Horses

All in a year’s work: Resurgent California Chrome taking Taylors on fairy tale ride

California Chrome and jockey Victor Espinoza, foreground, hold off a persistent Dortmund, with Gary Stevens, to win the Grade II, $200,000 San Diego Handicap on July 23, 2016, at Del Mar. California Chrome will face Dortmund and champion mare Beholder on Saturday in what is arguably the best ever edition of the Grade I Pacific Classic.
California Chrome and jockey Victor Espinoza, foreground, hold off a persistent Dortmund, with Gary Stevens, to win the Grade II, $200,000 San Diego Handicap on July 23, 2016, at Del Mar. California Chrome will face Dortmund and champion mare Beholder on Saturday in what is arguably the best ever edition of the Grade I Pacific Classic. AP

Two seasons ago, Frank Taylor and his brothers were glued to watching the fairy tale of the modestly bred colt with the small-time connections play out on the road to the Triple Crown. Because when a horse is as good as California Chrome was in 2014, most stud farms worth their salt will see what might be possible.

“The problem is, our radar is expansive but our budget is not,” laughed Taylor, who along with brothers Duncan, Mark and Ben have made their Nicholasville-based Taylor Made Farm into one of the Thoroughbred industry’s leading sales and breeding operations.

And so, the Taylors inquired about investing in Chrome only to find the numbers being thrown out by his connections too stratospheric for their operation — or any other — to bite on. Then, the fairy tale started giving way to tough losses and internal strife and, by the time Duncan Taylor headed to Arlington Park last summer to make a serious pursuit about purchasing a minority share in the dual classic winner, competition had dropped off and many had written off hope of the 2014 Horse of the Year getting back to the track.

No one has ever made anything significant happen in Thoroughbred racing without giving the dice a good roll, so the Taylors took their shot and bought in. They brought the chestnut colt back to their farm and let time heal the bone bruising and fatigue that was robbing him of his form.

What they kick-started was a remarkable second chapter to the tale that could end up more fantastical than the first.

‘We’ll take a shot’

In a season filled with enduring talent from racing’s established stars, the re-emergence of California Chrome as both a national darling and leader of his division cannot be understated considering where his story stood one year ago.

After being given the rest of 2015 to recover from bone bruising following a runner-up finish in the Dubai World Cup and aborted plans to run him at Royal Ascot and the Arlington Million, the 5-year-old son of Lucky Pulpit has come back to win each of his four starts this year. Heading into Saturday’s epic showdown against Beholder and Dortmund in the Grade I, $1 million Pacific Classic at Del Mar, those wins include his triumph in the $10 million Dubai World Cup in March that made him the richest racehorse in North American history with more than $12.6 million in earnings.

To go from off-form champion to leader in the 2016 Horse of the Year race is a twist in the narrative few would have predicted when tensions got the best of majority owner Perry Martin, minority owner and co-breeder Steve Coburn and trainer Art Sherman last year, sparking Coburn to sell his portion of the colt. However, if everything happens for a reason, the tumult of watching California Chrome lose five of six races at one point beginning with his failed Triple Crown bid in the 2014 Belmont Stakes might have been the blessing in disguise that got the ship righted.

When the Taylors purchased 30 percent of California Chrome last July, they consulted with veterinarians who said the bone bruising should not prevent him from returning to racing at a high level. If he didn’t get back to his prior form, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner was established enough that it likely wouldn’t hurt his initial bottom line as a stallion too much.

But if he could come back and, say, win the world’s richest race and put himself in real contention for a second Horse of the Year crown, both his stud potential and his legacy would be immeasurably enhanced.

“At first we were thinking, of course we wanted him for breeding. But once we bought him we started looking at the economics and what he could earn in the breeding shed and what he could earn at the track. ... He wasn’t one of these Derby winners where he won and you never heard from him again,” said Duncan Taylor, president of Taylor Made Farm. “He had a bottom value. It may go down a little bit, say, if we raced him and he didn’t do any good for a year and then we brought him to stud. But if he went and ran good and could win the Dubai World Cup, it would be two to three times more than what you could earn in stud fee income.

“So we said, we’ll take a shot and try to run him. And Perry of course wanted to do that anyway. He’s always wanted to continue to race the horse.”

‘He loves people’

The care California Chrome received during his time at Taylor Made last summer did wonders for both his physical recovery and in reviving his rabid fan base. When the champion was returned to Sherman’s barn last October, his dappled-out body had added about 160 pounds to a frame that was previously thin and dull upon returning from England.

While on their grounds, the Taylor Made crew also made it a point to share the charismatic colt with those who love him. They hosted California Chrome “Fan Days” where patrons could visit the five-time Grade I winner and tour the farm. They also have put out Chrome merchandise and a marketing campaign that has served to remind the sport of the star power he still carries.

“We knew he was popular and that people still loved the horse but once we got him to the farm, I’ve never seen people respond to a horse like they do him,” said Frank Taylor, vice president of boarding operations for Taylor Made. “They just love this horse and he’s so good looking and he’s got a heck of a personality. The Shermans, they’ve done such a great job with the fans and letting them be around the horse.

“He loves people, he loves the attention and we try to be real open with him. It will help the sport, and we’re trying to do that as well as win a bunch of good races and make him a good stallion.”

A different approach

While the Taylors are veterans of being around elite animals like their late, cornerstone stallion Unbridled’s Song, they have rarely dipped their toes into the racing side at a level that compares to where California Chrome has taken them.

When Frank Taylor was on the Belmont Park backstretch the week of this year’s Belmont Stakes, an office employee giddily asked to shake his hand upon learning he was an owner of the two-time Eclipse Award winner. Interest in the colt within the industry is such now that the Taylors have sold some of their shares to partners and now retain 22 percent of the colt.

They will also tell you that whatever fairy tale they thought they were witnessing in 2014 is nothing compared to what the boys who grew up watching their late father, Joe Taylor, run Gainesway Farm are living out currently.

“What this has also done is given us the experience of racing a horse at the top end of the game, because we’re not a big racing operation,” Duncan Taylor said. “We serve the people who have these kind of horses. We don’t have them ourselves.

“If you had told me when I was a kid out there mowing John Gaines’ yard watching him drive by in his Mercedes that one day you’ll own part of the horse that is the richest ever in North America, I would have said you’re crazy. That was my perception of the chances of anything like that being able to happen. But it’s a blessing and we’re very fortunate to be in that position.”

Alicia Wincze Hughes: 859-231-1676, @horseracinghl

Saturday

Pacific Classic

When: 9:15 p.m. EDT

Where: Del Mar

TV: TVG

Purse: $1 million (Grade I)

For: 3-year-olds and up

Distance: 1  1/4 miles

Favorite: California Chrome (8-5)

Pacific Classic field

1 California Chrome (8-5)

2 Hoppertunity (8-1)

3 War Story (30-1)

4 Hard Aces (15-1)

5 Win the Space (15-1)

6 Imperative (20-1)

7 Beholder (3-1)

8 Dortmund (5-2)

9 Dalmore (20-1)

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