01/07/2016 2:44PM

Hovdey: Time off hasn't dulled California Chrome

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Once upon a time, there was a horse named California Chrome … and here we go again.

Apologies to the memory of Joe Hirsch for that lead, which he deployed with the original punch line “… but only once” in tribute to five-time Horse of the Year Kelso. California Chrome, a one-time Horse of the Year, is no Kelso. But he is the only Horse of the Year in action right now, and he has a loyal and passionate following, which makes his return to the races Saturday in the $200,000 San Pasqual Stakes at Santa Anita a cause for celebration.

It is going on 10 months since California Chrome raced and nearly 14 months since he won. Not since Citation disappeared from view at the end of his 3-year-old season has a Horse of the Year attempted such a resurrection at age 5. Big Cy, the winner of the 1948 Triple Crown, spent a year nursing an injured tendon before returning to the wars at Santa Anita as a 5-year-old on Jan. 11, 1950, with a win in an allowance race. It was his 16th straight victory.

The rest of 1950 didn’t go so well for Citation, who was clearly a shade below his younger form. He won only one stakes that year and spent most of his time finishing second to Noor, a serious racehorse who ended up alongside Citation in the Hall of Fame.

“He was still very good, but he wasn’t the horse he was as a 3-year-old,” said the late Dr. Jack Robbins, who counted Citation among his patients in the Calumet Farm stable out West that year. “He had a low bow, and Jimmy Jones managed him pretty well. Dealing with that bow, all he could do was keep him in ice packs and be careful how many times he ran.”

Art Sherman was but a Brooklyn lad of 13 when Citation campaigned as a 5-year-old. Soon, Sherman would be chasing the racetrack rainbow as a jockey and then a trainer through a career that reached a technicolor climax in 2014, when California Chrome’s Horse of the Year campaign included a near miss in the Triple Crown. His 4-year-old season ended with a second-place finish in the Dubai World Cup and a failed attempt to make a race at Royal Ascot.

Sherman negotiated the first 18 starts of California Chrome’s career with a set of enthusiastic, novice owners who never really understood how or why their homebred princeling ever could lose a race. They learned the hard way, in public, and now things have changed.

Perry and Denise Martin, the majority owners, appear to be solidly on the same page as their trainer this time around – which includes another trip to Dubai but no British adventure – while Steve and Carolyn Coburn sold their piece of the champion last summer to Taylor Made Farm of Nicholasville, Ky. Goodbye, Dumb Ass Partners and those donkey silks; hello, California Chrome LLC.

“After we bought into the horse, we talked to Perry about selling off a few of our shares and a few of his to select breeders who would support the horse,” said Frank Taylor, who operates Taylor Made with his brothers Duncan, Ben, and Mark. “There’s a lot of them who will be out there for the race, so we’re looking to have a good time.”

California Chrome will enter stud at Taylor Made in 2017.

“He reminds me a lot of Tiznow in that when we bought into him, everybody said, ‘Aw, he’s just a Cal-bred, off-bred horse who won’t amount to anything at stud,’ ” Taylor said. “Well, Tiznow turned out to be a super stallion. On top of that, California Chrome is a very sound horse. From when he was at 2 until the Dubai World Cup last year, he had a hell of a campaign.”

Unlike Citation, California Chrome did not suffer an injury that would necessarily compromise his intrinsic abilities.

“He just had bruised feet, and then we found a little wear and tear with some bone issues,” Sherman said. “I guarantee if you go back years, every horse had that to some degree if they raced any. Time off repairs all that, and that’s what he finally got.”

Sherman fiddled with California Chrome’s training as his comeback approached, removing his customary blinkers for a couple of key works. The blinkers went back on for a sharp public exercise last weekend, and he will be wearing them as usual for the San Pasqual. Sherman explained his thinking.

“I took them off because I didn’t want him to go any faster than he was going,” Sherman said. “The fitter he got, the faster he wanted to run, and that wouldn’t have done him any good. Without them, he relaxed a lot more, which made it easier to get him to the point he’s at now.”

And where, pray tell, is that?

“Well, he hasn’t run in more than nine months, and you always think, ‘Do I have him fit enough?’ ” Sherman said. “Then I’m wondering if he needs to be a hundred percent fit anyway for this. He’s coming into the race like a bull. You know he’s going to show speed. And physically, he’s just such a different horse than when he came back to the races a year ago as a 4-year-old.

“So, I’m going into this race thinking I’ve got the best horse,” Sherman added. “In fact, I think he might be five lengths better than I’ve ever had him. He’s been going up on his back legs a lot like he wants everybody to know he’s here, and now he’s bigger and stronger and maybe don’t even know his own strength.”

With California Chrome missing three-quarters of the 2015 season, Sherman found himself twiddling his thumbs. Since the San Pasqual was announced as the return race, though, things have picked up. Sherman won’t have too many days like he had at Santa Anita last week, when he sent a horse postward in a minor race and then lingered in the paddock.

“I was by myself, nobody else around,” Sherman said. “A guy on the rail calls out, ‘Are you lonesome, Art?’ I thought to myself, ‘Just wait a week. You won’t know what lonesome is anymore.’ ”