until the horse goes out and backs it up. That is why Sherman did not mind that Los Alamitos was nearly deserted on the Saturday morning before the Classic, when California Chrome was getting his final exercise at speed. Sherman perched at the west end of the grandstand to observe the move, and as Espinoza guided the colt down the long backstretch and around the far turn, the only sounds to be heard were the chirping of a few infield birds and the soft “beep” of Sherman’s stopwatch as he clicked off the splits.

“I’ve been kind of reserved till now,” Sherman said after the work was done, smiling his lopsided smile. “Then I saw him on one line as high as fourth choice.”

California Chrome ended up the second choice at 4-1 on the official Classic morning line.

“Even so,” Sherman said, “I might have to take the rubber band off the bankroll.”