It probably says a lot about me that, when I set my alarm on Friday night to the time below, I was much more excited about waking up than I was upset about losing sleep.
The good news is that I’m neither insane (though there are certainly some people that would raise an eyebrow at that statement!) nor am I some sort of monster who hates snoozing; I was just really looking forward to seeing Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes victor California Chrome put in his final workout before his bid to become only the 12th horse in history to win the Triple Crown on June 7 when he runs in the Belmont Stakes. See, there’s a little bit of Chromania sweeping the nation right now, and I’m right on board with the fans of America’s Horse.
So when my alarm went off this morning, I leapt out of bed like a jackrabbit and within 20 minutes I had packed up my trusty little Nikon, locked my door and was on the way to Belmont Park. (OK, I’m not superhuman: I did also stop for coffee before I got too far.)
When I arrived at the track, I hustled into the stable area of Belmont Park. If you’ve never been to Belmont, I highly recommend it: the grounds are lush and speckled with shade trees, providing a perfect oasis from the bustling city of New York, whose limits are just a mile away from the track.
As I got into position, California Chrome made his way from his barn and into the tree-lined equine avenue that leads racehorses to the famous oval that is Belmont Park. He seemed completely at home and professional, and as he passed by me his jockey Victor Espinoza had a huge grin on his face – I think he was happy to be reunited with his superstar colt!
As the pair made their way onto the racetrack, I was once again stuck by how beautiful California Chrome really is. It’s not that he’s perfectly put together (to be honest, his front feet turn out a little bit) but he’s got a presence that just makes you look at him. I mean, my camera found him and started taking photos of him this morning before I knew that it was California Chrome walking toward me. What ever that indefinable “it factor” is, California Chrome has it.
So it was with great anticipation that I hustled to the track to catch his final pre-Belmont Stakes workout. He was slated to breeze (a gait on a racehorse that mimics racing speed) a half-mile, and I wanted to be sure to be near the finish line to see how he performed. As he made his way onto the track, he was relaxed and happy, striding out and looking professional as he began to warm up.
As Chrome began to gallop, I hoofed it to the finish line. On my way there, I passed myriad fans who had travelled to the track at 6:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning just to catch a glimpse of the big horse himself.
And that crowd definitely got the show that they came for: California Chrome was extremely impressive in his workout, covering the ground with ease and powering down the stretch as he put in his final drill before the Belmont Stakes.
As he passed the finish line, one of the things I was most impressed by was his amazing concentration. Though the fans at the track were cheering him home (which was pretty awesome to hear during a workout!), he was fully committed to the job at hand. If you look at the photo below, you’ll see that he has one ear forward and one back. That’s a horse that’s enjoying himself but still paying attention to the directions of the rider on his back.
I liked everything about what he did this morning, from the way he moved to the way he acted. The Belmont Stakes is called the "Test of the Champion" for a reason: it’s never an easy race, and this year’s field is full of talented horses. But after today’s performance, I have to say that I have confidence in Chrome.
As he headed off of the track, California Chrome had so many fans and media members crowded around the gap in the railing that security had to clear the path.
But of course, California Chrome is California Chrome, and he wasn’t fussed at all. This is a horse who loves his public, and he walked past his admirers with grace.
Then it was bath time! Unfortunately (well, for me, anyway) the barns at Belmont aren’t configured to accommodate throngs of media and fans, so Chrome got to have his shower in relative privacy.
But that didn’t stop people from trying to get the shot!
One of my favorite moments of the morning came when Ride On Curlin, who finished second to California Chrome in the Preakness, was returning from his gallop. As he entered the barn, California Chrome and Willie Delgado halted to allow them to pass. Ride On Curlin’s rider grinned, turned around to trainer Billy Gowan and yelled, “We finally got in front of him, Billy!” It was a wonderful moment that perfectly showcased the friendly rivalry and sportsmanship that exists in horse racing.
California Chrome wasn’t too worried, though. He took the opportunity to strike a pose for his adoring fans, which made Willie laugh pretty hard.
That horse is such a ham.
After hanging out at the barn, I decided to head toward the Grandstand to catch the upcoming press conference about California Chrome’s workout. Fortunately, on my way I happened upon my friend and top racing journalist Claire Novak who was on her way to see another Belmont Stakes contender, Social Inclusion.
I tagged along, and while I was there I noticed how his hotwalker Pedro Flores was totally accommodating to him, allowing him to stop and check out his surroundings whenever Social Inclusion felt so inclined.
That’s good horsemanship, and Social Inclusion seems like a very happy animal.
On the way to the press conference, Claire and I spotted the Belmont starting gate temporarily stowed in the parking lot. We immediately realized that we had to climb on it, because JOURNALISM. Here we are riding invisible horses:
And here we are pretending to be starters sending horses off to the races:
Being a grown-up can be overrated and is sometimes best abandoned. That’s my working theory, anyway.
But then it was back to business: jockey Victor Espinoza had agreed to meet up with our ABRV Tour Ambassadors Dan and Victoria as well as the top students from the graduating class of Floral Park Memorial High School to talk to them and sign some autographs. I love that Victor agreed to take time out of what was an incredibly busy morning to talk to these kids and their families – if you had any doubt in your mind about what a great guy he is, get rid of it now.
Even when he was running a little late for the press conference, he wanted to stay behind and give his fans a chance to get a photo. That’s very cool.
When he got to the press conference, Victor fielded questions ranging from how he thought this morning’s workout went (very well: he said that California Chrome felt stronger than ever before) to what he did to de-stress before a race (watch cartoons, specifically “Tom and Jerry”. Because Victor is awesome.)
As he talked, I moved around to try to get a photo of the huge phalanx of media surrounding the podium. It was so great to see just how much the team of California Chrome, Victor Espinoza, the Sherman family of trainers as well as the horse’s owners have captivated the national imagination, and I for one cannot wait to see what happens next Saturday. Bring on the Belmont Stakes!