01/06/2017 4:20PM

Hovdey: Chrome bids adieu to his California home

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A dozen or so of California Chrome’s loyal fans were gathered at Art Sherman’s Los Alamitos barn in the wee hours of a chilly Friday morning to pay homage to their chestnut hero as he prepared to leave for Florida and his final start in the Pegasus World Cup on Jan. 28.

It was a little before 2 a.m. The mood was reverent. Then Sherman pulled up in his Mercedes GLC 300, and the party started.

“Are we ready?” Sherman announced, playing to the small crowd.

What began as a melancholy vigil morphed into a milling celebration. Someone produced a tray of cupcakes with each letter of “Good Luck California Chrome” twirled on the frosting. The coffee pot in Sherman’s brightly lit office was drained dry.

The Friday morning flight from Ontario International, just to the east of Santa Anita, aboard the Hubbard Transportation charter would be stopping in El Paso, Texas, before going on to West Palm Beach, Fla., not far from Gulfstream Park.

“It was supposed to stop in New Orleans,” Sherman said. “But that was a no-go because of the herpesvirus quarantine. The second choice was Dallas, but that’s got a snowstorm. In this game, you never know.”

It was the same for California Chrome when he arrived at Sherman’s Hollywood Park barn in March 2013. Undersized and weak behind, he was the product of a small, unaccomplished mare and a California stallion known primarily as a sprinter.

Now, just shy of four years and more than $14 million in earnings later, California Chrome is poised to receive a second Horse of the Year title at the Eclipse Awards dinner on Jan. 21, and then bid farewell as a racehorse the following weekend in the Pegasus.

The clock ticked past 2 a.m. Sherman was getting antsy.

“You know who called me yesterday out of the blue?” Sherman said. “Ron Turcotte.”

Secretariat’s jockey lives in his native New Brunswick, Canada, and has been in a wheelchair since a racing injury in 1978.

“He wanted to congratulate me on what Chrome has done,” Sherman said. “How nice was that? We never rode against each other – I was off to other places by the time he hit New York – but he wanted to tell me how glad he was that an ex-jockey was getting such recognition as a trainer.”

Sherman wandered to the muddy road and gazed through the ghostly backstretch lighting toward the stable gates, looking for the Hubbard horse van.

“They’re late,” he said. “They were supposed to be here at 2:30.”

It was 2:20.

“Early is on time,” Sherman said. “I like to be on time.”

Back in the shed row, Raul Rodriguez, the game’s most famous groom, was putting the finishing touches on his packing. At 2:28, he flicked the switch in California Chrome’s double-wide stall. Snug under a dark blue blanket, California Chrome was spread on his side, his head nearest the back wall. A hind leg twitched in the throes of one last dream, then he sat up, blinked a few times, and reluctantly joined the party.

“It’s amazing how much he has traveled,” Sherman said as Rodriguez put a polish to his horse and produced a fresh, green blanket. “And he just keeps showing up.”

There was the Triple Crown trail, two trips to Dubai, Pennsylvania for its Derby, back and forth to Kentucky twice for R and R, up the road to Harris Farms, down Interstate 5 for key races at Del Mar, across town to Santa Anita, plus that side trip to England, just to train for a while at Newmarket and get his passport stamped.

If Sherman and his crew are going to have any similar adventures soon, they could be courtesy of Dortmund. The 2015 Santa Anita Derby winner, who gave California Chrome a rousing race in the San Diego Stakes last summer, had just joined the barn with a draft of seven horses from owner Kaleem Shah. At that moment, Dortmund was chilling at the back of his stall across the way from the Chrome Suite, oblivious to the hubbub.

“He’ll go right into Chrome’s stall,” Sherman said. “He needs it because he’s so big, and he deserves it, too. Anyway, I don’t think I could stand looking at it empty. But you don’t want to put just any horse in there, after him.”

At 2:43, the big Hubbard rig finally backed into position, and everything began happening at once. Suitcases and trunks were tucked into place. Driver Gregorio Soto lowered the ramp and fitted the guide walls. Hubbard rep Jack Bentley went through his checklist, then it was time. Rodriguez led California Chrome out of his stall, up the ramp, and into the van in what seemed like a single, liquid motion.

“Attaboy,” Sherman said. “Away we go.”

Just like that, it was goodbye, Los Alamitos, and goodbye, California. At 3:10, Soto fired up the powerful motor while Rodriguez stood at the van door, cool as a rock star, grinning and waving adios. That was good enough for the crowd. But then, as the rig began to move, California Chrome lifted his nose to the small sliding window high on the side, peeled back his lips, and bobbed his head up and down to the cheers of the mere mortals on the ground. Sherman had to laugh.

“What a horse,” the trainer said. “What a neat horse.”