08/18/2016 1:16PM

Hovdey: In Jalisco, there's a house that Chrome built


There is a chance that the season could peak too soon on Saturday afternoon, when the darlings of the American turf – Songbird, California Chrome, and Beholder – will be competing coast to coast.

Songbird is laying her unbeaten record on the line in the Alabama Stakes at Saratoga, a 10-furlong race that has been won by so many fabulous fillies that it saves time to note only those who made it all the way to the Hall of Fame. There have been a cool dozen.

The Pacific Classic will not be run until 6:15 Pacific on Saturday evening, and already local historians are making room for the 2016 version alongside the 1938 Del Mar match race between Seabiscuit and Ligaroti, the last hurrah of 8-year-old Native Diver in the 1967 Del Mar Handicap, and the epic duel between champion Paseana and the unwavering Exchange in the 1994 Chula Vista Handicap.

And that’s okay. When a Horse of the Year like California Chrome meets a three-time champion like Beholder, attention must be paid. Too many arguments have been left unsettled in recent years when top runners failed to intersect: Ghostzapper and Smarty Jones, Mineshaft and Pleasantly Perfect, Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra. So, cherish the moment.

There will be betting, of course, and good luck to those who view Beholder as a freak of nature who would be unbeatable if she repeats her 2015 Classic performance. Backers of California Chrome need little justification, especially at level weights and at a distance over which he has earned most of his record $12.6 million. Then comes Dortmund and his mammoth stride, emerging this year from the wings of the American Pharoah show to cast his own giant shadow.

Don’t bother asking Raul Rodriguez whom he likes. He is too busy fussing with California Chrome’s hourly needs to tout the obvious. For 3 1/2 years, Rodriguez has been the man in the stall, at the shank, in the van, and on the plane.

For what it’s worth, Rodriguez noted that California Chrome was understandably tired after his win over Dortmund in the San Diego Handicap last month, Chrome’s first race since winning the Dubai World Cup in March.

“Then he trained even better, even stronger after that,” Rodriguez said, which is exactly how it’s supposed to work.

Rodriguez is the patriarch of a family that has become admired at the highest levels of the game. Raul and his wife, Florentina, have three sons. Raul Jr. grooms for the Art and Alan Sherman stable, while Freddy and Edgar are exercise riders for Jerry Hollendorfer. If the name Edgar Rodriguez rings a bell, it should since he is the man atop Songbird every day.

“I had an empty stall,” Rodriguez replied when asked how he came to be California Chrome’s groom. “Everybody else was full. I had one horse just go to the farm, so they gave him to me.”

Of such whimsical twists legends are born. No doubt Rodriguez took one look at the chestnut 2-year-old with the wide blaze and four stockings and immediately thought, “Champion!”

“He was so little – this high, like a donkey,” Rodriguez said, holding his hand to the level of his Tom Selleck moustache.

“The girl who breezed him the first time told me he was a stakes horse,” Rodriguez said. “I said, ‘No, I don’t think so.’ ”

His skepticism made sense. Stakes horses are how grooms make any money above and beyond their basic wage, and Rodriguez, hardly a rookie, saw no reason to get excited until there was good cause. At that point, the best horse he’d rubbed was Siren Lure, the former claimer Sherman turned into a Grade 1 winner and earner of nearly a million dollars.

“The second time he breezed, Art said to me he could be a good one,” Rodriguez said. “He was very tough in the stall, always kicking. Not me, but he tried. Anyone else went to do his stall, I said, ‘Let me do it.’ ”

It was late morning early in Pacific Classic week, and Rodriguez was taking a break in a camp chair outside the Sherman tack room. At one point in the conversation, California Chrome came to his webbing, as if stepping up in his own defense. But in fact, he had caught wind of a horse passing by, and, well, California Chrome was compelled to let the stranger know who was boss.

California Chrome became a stakes horse by winning the Graduation for California-breds at Del Mar 37 months ago. Now, Rodriguez can sweep through the photos on his smartphone to display his travels with Chrome – Kentucky, New York, England, Dubai, and then Dubai again. He also will share pictures of his ranch in southwestern Mexico, some 80 acres of rolling land near the Rio Verde in the state of Jalisco. Thank you, California Chrome.

Here is the three-bedroom house Rodriguez built with attached double garage. Here is the brick barn for his horses and the high-walled corral for his white beef cattle. Here is the iron gate to Rancho Rodriguez, flanked by brick pillars topped with imposing horse-head sculptures.

“I’ll be 59 the last day of this month,” Rodriguez said. “In three years, I retire to my ranch.”

And leave the Shermans in the lurch? What about those California Chrome babies who could be hitting the track in 2020?

“That’s okay,” Rodriguez said with a smile. “My son will be here.”