01/13/2016 12:50PM

Hovdey: California Chrome ready to retake center stage


California Chrome pulled Raul Rodriguez around the Santa Anita walking ring at a double-time hippity-hop last Saturday afternoon as the fans packed along the paddock fence oohed and ahhed. It was like old times.

Good old times, as it turned out. Twenty minutes later, California Chrome was standing in the Santa Anita winner’s circle, catching his breath and twitching his ears, having just dispatched the $200,000 San Pasqual Stakes with just enough authority to convince all but the most skeptical observers that he was back in the game.

The more than nine months that California Chrome had been absent from the races is an eternity in the modern Thoroughbred world. Leave the scene for nine months, and you might as well change your name and fake an accent. A dark corner of the federal witness-protection program does not assure anonymity better than nine months away from competition.

Which is why Art Sherman stood before various microphones, media, and friends last Saturday afternoon breathing a series of heavy post-race sighs, relieved that what he had seen in the morning from California Chrome had been replicated so efficiently in the afternoon.

“You can think you know, and some horses are easier to read than others,” Sherman said. “I thought he’d run a big race. But really, you never know.”

Sherman was offering a refreshing confession from a veteran practitioner of a craft that mixes a maddening cocktail of the straightforward and the complex. Physically, California Chrome was a different horse than the 4-year-old who departed these shores for Dubai and beyond a year ago. Mentally, he could not have been particularly sharp, training in relative isolation each day in the darkness of Los Alamitos.

Then again, the good ones usually listen to their internal bells and whistles rather than the world at large. They are curious but rarely cowed. Coming over for the San Pasqual, California Chrome was every bit the show-off he’d been in the past, taking in the sights and playing to the crowd.

“He’s a horse who loves his job,” said Alan Sherman, Art’s son and assistant. “And he does his job very well.”

There was also the happy coincidence of California Chrome’s return one week before the American Pharoah Awards – er, Eclipse Awards – would be presented on Saturday evening at Gulfstream Park. Although he raced only twice in 2015, without winning, and therefore will play no part in the festivities, Chrome will loom in the background as a potent coming attraction.

Continuity among the stars of racing is a rare gift these days. Followers of the sport pretty much need to punch the reset button as each season dawns. Of the nine other 2014 equine champions who shared the stage with Horse of the Year California Chrome, only one is still in training. That would be Demonstrative, the steeplechase champ, who is an Eclipse Award finalist again for 2015.

There are many miles to travel and train before anyone can take seriously the idea of another Horse of the Year title for California Chrome. Anyway, the odds are stacked against him. In the history of the Horse of the Year title, dating to Granville in 1936, there have been just two horses chosen for the award more than once in non-consecutive seasons.

Since the dawn of the Eclipse Awards in 1971, John Henry has been the only champion with a career of sufficient duration and variety. He was Horse of the Year in 1981 and then again in 1984.

During the pre-Eclipse era, when the Thoroughbred Racing Associations and Daily Racing Form squabbled over the titles, the 2-year-old Native Dancer was held as 1952 Horse of the Year by the TRA after winning all nine of his starts (the Racing Form went with One Count). The Dancer had his best year at age 3, but so did Tom Fool, and the 1953 crown went to the older horse. But then, by way of apology, Native Dancer was the Horse of the Year choice of both groups in 1954 despite his slim record of just three races. Essentially, he got the award for just being Native Dancer.

California Chrome will need to work a whole lot harder than that. If everything goes according to plan, he will have a prep in Dubai in late February or early March and then the $10 million World Cup on March 26. After a freshening back home, there likely would be two races at Del Mar – the San Diego Handicap and the Pacific Classic – and then the Awesome Again Stakes at Santa Anita to get ready for the Breeders’ Cup Classic there Nov. 5.

“Right now, I’m just happy to have a little break after getting him back to the races,” Art Sherman added. “I’m sure he got a little tired, which is okay. It was a different type of track, kind of dull. But the next day, he was playing in his stall. I like to see that.”

It will be American Pharoah’s night on Saturday at the Eclipse Awards, where his name and accomplishments will run like a golden thread through the evening. Sherman will be watching from afar, no doubt flashing back to the same scene a year ago, when California Chrome played the starring role. At the time, the idea that his colt would still be around to race at age 5 as a full-grown Thoroughbred was downright preposterous. But here they are.

“He sure turned into a beautiful horse,” Sherman said. “I can’t wait to see what happens.”