Columns & Blogs

Horse racing needs its best to keep running

California Chrome, the 2014 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, is a candidate for Horse of the Year in 2016 as a 5-year-old.
California Chrome, the 2014 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, is a candidate for Horse of the Year in 2016 as a 5-year-old.

Casual fans of the sport of kings fawned last year over American Pharoah’s Triple Crown, but then the big fellow ran out on us before we got to see him race in his prime.

How can anybody retire at 3 years old, even if you need four legs to get around? Of course, Pharoah still works hard these days, in the service of mares. Even with all its challenges, America would be better off with American Pharoah doing what he does best, racing, rather than making babies.

These days, you win a Kentucky Derby and you spend the rest of your life trysting in the bluegrass. So what if he won the Preakness and Belmont, too? He hadn’t even reached maturity.

Pharoah did stick around for three more races, winning the Haskell, finishing second in the Travers, then winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic before riding off into the Kentucky sunset.

If you could ask him, American Pharoah probably would say he’d rather still be frolicking down the backstretches of America than trolling the barns.

Fortunately, not every racehorse retires so young, and the country is about to witness its greatest summer, fall and winter seasons in maybe a generation and a half.

Of course, Sacramento will get the short end of this stick again, with Cal Expo shut out of staging any meaningful late-season racing.

We are left with the State Fair meet, which got under way Friday. It’s a very nice event, but it makes racing fans wish for more, like maybe a whole season. Our allotment of 10 dates spread over three weekends just doesn’t cut it.

But nobody is talking publicly about expanding the thoroughbred season at Cal Expo. For one thing, the joint doesn’t have a turf track. For another, Golden Gate Fields may not want to give up a chunk of its season. For a third, it’s unlikely the harness people would relinquish the spring and fall, the best-weather months for a meet here.

Steve Sherman has heard all the arguments, and he doesn’t like any of them. One of the top trainers in Northern California, Steve is the son of Art Sherman, the trainer of California Chrome, the 2014 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner and a candidate for 2016’s Horse of the Year.   

Chrome will be king if he wins the San Diego Handicap on July 23 and the Pacific Classic on Aug. 20, both at Del Mar, then takes the Nov. 5 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita. The 5-year-old already won the $10 million Dubai World Cup, the richest race in the world, which ought to keep him out of the soup lines for a while. 

Steve Sherman directed California Chrome into his father’s barn. Steve Sherman was training horses for Chrome’s co-owners, Perry and Denise Martin of Yuba City, when they asked him what they should do with their prospect by Lucky Pulpit out of Love The Chase. He sent them to his dad in Southern California.

Steve Sherman grew up working around the track at Bay Meadows and working the buffet line in its turf club while his father trained horses, his brother Alan rode them and his mother operated the track’s gift shop. His bloodlines dictated a life in the barns, and he soon hung out his own trainer’s shingle. He now stables about 25 thoroughbreds in Barn 91 at Golden Gate Fields.

He mourned Bay Meadows’ passing in 2008 and the rejection in 2007 by Dixon voters of a proposed track there. He still thinks Northern California needs a second track. And, Sherman said, with a little work, Cal Expo could be converted into a major-league park. 

“If Sacramento ever wanted to step up to the plate, they’d be able to,” he said Thursday at Golden Gate Fields.

Sherman said he’ll saddle five to 10 horses in Sacramento, trucking them in from their quarters near the cool fog of the bay for day trips into the warmth of the valley. He runs a claiming barn and hasn’t won a stakes race in five years. But he’ll watch along with rest of the country when California Chrome suits up for his battles down south. 

The Grade II San Diego is considered a tuneup, though 2015 Santa Anita Derby winner Dortmund could be in the field. The Pacific likely will put Chrome against the fabulous filly Beholder, the race’s defending champion. A victory in the Pacific would set the stage for a truly classic Breeders’ Cup Classic against likely candidates Nyquist, Exaggerator and Creator, champions of this year’s Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont, respectively.

If all goes well, Chrome will run again Jan. 28 in the fledgling Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park in Florida. The $12 million purse, the richest in horse racing history, is funded by the 12 entries that already have purchased slots into the race.

One was nabbed by an outfit called California Chrome LLC, and nobody would complain thereafter if, at age 6, the CEO retired.

Andy Furillo: 916-321-1141, @andyfurillo