'Chrome' in Wonderland: An Eclipse Awards to Remember

The Life
Horse of the Year California Chrome had his final workout at Gulfstream Park in preparation for the Jan. 28 Pegasus World Cup. (Julie June Stewart photo)

Alice in Wonderland twirled her blue skirt like a flamenco dancer; tossed her thick blond hair and smiled at the crowd. The Mad Hatter (a spitting image of Johnny Depp) slipped by her side and gallantly offered her his elbow. They walked by an imperious figure towering above them on stilts.  He was dressed in a black steampunk costume and winked as they passed. Above the audience, an adorable “rabbit” struck poses in her white cage and showed off her furry go-go boots. The Red Queen bade you to come thither with her sky high thin eyebrows and red pursed lips while offering an array of delectable deserts. Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum linked arms and marched around. I paused in front of a “frog” and he rewarded me with a hand stand. I meowed at a “kitty” who was sensuously arching her back while languishing next to the glittering fountain bathed in rich gold light.    

Overhead a profusion of lights pulsed to the beat of the music and smoke produced a lush prismatic cloud of many colors. Music, lights and the characters from the 2016 film “Alice Through the Looking Glass” were creating a lovely whimsical scene on a warm night. My brain felt like it was scrambled. I was still processing the fact that I was freed from the winter burden of a wearing a hat, coat, scarf, gloves and snow cleats for my shoes. It was pleasurable and surreal. It seemed almost sinful to be outside without the armor of winter clothing. Was I dreaming? Or had I gone through the looking glass? 

Delightfully, I was at the cocktail reception held on the eve of the 46th annual Eclipse Awards. This was my first visit to Gulfstream Park and I instantly discovered the allure of Florida in January. Earlier in the day, I had visited the track and was entranced by what I saw; especially the walking ring. Flanked by two towers in warm Mediterranean colors, the ring offers fans comfortable seats and easy access to witness the horses and riders before races. Tiled fountains artistically bounce water into the warm sky as the ocean breeze moves gently through. You can hear the faint whisper of the wind as the glistening fronds rustle. It’s beautiful to stop and gaze at palm trees reaching up to the clear blue ocean sky with an occasional white cloud drifting by.     

Now at night the walking ring was transformed into a whimsical wonderland as horse racing fans and titans of industry wandered around. Couches became conclaves for powerhouse business deals. This was a happy crowd. There is a certain sense of freedom associated with a warm Florida night and the Alice in Wonderland theme captured the mood perfectly. 

Mere hours later, it was an emotional morning for California Chrome’s team and fans as they prepared for his final workout. At the barn, it was business as usual as Chrome was readied for the track. Professional turf writers and photographers circled Art Sherman and Alan Sherman for early morning photos. Exercise rider Dihigi Gladney proudly showed off his beautiful California Chrome Dubai World Cup belt buckle. The soft click of camera shutters was prevalent. Florida provided a beautiful sunrise as the sky progressed from blush and coral tones to a warm champagne colored sky. Chrome and Gladney slowly walked onto the track past the prodigious statue of Pegasus. 

To the fans of California Chrome, there is no other horse like him. He is the horse who changed their lives. He is the horse that brought them to the track and motivated them to unite in their love. Even as he walked past Gulfstream’s iconic statue, the cameras were aimed at Chrome. You can’t help but stare, for Chrome is physically at his peak. It is rare to see a horse of his age and stature racing. Fans are flocking to Florida to see him fly in the Pegasus, which is now the world’s richest race, but more poignantly for them, it is Chrome’s final race before retirement to Taylor Made Farm.

As mist rose from the track, California Chrome came gliding around the turn. With the rising sun behind him, he effortlessly came around the track. Sizzling, sensational, spectacular and strong. Like an apparition, he emerges from the mist and gracefully passes. Time just kind of stops as you watch. Too soon, he returns to the barn and his morning routine continues. The only brief pause was when he heard the soft shutter sound of cameras around him. He likes to stop and pose.    

Later that evening, it’s time for the annual Eclipse awards dinner which is presented by the Daily Racing Form, the Breeders’ Cup and the Stronach Group.  It’s a perfect evening designed to honor the “horses and individuals whose outstanding achievements in North America have earned them the title of Champion in their categories.”  The awards are voted by NTRA, Daily Racing Form and the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters association.

The Eclipse Awards ceremony is held in the beautiful Sport of the Kings Theatre at Gulfstream and brings a lovely crowd.  Men in black tuxedos provide a dramatic backdrop for women dressed in outfits that sparkle, shimmer and shine. Friends gather and greet each other with happy chatter as industry and media arrive from New York, Kentucky, California and many more horse friendly regions. The turf writers and broadcasters are ready to instantly post and proclaim the winners of each category.  Smartphones are carefully situated on tables for photos by friends and family in case they win.  Professional photographers surreptitiously kneel as they catch the winners walking to the stage. Recipients are gracious and thoughtful as they try to stay within the pre-established limit of one minute per speech.  The room is a swirl of teal, purple, violet and lavender lighting effects which has a slight 60’s flower power effect. The tables are dressed with silver brocade tablecloths and napkins. Gold-rimmed chargers and plates complete the tables which are decorated with discreet white lights. Dinner is whisked to the diners by waiters in white gloves. 

I was touched by how regal Mrs. Diane Naylor was in accepting the Eclipse Award for her horse Rawnaq (Steeplechase Horse of the Year.)  There were many emotional moments.  Perhaps one of the most touching moments was the elegant and thoughtful speech given by 19-year-old Luis Ocasio.  Small in stature, he was a giant in graciousness as he thanked his family and friends while accepting the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Apprentice Jockey.  Elliott Walden also shared the glory with all involved as he accepted for WinStar Farm which was honored with the Outstanding Breeder Eclipse Award. He said that it is one of the most collaborative honors. The well-mannered crowd erupted in cheers as Chad Brown took home his first Eclipse Award for Outstanding Trainer.  He considerately thanked his entire team, saying “You all have a piece of this award” as his adorable daughters and wife shared the spotlight.  

As race replays reverberated the room, we were reminded of how glorious 2016 was and how many outstanding champions we had to celebrate. Every race releases a strong memory. TepinBeholderSongbirdArrogate! Classic EmpireDrefongFlintshire! Steve Crist and Andy Beyer were honored with Eclipse Awards of Merit. Both were charming in their acceptance speeches.

There wasn’t enough time in the program to honor the media recipients individually. So in a wonderful choreographed moment, they walked out on stage in a group; one powerhouse after another. The champions of our industry who are the custodians of our horse racing history and represent the past, the present and the future. Jeannine Edwards was an outstanding host and had done her homework as usual. She briefly asked each recipient a question about their award-winning work as their colleagues cheered.     

Javier Castellano collected his fourth consecutive Eclipse Award as Outstanding Jockey. He took us back through his journey of what it felt like when he first arrived in America in 1997. He was shocked to discover that his taxi ride from the airport cost $100. Soft spoken and humble, he gave an unpretentious speech that certainly belies his fighting spirit when he is riding. If there was an Eclipse Award for the cutest kid moment; it would certainly be awarded to Castellano’s son Brady. He stood on the stage in his mini tuxedo and bow tie; took in the audience and gazed thoughtfully. Castellano glowed amidst the love of his family as he thoughtfully thanked the people in his life, including gratitude to his wife, his children and his Mom.

Perry Martin gave a lovely acceptance speech for California Chrome’s unanimous win of the Older Dirt Male Eclipse Award. He thanked the Chrome team by name and pointed out their contributions. Unfortunately, it was his second speech of the night when he rambled and left people somewhat confused.  He was played off by the band when he passed the six minute mark. I thought the quote from Alice in Wonderland best described the situation: “It would be so nice if something made sense for a change.” Perhaps Martin had slipped through the looking glass.   

It really was no surprise for California Chrome to win Horse of the Year a second time. He had an incredible year. His presence has given the inaugural Pegasus World Cup a much anticipated buzz about his return engagement with Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Arrogate. For this is what fans are going to remember in the long run. It will never be about clumsy speeches. It’s the images of California Chrome that will long be recalled. Winning the King Glorious Stakes in the dark of the night during the emotional closing night of Hollywood Park. Making everyone sit up and gasp as he took the Santa Anita Derby and was instantly proclaimed a Derby favorite. California Chrome draped in roses at Churchill Downs. California Chrome setting the world abuzz with Triple Crown fever in Baltimore. California Chrome “breaking the internet of the horse world” as he won the Dubai World Cup with a slipped saddle in 2016. The memories are still fresh of each and every race whether he won or lost. This is a horse that gave the world a glimpse of California sunshine. He took his fans on a journey across the United States, Dubai and Great Britain. He shined a light on the teamwork within the Sherman Racing Stables. Art and Alan Sherman would smile and gracefully give interview after interview even if they had answered the same question earlier. Chrome would come out of the barn and stick his tongue out to the delight of fans and photographers. Whether he was charging out of the mist or galloping in the sunlight at Meydan, Chrome has given us a wealth of memories.    

Chrome’s story will be well chronicled by turf writers, historians and photographers. His images are already indelibly marked within our psyche by the vast collection of photographs readily available online. For many fans, California Chrome is their horse of a lifetime. It is a delight to witness their joy and fervor as they proclaim their love and share their stories.  

Sometimes the world is like Alice says when she calls it “curiouser and curiouser.” When we have those surreal and off kilter moments where it seems that we fell through the looking glass, it never hurts to take a step back and take in the wonder of it all.  California Chrome has certainly given us a wonderland of joy.  Thousands have made the journey with him. Can a horse change someone’s life? Looks to me like this powerful Horse of the Year has indeed!  Congratulations! For that, lets raise a toast to California Chrome and to all who love and care for him.      

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