01/21/2015 3:23PM

Hovdey: California Chrome brings the gold trophy back to California


Imagine his surprise the other night when Jay Robbins was sitting at home in Carlsbad, Calif., not far from Del Mar, innocently enjoying the broadcast of the Eclipse Awards on HRTV and getting a kick out of California Chrome being named 2014 Horse of the Year.

As the Chrome crew made its way to the stage to accept the golden trophy, led by trainer Art Sherman and co-owner Steve Coburn, Robbins heard broadcast announcer Larry Collmus introduce the newly crowned champion as “the first-ever California-bred to win the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year.”

How soon they forget.

Tiznow, trained by Robbins to a Horse of the Year title in 2000, not only was the first California-bred Horse of the Year during the era of the Eclipse Awards, he was bred, foaled, and raised at Harris Farms in the Central Valley – the same Harris Farms where California Chrome hit the ground running.

Such slights are to be expected. Never mind being bred out West, a Horse of the Year even trained in California doesn’t come around much anymore. There was Zenyatta, sure, and now California Chrome. But before Tiznow, the clock needs to be turned back to 1989, when Sunday Silence was Horse of the Year after a memorable rivalry with Easy Goer.

Beyond his birthplace, what should be celebrated is that California Chrome is still in training at all, and nearly ready to begin his 4-year-old season Feb. 7 in the San Antonio Stakes at Santa Anita Park.

Racing fans have grown numb through the years from the steady march of popular young horses to stud. Little wonder that a round of cynical applause greeted the decision to keep Curlin in the game at age 4 after his Horse of the Year campaign at 3. There had to be a catch, and there was. His owner, Jess Jackson, burned with the desire to watch his champion run.

The same goes for Perry Martin and Coburn, whose ambitions for California Chrome know no bounds. And the same went for Michael Cooper and the family of Cecelia Straub-Rubens, who were anxious to see what the 4-year-old version of Tiznow would be like after earning 2000 Horse of the Year.

Physically, you’d never confuse the two. Tiznow, a dark bay, was an imposing presence both at rest and in motion, with a large frame into which he grew dramatically at age 4. California Chrome, a burnished chestnut, leans more toward the average size and looks his best at a gallop or a dead run. Both were by well-bred though not highly fashionable stallions (Cee’s Tizzy and Lucky Pulpit). And both were trained to their Horse of the Year titles by respected West Coast trainers with relatively small stables.

Robbins had every reason to believe that Tiznow could rock and roll in 2001 the way he did in 2000, when he won 5 of 9, including the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and had him back in the game right away, winning the San Fernando Stakes at Santa Anita on Jan. 12 in his first start of the new year.

Then, reality set in. There ensued over the next 9 1/2 months a series of hurdles that had his people wondering nearly every day what might come next. The fact that Tiznow emerged at the end of 2001 a champion once again, although not Horse of the Year, is testimony to both their patience and persistence. Robbins can recite the list.

“It started out with a quarter crack, two actually, and he still managed to win the Santa Anita Handicap,” the trainer said. “Then he ended up with a back problem that was very difficult to diagnose.”

How difficult? For a while, Tiznow’s problem stumped even Dr. Jack Robbins, the trainer’s father and one of the most highly regarded diagnosticians the profession has ever known.

“They thought maybe it was a displaced vertebra that caused a pinched nerve,” Jay Robbins said. “All we could do was walk him and treat him with heat. He started to show improvement after a few months, and we went back to training him. Then, the psychological problems began.”

This qualifies as an understatement. Tiznow, always headstrong, would flat out refuse to train. Robbins and jockey Chris McCarron used every trick in the book to put Tiznow in the mood, but at 1,200 pounds of stallion, he always won. He did enough, though, to get back to the races with a close third to Lido Palace in the Woodward Stakes at Belmont Park on Sept. 8 and was due to fly back to California three days later.

History intervened, and Tiznow was stranded in New York by the events of Sept. 11, 2001 – stranded being a relative term since he was being cared for at Belmont by Shug McGaughey and his crew. Two weeks later, Tiznow was back home, but a so-so third in the Goodwood and yet another weird workout did nothing to encourage his chances for a repeat in the Classic, to be run at Belmont Park.

That is why his victory that day over the Arc winner Sakhee remains one of the most emotional moments in the history of the Breeders’ Cup. And it didn’t matter one bit where he was bred.