On a recent October morning, while waiting to head out for a gallop around the track at Santa Anita Park, the chestnut thoroughbred that’s poised to become the most lucrative in history let out his alpha horse.
California Chrome reared up in a rare act of dominance and walked a few steps on his hind legs, as exercise rider Dihigi Gladney held on precariously 7 feet off the ground. The 5-year-old horse, who has won 15 races over his career, looked every inch the triumphant stallion showing off for his herd.
“I nearly had a heart attack,” said Art Sherman, Chrome’s 79-year-old trainer. “What if he fell backwards? But Chrome was just feeling so good. It’s hard to keep him on the ground.”
His stallion days will come soon enough. Right now, Chrome has a little more racing to do.
America’s most famous racehorse will be a heavy favorite Saturday, Nov. 5, in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, horse racing’s Super Bowl, also to be held at Santa Anita.
Nestled against the San Gabriel Mountains, the track is a fitting venue for what could be the capper to Chrome’s Cinderella career. Five of his career victories came at this Arcadia landmark, and more than 60,000 fans are expected to turn up Saturday with millions more watching live on NBC.
Co-owned and bred by Yuba City’s Perry and Denise Martin, the budget thoroughbred already ranks as the all-time richest horse outside of Japan with more than $13.4 million in career earnings. If he wins again at Santa Anita with its $3.3 million winner’s share, that would push his bankroll over $17.7 million, thanks to a $1 million bonus for winning two earlier California stakes.
That kind of haul might deliver Chrome the world earnings record, although the milestone is a moving target. Reflecting rising yen exchange rates, the current world record is $17.4 million, held by Japanese champion T.M.Opera O. (He retired in 2002 with 1.83 billion yen, then worth $15.9 million.)
For Sherman, these last weeks with Chrome are precious. For almost four years, his life has revolved around this one horse.
“I swear he knows me,” said Sherman, who put off his own retirement to work with Chrome. “He hears my voice and starts nickering, because he knows he’s going to get a cookie. He spoils me instead of me spoiling him.”
Their affection is mutual. Passing his trainer outside their barn, Chrome stopped and dropped his massive head to get his ears rubbed.
Sherman considers himself the luckiest man on the backstretch. The former jockey’s one regret is he never got to ride Chrome himself.
“He’s such an outstanding athlete to train,” he said. “He is a superstar. I know he’ll make the Hall of Fame one of these days and I’ll be there to cheer him on, you can bet that.”
California Chrome always has been the stuff of big, seemingly unlikely dreams. The product of an $8,000 mare and a little-known stallion with a $2,500 stud fee, he became in 2014 the first California-bred colt to win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Chrome returned to compete two more years – a rarity for a Derby winner in modern racing – and was voted 2014 horse of the year. By contrast, 2016 Derby winner Nyquist retired on Monday after suffering a minor injury.
“California Chrome is a horse for the ages,” said John Harris, a longtime breeder and owner of Harris Farms in Coalinga, where Chrome was born. “He is the whole package – great personality, looks and performance coupled with inherent charisma. ... I choke up every time he runs, he is just so special.”
Instead of retiring to breeding, Chrome has stayed on the track, thanks to a unique racing partnership formed this year. Former partners Steve and Carolyn Coburn, who with the Martins made up Dumb Ass Partners racing stable, sold their minority interest in Chrome to major Kentucky breeder Taylor Made Farms. Taylor Made sold shares to other horse owners, and by August, a total of 22 breeding partners had signed on, with most also getting a share of Chrome’s race earnings.
“He’s the smartest horse I’ve ever seen and that’s what sets him apart,” said Duncan Taylor, president of Taylor Made. “He can do whatever you want him to do.”
Since the arrangement started, Chrome hasn’t lost, earning $7.11 million. He’s six-for-six in 2016, including the $10 million Dubai World Cup, the world’s richest race. No horse has won the World Cup and the Breeders’ Cup Classic in the same year.
“Chrome’s season has been perfect, so of course we’re hoping for improvement,” quipped Perry Martin.
When Chrome won his first race in May 2013 at the now-demolished Hollywood Park in Southern California, all his owners could fit in a Lincoln Town Car. Now, it takes two buses. More than a hundred part-owners and friends jammed the winner’s circle at Del Mar near San Diego after Chrome’s Aug. 20 victory in the $1 million Pacific Classic.
Currently, Chrome is expected to retire from racing in time for the 2017 breeding season, which starts Feb. 14. Before that, he’s likely to run in a new “super stakes” – the $12 million Pegasus Cup, to be held at Florida’s Gulfstream Park on Jan. 28.
Sherman said that retirement date may not be fixed.
“He could run for $27 million worth of purses next year, and how much is he going to make the first year at breeding?” Sherman noted. “It’s quite challenging, but he’s going to be 6 (years old) then and that’ll be the peak of his career, I think. It would be awesome for me. I’d love to see him around that long.”
That choice will be made by Martin and Taylor Made. “We will announce our decision Nov. 8,” Martin said. “If he is retiring, the stud fee will be announced at that time, also.”
Also next week, Love the Chase – Chrome’s mother and the Martins’ first racehorse – will be sold at Fasig-Tipton’s prestigious auction in Lexington, Ky. She’s now in foal to Tapit, Kentucky’s most expensive sire with a $300,000 stud fee. Martin will use proceeds from the sale for mares to breed with Chrome.
“Chrome’s health comes first, his legacy is second and everything else doesn’t matter,” Martin said. “During his racing career, he has been pointed to the most elite races and has not ducked anyone. He is one of the top thoroughbreds ever! We are taking his breeding career just as seriously and have established the very best base we can to get him off to a great start. I believe he has the best pedigree of any Kentucky Derby winner in the last 20 years.”
Breeders’ Cup world thoroughbred championships
When: Nov. 4 and 5; Classic post time, 5:35 p.m. Nov. 5
Where: Santa Anita Park, Arcadia
TV: 5 p.m. Channel 3
Watch and wager: Cal Expo will host simulcast wagering and offer special Breeders’ Cup giveaways.