01/30/2017 3:00PM

Hovdey: Chrome goes out with a flicker rather than a blaze

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Barbara D. Livingston
California Chrome takes his last turns around the shed row after the Pegasus World Cup.

Sometime around 7 p.m. last Saturday, Raul Rodriguez was informed that he had won the $100 prize for the groom with the best-turned-out horse in the paddock for the $12 million Pegasus World Cup.

“Oh, yeah?” Rodriguez said, looking up from his work. “That’s good.”

A hundred bucks is a hundred bucks. But as consolations go, the news came as but a tiny drop in a deep bucket of disappointment and sadness. For nearly four years, California Chrome had been the canvas on which Rodriguez had painted his masterpiece, and now that masterpiece was in the stall next to a tack room in Gulfstream’s Barn 2, head down, right knee filled, surrounded by family and friends murmuring in the darkness.

They knew what happened. They had ideas as to when it happened. And they knew why it happened, because Thoroughbreds risk injury from the moment they stir each morning. As to why what happened had to happen on this day of days, when California Chrome appeared to be ready to end his career with a race that mirrored some of the best he’d ever run, there was no reasonable answer.

For weeks, he had telegraphed that all was well. From the moment Art Sherman joined his son Alan in town, there had been three sets of hands on all four legs every day. And despite the increasing crowds around the barn as the day of the Pegasus neared, the crew and their security minders were able to keep people reasonably at bay.

“I’ve got a really good feeling,” Art Sherman said three days out. “A feeling like he might really do something special.”

After three seasons in the limelight, California Chrome’s rituals had become widely known. His predawn gallops followed the familiar arc during race week, tapering to a wrong-way jog the morning of the race that was, for rider Dihigi Gladney, like wrestling a lit fuse.

“You want to sell that saddle on eBay, leave the stains on,” Gladney said, beaming his trademark grin. “It’ll bring more money.”

Bath, walk, rinse the feet, and put him away. Tick-tock the morning went by like clockwork, although California Chrome was not pleased to be led out of his stall for the required examination by the official veterinarian.

“Whoa!” cried out Alan Sherman as the red horse pulled Rodriguez down the shed row at an explosive trot and tried to make the sunlit exit gap. The vet made them return and do it again, slower this time.

Later in the morning, as fans began to arrive at the track, California Chrome was given a fresh set of racing plates from his regular farrier, Judd Fisher, who had flown in from California the night before. If you would like to describe a job filled with pressure, try pounding nails into the feet of a horse about to run for a $7 million prize. Fisher was asked if this last shoeing felt any different.

“No,” he replied. “But I’m glad it’s over.”

And then came the long wait for the last hurrah. No detail had been neglected, no superstition left unchecked. Gladney was wearing his California Chrome tie of many colors. Bob Hawkins, Alan Sherman’s good friend, wore the vintage Nikes last seen at the track the day in 1989 when Alan won two races – as a jockey. And there was even a blessing from a pigeon in the barn rafters, who dropped one with uncanny precision down the back of Rodriguez’s neck as he held Chrome for his shoeing.

At 5 o’clock sharp, with Rodriguez at the shank and Gladney with a strap on the right, California Chrome came to a dead stop on the walk from the backside and stared at the packed grandstand in the distance, ears cocked. Alan Sherman waved the others on – Shaman Ghost, Keen Ice, Noble Bird – until California Chrome continued to rising cheers from fans on the rail.

Even with traces of foamy sweat between his back legs, California Chrome earned that $100 for Rodriguez as he entered the packed amphitheater paddock. Once on the track, he had several more moments of reflective stillness under Victor Espinoza, who finally had to make his horse giddy-up to the starting gate. There, Chrome spun and tossed his head before entering – “That was unusual,” Espinoza said later – as the crowd pressed close to his No. 12 stall.

His race did not last long. California Chrome broke with a leap, then was hustled for position to the ridiculously close first turn. Somehow, Espinoza managed to have his horse only four paths deep. Up in the stands, Art Sherman allowed himself a brief spasm of relief.

“Now it’s up to the horse,” he thought.

In fact, things were already going wrong, and by the time the field reached the half-mile marker, California Chrome’s career was done.

“I had Arrogate right where I wanted him, to the inside, then I had no horse,” Espinoza said.

That was that. California Chrome’s final line will read “9th, beaten 29 1/2 lengths,” which is a shame for a horse of such consistent generosity. Still, they call it a Hollywood ending for a reason, because Hollywood rarely calls.

Damascus, wearing front bandages, was a shadow of his greatness when he was eased not far into the 1968 Jockey Club Gold Cup, the final start of his Hall of Fame career, and finished in a jog. Because of his ankles, every race could have been Forego’s last, but he was owed a more noble send-off than his surrender in the Belmont slop in the 1978 Suburban Handicap, finishing a pole behind Upper Nile. And who would argue that Lady’s Secret didn’t deserve a better valedictory than her last dance, a modest Saratoga allowance, when she bolted around the first turn?

However, given his history, it was reasonable to expect that California Chrome would go out guns blazing, win or lose. Seabiscuit, Native Diver, Secretariat, Affirmed, John Henry, Alysheba – they all made their final bows in a winner’s circle somewhere – while stars like Cigar, Zenyatta, and Rachel Alexandra may have narrowly lost the last battle but already had won the war.

“Chrome doesn’t owe me a thing,” Alan Sherman said Saturday evening as he watched his horse begin to show signs of life even with a touchy knee.

“I just feel so bad for the horse,” said Art Sherman, for whom Chrome’s soundness was a point of particular pride. “And for all his fans that they didn’t get to see the real Chrome one more time.”

His sorrow was palpable even in light of all the history he made with the colt from California’s Central Valley. Somehow, Sherman managed a smile as he gathered for one last family photo, including his great-grandson Logan, around California Chrome’s stall. Then it was time to go.

“Padron,” said Rodriguez, placing a hand on Sherman’s arm. “It’s okay. Now you train his babies.”