03/18/2015 12:21PM

Hovdey: California Chrome, Lea begin long quest for riches

Barbara D. Livingston
Trainer Art Sherman believes California Chrome is "dead fit" and ready for his start in the $10 million Dubai World Cup on March 28.

With the mixed feelings of a man about to plunge into the dark unknown, Art Sherman bade a temporary farewell to California Chrome on Tuesday morning at Los Alamitos while keeping clear of the crew loading the 2014 Horse of the Year onto a van parked in a remote corner of the stables.

“I get too nervous with all that kind of stuff,” Sherman said. “It’s for the best if I just stay out of their way. Otherwise, it might be contagious.”

Sherman was dealing with what was merely the first leg of a long journey to Dubai, where California Chrome will compete in the 20th running of the $10 million Dubai World Cup on the evening of March 28, Dubai time (11 hours later than Pacific time). California Chrome will be running a counterclockwise 2,000 meters over a recently installed sand-based main track. The money needs no conversion, although the 2,000 meters was a different story.

“Just a shade under the mile and a quarter,” Sherman said, showing off his metric chops.

To be precise, 38 feet and 4 inches shy of 1 1/4 miles, but that was the least of Sherman’s concerns. The trainer has convinced himself that California Chrome was not at his physical peak when he was second to Shared Belief in the Feb. 7 San Antonio Stakes, California Chrome’s first start since late November.

“He’s dead fit now,” the trainer said. “The track at Los Alamitos can fool you. It’s a fast surface, and a horse has to work that much faster to get enough out of it. That wasn’t happening before the San Antonio. You could see it in the way he made the lead so easy, then his legs got wobbly near the end. But in his works since then, we took care of it.”

Trainers love to tinker and fine tune. That’s what they get paid for – that and snappy one-liners. Sherman’s ingrained concern was understandable, given the challenge of sending a horse more than 8,000 miles to run at night in the desert. But compared to the questions hounding the first marquee American horse to try the Dubai World Cup, California Chrome’s preparation has been a breeze.

The inaugural World Cup was run March 27, 1996, and all eyes were on Cigar, the 1995 North American Horse of the Year. Cigar began 1996 by winning the Donn Handicap at Gulfstream on Feb. 10, but then, 11 days later, trainer Bill Mott found an abscess in the same right front foot that had sustained a quarter crack four months earlier. The abscess was drained, and the weak spot was patched, and for the next 10 days, Cigar did nothing but walk.

Cigar was scheduled to depart for Dubai on March 16, an unshakable date. Mott finally was able to work his horse March 13, and then again on the morning of the flight. That night, Mott stood on the tarmac and waved at the cargo jet as it disappeared in the distance, bearing the best horse he would ever train. Later, Mott shared what he was thinking at the time.

“We missed a dozen days of training,” Mott said. “He’s wearing a patch. He’s had just two works in the last month ... and there he goes. I guess you have to call that unconventional training.”

Call it whatever you want, it worked. Cigar defeated fellow American Soul of the Matter by half a length in a brave performance that was hailed far and wide. Now, Mott is returning to Dubai with Lea, the runner-up to Constitution in last month’s Donn Handicap, after two unsuccessful runs at the World Cup with the champion mare Royal Delta over Meydan’s recently replaced Tapeta surface. Mott also finished seventh in 2003 with longshot Blue Burner.

“We’re going back with a dirt horse for the dirt,” Mott said. “I don’t know if he’s gotten his fair amount of attention because he’s a very special horse with a wonderful disposition. He should be a very good traveler.”

Mott didn’t spend too much time agonizing over Lea’s second in the Donn.

“I thought he had an okay trip,” Mott said. “He maybe didn’t get off the rail to go after the leader as soon as we’d have wanted, but take nothing away from the winner. Lea ran a good race – he just didn’t win.”

California Chrome crossed Mott’s radar a few times last spring as the colt prepared for the Belmont Stakes.

“He obviously handles travel pretty well,” Mott said. “And he’s a nice horse. Seems like he’s always a part of the action.”

Mott also is looking forward to meeting Sherman, who will be taking his first horse abroad. Mott was asked if there was any advice he might give the 78-year-old rookie.

“If Sheikh Mohammed asks you to come ride a camel in the desert, pass,” Mott said. “I was in a bunch who did it that first year. John Gosden and Simon Crisford fell off. Kiaran McLaughlin came back with blood running down the back of both pant legs. I stayed up, but believe me, I was never so glad to get off anything in my life.”

Fair warning, but how about tips for Sherman on priming a Horse of the Year to win the World Cup? A mischievous Mott wasn’t sure Sherman needed any help.

“Maybe I can critique him after the race,” Mott said.