06/03/2014 1:29PM

Hovdey: Delgado high on his big horse

Barbara D. Livingston
Exercise rider Willie Delgado has developed a special bond with California Chrome.

The wondering will continue right up to the moment the gates pop open for the 146th running of the Belmont Stakes late Saturday afternoon.

Why is California Chrome this good? How does he defy the basic principles of trying to breed the best to the best and hope for the best? Where does it say in his trainer’s resume that he’s ever handled anything anywhere near the ability of this particular colt? And where is Los Alamitos, anyway?

The obvious answers have been dismissed. Perry Martin and Steve Coburn, the breeders and owners, did not make a shaky deal with a guy wearing cloven loafers. Art Sherman did not scrape a piece of Swaps DNA from an old boot to create a California clone. And jockey Victor Espinoza does not practice the black arts. He watches Disney cartoons.

:: Click here to purchase a copy of “Long Rein: Tales from the World of Horse Racing,” a collection of columns and features by Jay Hovdey

That leaves only a few simple, unspectacular answers. A good horse can come from anywhere. Nurture sometimes trumps nature. And when presented with a Thoroughbred of transparently natural talent, experienced, diligent caretakers sometimes can plumb the depths of that talent and take that Thoroughbred to surprising heights.

Along with Sherman, his son and assistant Alan, and groom Raul Rodriguez, exercise rider Willie Delgado has been indispensable in the development and ongoing success of California Chrome. On Saturday, Delgado hopes to join an honor roll of exercise riders whose work helped win a Triple Crown, riders like Freeman McMillen with Citation, Charlie Davis with Secretariat, Mike Kennedy with Seattle Slew, Jose ”Tuto” Ithier with Affirmed.

“You really don’t hear that much about the exercise rider,” Delgado said. “I’ve been surprised and really flattered at how much attention I’ve been getting.”

Delgado’s role in the great drama had a typically quiet beginning.

“When I started riding him I rode really long – two holes longer than John Wayne,” Delgado said this week from Belmont Park. “As I built confidence with him and he started maturing and acting more like a racehorse, then I raised my irons a little. That way it was easier on me to hold him without using too much force.

“Once I got him to that point galloping him, when I got to the three-eighths pole and he switched leads I’d chirp to him and let him go on,” Delgado continued. “Then I’d take a long hold and lean back, and when we’d get to the quarter pole I’d chirp again. That way he knows that when he gets to the three-eighths pole he’s got to kick, and then come with another kick at the quarter pole. Now he does it automatically.”

Whether or not anyone else believed it, the Shermans and Delgado figured out early this year that California Chrome could have a Triple Crown campaign in his future. The colt was already racing fit, so Delgado commenced galloping him “East Coast style” to prepare California Chrome for training over the surfaces at Churchill Downs, Pimlico, and Belmont Park.

“The West Coast tracks have a lot less cushion,” Delgado said. “Out there they gallop stronger and breeze faster to get them fit, where on the East Coast the tracks are deeper. You don’t have to do much to get them fit. Think of it like the sand on the beach. You can go five miles on the packed sand and be fine, but go two miles on the deeper sand and you’ll be huffing and puffing. And if you try to go as fast on the deep part as you do on the hard, you’ll pull a hamstring.”

Delgado knows this because he learned his trade in Maryland, where he had a brief career as a jockey, and honed his skills at Maryland’s Fair Hill Training Center as well as Florida’s horse-rich region around Ocala. During his more recent sojourn to California, Delgado worked for trainer Richard Baltas before hiring on with the Sherman barn, where a young horse was becoming a handful.

“I got on the horse and Alan liked what he saw,” Delgado said. “The second horse I got on was California Chrome.”

Several months later, the colt delivered Delgado a nifty 46th birthday present by winning the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita, on March 8.

“Me and him have a relationship I never thought I could have with a horse,” Delgado said. “I get goose bumps just talking about it. He actually listens to my voice. These last few days I’ve been telling him to relax, settle down, because he wants to run so bad. But he listens, and that way I don’t have to stand up, or pull with my arms, or do much with my hands. I might shift my weight back a little is all, and he knows it’s time to slow down.”

Now it’s time to deliver. California Chrome is playing the biggest road game of his young life, and only Delgado knows how the colt has been handling the unique conditions of Belmont Park.

“It took us a good two days to figure out the track,” Delgado said. “Me especially. I was lost out there. Will this track never end? But a week in, he already knew where the poles were, when to stop pulling on me. That’s when I said to Alan, ‘They’re running for second,’ and Alan says, ‘Oh, man, don’t be so cocky.’”

Delgado paused for effect.

“I said I wasn’t being cocky,” he added. “Just confident.”