Emotional Goodbye for Champion, Fan Favorite California Chrome

The Life
California Chrome stops for one final pose with Jay Privman, far right, of Daily Racing Form lookin on. (Julie June Stewart photo)

Pegasus stared ahead; his heavy-lidded eyes penetrating and piercing as rain fell. There was to be no flashy Florida sunrise this morning that would briefly turn Pegasus’s coat a burnished and brilliant bronze. Instead, the dark, battleship-grey sky simply turned lighter and it was daylight. The statue darkened in the rain. The atmosphere felt appropriate for the setting, as it is often arduous to say goodbye in bright sunshine. It doesn’t fit the movie in our mind. Dismal spirits call for dark and dull skies. 

In Barn 2 at Gulfstream Park, a small group of people gathered to say goodbye to California Chrome. He had raced his final race, retired and was returning to his home at Taylor Made Farms. A scrawny tabby cat stopped and looked at the scene. He held one paw up and debated the mud puddle in front of him while the rain fell on his back. He scurried away. Above, a single pigeon sat on top of the light post and made a soft, cooing lament. Flocks of pigeons sat on the peak of the next barn until something startled them into flight. Their wings made a soft, fluttering sound as they circled and returned.

Fans learn how to feed California Chrome a cookie. (Julie June Stewart photo)

In the barn, Todd Pletcher’s horses returned from their morning workouts and were walking the shedrow. There was a sense of normalcy as Gulfstream Park prepared for another day of racing.  California Chrome came forward in his stall and greeted his admirers. His legs were wrapped for travel and he was immaculate. Love was lavished by his loyal fans as they caressed his forehead. Nodding his head up and down, he was a bit “nippy” until he was fed one of his beloved Mrs. Pastures cookies. Fans were shown how to feed him with their hands open and their palms up. 

Every movement would be accompanied with the soft shutter sounds of the photographers’ cameras.  They slipped under the barn’s protective awning to preserve their equipment from the pouring rain. As they stood there, the bottom third of their jeans darkened and no one paid attention.    

Chrome retreated to the back of his stall. A woman in a straw hat tattooed her fingernails in a steady drumbeat on his stall gate attempting to lure him forward. Cell phone photos were posted on social media. His Taylor Made family was there by his side. The Shermans had left on an early morning flight back to Los Angeles having given their goodbyes in the shadows of the night. His groom, Raul Rodriguez, had everything neatly organized, packed and ready to stow in the open bed of a white pickup truck. Chrome looked around with great interest as they removed his hay ball and he reached forward and snatched one last bite to the delight of everyone watching.

California Chrome watching the team pack. (Julie June Stewart photo)

Rodriguez slipped open the stall and in a well-rehearsed dance, Chrome stepped backward and waited as he clipped a leather shank to his halter and slipped the chain over his noseband. With a quick wave, he brought Chrome out into the shedrow and paused. Chrome posed for the cameras with his calm, alert look, his ears forward taking everything in.    

He was everything we had fallen in love with during his career. This sun-kissed California knockout who galloped with ease into the hearts of thousands. He was fun to watch, easy on the eyes; and it felt great to cheer his name with exuberance. CHROME! You crunched the “C”, rolled the “r” and hummed the “m” which results in a throaty, hearty “Chrome.”    

With Rodriguez by his side, he walked toward the track where he ran his last race; turned right through a fence opening and walked between the barns. His human herd hustled to keep up with him. The rain continued to fall. The grass was wet and you had to negotiate mud puddles. Quickly, with no fuss whatsoever, he was loaded into the horse trailer. Swiftly, the gates went up in a proficient manner and the ramp was efficiently removed. All you could see of California Chrome was the glint of gold from the buckle of his halter. A quiet wave goodbye was given as the cameras clung to any last image that they could capture.  

A glint of California Chrome's halter. (Julie June Stewart photo)

And with the slow rumble, the truck pulled away. I was unprepared for the profusion of emotions that pounded us. Chrome! California Chrome! The funny, quirky boy who entertained us with his backward walk down the ramp at Churchill Downs. The games he would play with Alan Sherman’s hat. The demands for cookies. The luminous chestnut we had photographed at Santa Anita, Churchill Downs, Pimlico, Belmont, Del Mar and beyond. The horse who took our dreams to Dubai and then returned to accomplish them. Chrome and Art. Chrome and Alan. Chrome and Dihigi. Chrome and Victor.  Chrome and his Chromies. Chrome and Frank. Chrome and his cookies.

We know only too well that the time will come when we say goodbye to a favorite horse. A racehorse has a limited career akin to a professional athlete. The horse will retire and go into the next phase of their life. We will say hello again when he emerges in Kentucky with a thicker neck and stout body with all the swagger that we love in a stallion.

But now there was only the empty dock where the truck once stood. With the flood of emotion came some unexpected tears. Photographers hugged. For in that embrace was a shared experience. For five years, we had shot photos of California Chrome. We were there in the darkness when he loved to gallop alone; we were there for his daybreak morning baths. We photographed the way he would raise his head and curl his lip in pleasure. The way he would be docile then strike out with a frisky bite. Almost everyone has a photo of him looking straight onto the camera with his tongue sticking out. How he would stretch his front legs forward during his bath and paw the ground. The memorable morning he emerged from the paddock in the golden light of a New York sunrise at Belmont was breathtaking. His “Notice me now!” King Glorious Stakes win in the darkest of nights, closing weekend at Hollywood Park.  His “Put ME down as your Derby favorite!” win of the Santa Anita Derby. His “How good do I look in roses?” Kentucky Derby win. His “I am a contender” win at the Preakness. His amazing “I may have lost last time but check me out now!” win at the Dubai World Cup. How he could fly; floating away from the field with the sun streaming through his tail looking every inch a Hollywood horse from central casting.  

Photographers embrace. (Julie June Stewart photo)

As I pondered the pain of saying goodbye, I watched the raindrops slowly drip from the petals of an impatiens. In my reverie, I remembered the images from a poem often attributed to Charles Henry Brent. 

“I am standing upon the seashore. A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze and starts for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength, and I stand and watch her until at length she hangs like a speck of white cloud just where the sea and sky come down to meet and mingle with each other. Then someone at my side says, ‘There! She’s gone!’ Gone where? Gone from my sight, that is all. She is just as large in the mast and hull and spar as she was when she left my side, and just as able to bear her load of living freight to the place of her destination. Her diminished size is in me, and not in her. And just at that moment, when someone at my side says, ‘There! she’s gone!’ there are other eyes that are watching for her coming and other voices ready to take up the glad shout, ‘There she comes!’ ”

I smiled as I walked away from the backside. I knew that in a few hours, I would be viewing photographs and video of Chrome’s arrival in Kentucky. The emotion of our goodbye would ebb away as my colleagues exclaim, “There he comes!” With their cameras focused, they will chronicle his next chapter.  Goodbye Chrome! Welcome Chrome! And thank you! 

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