California Chrome knows the drill. It starts with horse cookies.
“Every morning, as soon as he sees me, he starts nickering,” trainer Art Sherman said with a chuckle. “He’s saying, ‘Where’s my cookie?!’ I’ve got to give him one right away or he won’t shut up.”
After a year of globe-trotting but little racing, California Chrome is back to his regular routine in Sherman’s barn while preparing for a comeback. His goal? To become America’s all-time highest-earning racehorse.
“That’s the plan,” co-owner Perry Martin said outside his star’s stall at Los Alamitos Race Course. “He’s got a shot.”
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Two-time Horse of the Year Curlin, now a Kentucky stallion, currently holds the record with just more than $10.5 million.
“Honestly, he’s better than ever,” Martin said of his star horse. “He’s older, he’s bigger. He’s got a very, very good attitude. (Sherman) tells me they have a hard time slowing him down. 2016 could be very exciting.”
With more than $6.3 million already in the bank, California Chrome is expected to have his first race in nine months Jan. 9 in the San Pasqual Stakes at Santa Anita Park. He’s then headed to the United Arab Emirates for a return engagement in the $10 million Dubai World Cup, the world’s richest race. The winner’s share is $6 million.
“That would do it,” Martin said with a smile. “If that doesn’t work out, we have a Plan B.”
His 2016 season hopefully will culminate in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic next November at Santa Anita.
California Chrome, America’s 2014 Horse of the Year, hasn’t raced since finishing second March 28 in the 2015 Dubai World Cup, won by Sheikh Hamdan Bin Mohammed’s Prince Bishop.
After Dubai, the 4-year-old colt spent several months in England, preparing for a start at Royal Ascot that never materialized due to a bruised foot. On his return flight to the United States, Chrome got sick.
“He was 120 pounds light when he got home,” Martin said.
A possible start in last summer’s Arlington Million was canceled. He also missed the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland and a possible match-up against Triple Crown champion American Pharoah, who is now retired to a Kentucky breeding farm.
As the 2014 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, California Chrome will become a Kentucky stallion, too, but another twist in Chrome’s Cinderella story brought him back to race for one more year.
In July, Steve and Carolyn Coburn, Chrome’s co-breeders, sold their 30 percent share in the colt for an undisclosed sum to Taylor Made Farm, a major breeding operation in Kentucky. Yuba City’s Perry and Denise Martin, who formed Dumb Ass Partners Racing with the Coburns, retained their ownership and control.
“We are thrilled to be part owners of such a historic racehorse as California Chrome,” Duncan Taylor, president and CEO of Taylor Made, said at the time of the sale. “He’s a tremendously good-looking, athletic and well-balanced horse who possesses great speed.”
Due to their breeding value, Kentucky Derby-winning stallions rarely race at age 5. But Taylor Made agreed to let Chrome compete in 2016 and make up for a year of missed opportunities.
“We’ve never done anything conventionally,” Perry Martin quipped. “Why start now?”
California Chrome already has spent time at Taylor Made, which coincidentally is where American Pharoah grew up. Chrome recuperated in the 1,100-acre farm’s bluegrass pastures for several weeks as his foot bruise healed and he regained weight.
“Denise and I toured Kentucky farms for a week (before agreeing to the partnership),” Martin said. “Taylor Made was far and away the best.”
When Chrome races in 2016, he’ll have new silver-gray racing silks reflecting his new partnership, California Chrome LLC, he said.
A set of those silks will be added to the current California Chrome exhibit, now on display at the state’s California Museum in Sacramento.
Although he seemed to like Kentucky, California Chrome was obviously thrilled to be reunited with Sherman at Los Alamitos, the horse’s home base for most of his career.
“As soon as the van pulled in, you could hear him hollering,” Sherman said. “Since he’s been back, he’s doing really well. He’s gained 160 pounds. He’s doing everything right on schedule.”
In the pre-dawn hours, California Chrome gets to do what he loves most – run. Every Saturday, Chrome has a timed workout as Sherman prepares him for his return. Each workout gets a little longer, a little faster.
“The last couple of months, we’ve been coming here every week to watch him work,” Denise Martin said at the horse’s barn. “We fly down now. That’s been our one luxury.”
While still in his stall, the strapping chestnut colt stretched out his legs individually like a yoga master. With his saddle strapped on and ready to go, he looked around for exercise rider Dihigi Gladney.
“He wears me out,” Gladney said. “He wants to run so much, I have to use all my strength (to hold him back). He just wants to go!”
Sherman has been impressed by Chrome’s progress.
“He truly is something special,” he said. “He sure looks good; it’s like he’s hardly running, he does it so easily.”
After his morning exercise, California Chrome got his daily bath and more Mrs. Pastures horse cookies, his favorite.
“Since he’s been back, he’s been getting boxes of cookies from fans from all over the place, all addressed to ‘California Chrome,’ ” Sherman said. “He’s one happy horse.”