By Fred Altieri
The California Chrome saga continues...
Training before the big race:
Willie Delgado is living the California dream and the beauty of it is... it wasn't planned. Better yet... much of his dream is shared with a colt. Willie is the exercise rider for California Chrome, the three-year old sensation and Southern California resident who is the crowd-favorite to capture this weekend's Kentucky Derby crown in Louisville.
Delgado is thankful and pragmatic about his role: "I gallop California Chrome. I exercise him." That kind of understatement is a common thread throughout Art Sherman Racing, the team responsible for nurturing and maintaining California Chrome's meteoric rise this past half-year in the world of thoroughbred horse racing.
It has been all business for Team Sherman in preparing for their greatest challenge while also deftly dealing with the overnight deluge of full-court press coverage and fan requests since their propelling win weeks ago in the Santa Anita Derby.
Art Sherman and his son Alan entrusted the privileged reigns of California Chrome to Delgado last autumn at Hollywood Park.
An absolute understanding developed practically overnight between the proficient 30-year rider and his celebrated chestnut-colored upstart during the early morning hours in Inglewood through January of this year. Delgado's now an integral part of a very efficient team working from their new and very inviting location, Los Alamitos Race Course.
Before Delgado departed back east to prepare for the final workouts at Churchill Downs, he shared some comprising thoughts and observations about California Chrome, his responsibilities and some insight into the colt's psyche and evolving work on the track. The words matched the silent gaze of his alert eyes, the confident smile, a SoCal tanned face.
"I'm originally from Puerto Rico and I've been in Southern California going on seven months. My brother was riding out here so I decided to take a week off from Maryland and came out on vacation. There was a meet at Del Mar, I fell in love with it and I came back.
"I was at Laurel, Maryland. That's where I ran races. That's where I rode. I was taught at Bowie Race Track. I was 16 or 17 years old when I starting learning how to ride. I'm 46 years old now.
"Actually when I came here I was working for somebody else and it didn't work out. Then the original guy that used to gallop California Chrome went on vacation so they asked me if I was willing to get on him. So I said: "Sure." I had no idea it was him, but once I was on him, I realized: "This is Chrome. Wow. This is exciting." So I ended up staying on him.
"I started riding him at Hollywood Park, right after the Breeder's Cup. That was in November. It just became a process. We started getting along with one another. It didn't take that long. Maybe a week, ten days, two weeks max.
He has always been good to work with. After each race he just got better and better and better. And it's very exciting. I keep saying: "He's got to be part human.
"It's his demeanor. His demeanor. He's playful when I get on him. Once we get to the track he's all business. He can turn it on in a blink of an eye. Some horses are always sharp. Other horses are really quiet. He's sharp and then he's quiet once he gets to the track. He knows when it's time to go.
"I treat every horse the same. He's the one that does all the running. I just keep him from going too fast in the mornings. We leave that for the races. I keep him at a pace where he's comfortable and not just out there running off.
"He goes twice around the track. It's basically like a runner or a sprinter would train. We jog, just get in condition. Then the last part he just picks it up which is getting his lungs to work. He does this every day.
"He's matured a lot. He's taking it all in very well. It's just the way he acts. He's all business. Once a horse knows what he's supposed to do... Like with him, we'll go out and he'll just stand there for 10 minutes. 15 minutes. When it's time to go he says: "Let's go." It's just like a human being. When we're not mature we're a little kooky. And as we get older we mature and realize what to do and what not to do.
"He's much more focused when he races. When he goes to the track he knows what he's there for. That's really what all horses get trained for, when it's time to race, when it's time to gallop. A lot of horses get it confused.
"He knows when it gets close to the rail it's time to go faster. So I try to keep him off the rail just so he knows: "Okay, we're out here to train. We're not out here to race.
"I'm not leaving these people. These people are great. I'm staying here. California's my new home. I love it. Love it. The weather's great. I live right here in Los Alamitos. This is a great area. When we came to this track a lot of the people, they just took us in like they've known us for years. That's what I like about this place here.
"The crew here at Art Sherman's is unbelievable, the way they treat you, Art and his son Alan. I've only been working with them since November and they treat me like they've known me the 30 years I've been on the track. They don't treat me any different than they treat everybody else that works here. It's like a big family here. And I really enjoy that. They make you feel welcome. Yea, they're great people.
"I'll be in Kentucky. I'll be going with him. He's going to be training. We're still allowed to train but it's going to be that nobody can get near the horse for 72 hours before the race except for the rider and the groom. Nobody can be going into the stall. I'm allowed to go in when it's time to get on him. So the only one that can handle the horse is the groom."
I really just met California Chrome's jockey Victor Espinoza. He's a very nice guy. He asked me last time: "How's he feeling?" "He's feeling good." And normal questions like: "Is everything okay, is everything good?" Just like I tell Art: "Thumbs up all the way.
"Everyday is a thumb's up. That's why they're out there by the track. They can see if anything is wrong. But with him, there's nothing wrong with him. So he gets a thumb's up every time. It's starting to get exciting now."