07/15/2016 10:10AM

Hovdey: Sherman having time of his life with California Chrome

Barbara D. Livingston
California Chrome will enter stud next year at Taylor Made Farm.

The Thoroughbred brand known as California Chrome clambered down the ramp of the Hubbard transport van and lifted his head to the scent of the surrounding horses in their stalls. Raul Rodriguez, his wiry groom, kept a firm hold as the horse let his legs unwind from the two-hour freeway slog from Los Alamitos, 75 miles to the north. It was Wednesday, Barn CC on the Del Mar backstretch, and Art Sherman was ready to rumble.

“Look at that – barn double C,” the trainer said, trailing his chestnut star. “We’ve got everything covered.”

California Chrome had not been at Del Mar since Thanksgiving weekend of 2014, when he won the Hollywood Derby over Canadian Horse of the Year Lexie Lou. Since that distant November, the 5-year-old son of Lucky Pulpit has been back and forth to Dubai twice, trained on the gallops of Newmarket Heath, and enjoyed two separate sessions of recovery and relaxation at Taylor Made Farm in Kentucky, where he was on cheerful, public display.

Along the way, California Chrome’s principal owners, Perry and Denise Martin, acquired a partnership of like-minded breeders, Sherman was inducted into a Jewish sports hall of fame, and a cottage industry of California Chrome apparel and assorted doodads has sprung up to keep his fans occupied while they await his next start. He also became the leading money-winning Thoroughbred in North American history, but if you ask Chrome, he’d prefer to be paid in Mrs. Pastures horse cookies.

Once California Chrome’s workout Saturday morning at Del Mar is in the books, the countdown will begin to his first start since defeating Frosted, among others, in the Dubai World Cup on March 26. The stage will be the $200,000 San Diego Handicap next Saturday at 1 1/16 miles on the main track, after which he will return to his Los Alamitos digs to prepare for a dream race against defending champ Beholder in the Pacific Classic on Aug. 20.

But first things first. Something caught California Chrome’s eye while he was walking to his stall, and he propped, bellowed, and started to rear. Rodriguez let out just enough slack to keep things cool, while Sherman looked around for the culprit.

“It’s the white pony,” Sherman said, nodding toward a gray horse getting shod in a nearby shed row. “That set him off.”

A couple of crow hops later, California Chrome settled down, but the bell had been rung. A ripple of whinnies erupted from the stalls along the row, answering Chrome’s alarm. Of course, Chrome had to answer back, and it went on like that for a while until the red horse was led safely into the first stall by the Sherman tack room office.

“If they didn’t know he was here before, they do now,” Sherman said. “It’s just like him to announce himself.”

For all California Chrome has accomplished, as a Horse of the Year and Kentucky Derby winner, he has work left to do before he enters stud next year at Taylor Made. Beyond the Pacific Classic, there likely will be a start in the Awesome Again Stakes at Santa Anita in late September to keep sharp for the Breeders’ Cup Classic there on Nov. 5. After that, the proposed $12 million Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream looms in January as a valedictory to California Chrome’s singular career.

As if that’s not enough, Sherman hopes to be able to do it all without the use of Lasix. The trainer’s decision is pragmatic, not political. It has been more than six months since California Chrome was given a dose of the legal diuretic before winning the San Pasqual Stakes at Santa Anita. After that, he trained and won twice in Dubai without Lasix – a minor prep race and the World Cup – and each time, Sherman was encouraged by Chrome’s recovery.

“Especially after the World Cup,” Sherman said. “The next day, he was pushing me around the stall like anything but a tired horse. And you know he gave everything the night before. I know we use Lasix on our horses all the time, and he was getting a minimum dose when he ran here. But there’s something about Lasix that horses don’t come back from that quick.”

Sherman said California Chrome has never bled. He said he would do a precautionary endoscopic exam after the Saturday exercise, Chrome’s first serious Del Mar work in nearly three years.

“Sometimes a horse will spot a little at a lower elevation like Del Mar,” Sherman said. “But I worked him that pretty good mile the other day at Los Alamitos, and he scoped clean as a whistle.”

For the record, Del Mar racetrack is located at about sea level, while Los Alamitos rises to 23 feet.

No matter what happens next, Sherman’s journey with California Chrome should be framed and hung on a gallery wall. He’s 79 and having the time of his life. Working hand-in-hand with his son, Alan, the trainer has combined the instincts of his old-school philosophy with a nimble recognition of modern racing demands. He took his horse to the brink of winning a Triple Crown. He beat everything but the house horse in his first trip to Dubai, and then, learning from the experience, knocked ‘em dead in the desert the second time around to top $12 million in earnings.

“As wide as he was, and his saddle slipping and all, he even surprised me that night,” Sherman said. “I was in awe.”

And yet you won’t catch the trainer ever touting his horse before a race, so don’t look for it this week. For anyone from his generation, it is both poor form and bad luck.

“Look at him, acting like a $50,000 maiden claimer,” Sherman said with a barking laugh. “He misses his double-wide stall back home.”

California Chrome answered by banging the back wall, then thrusting his head over the webbing to give Sherman the stink eye.

“I love the buildup,” Sherman said. “Racing needs this kind of excitement. But she might kick my ass, Beholder. What do you think?”