Before California Chrome could even reach his nose across the finish line in the Kentucky Derby, the chestnut colt’s exercise rider, Willie Delgado, received a text from his biggest fan back home.
“Daddy, I can’t believe you just won the Kentucky Derby,” wrote Delgado’s 6-year-old daughter, Savannah.
Two weeks later, the 46-year-old former jockey is still soaking in the victory.
But his emotions don’t revolve solely around the thrill of California Chrome’s chase for the Triple Crown, which will continue Saturday in the 139th Preakness Stakes.
That’s because for Delgado, a trip to Pimlico means a trip home.
Only a few hours after he arrived with California Chrome Monday afternoon, Delgado was reunited with Savannah, who lives in Columbia.
“Her mom brought her over here yesterday for me to see her,” he said Tuesday after a morning jog aboard the Kentucky Derby winner. “It was only a 20-minute, half-hour thing. But it was enough for me.”
Assistant trainer Alan Sherman could tell how much the visit meant to Delgado, who hadn’t seen Savannah in about eight months.
“He was very excited about that,” he said.
Reflecting on his return, Delgado smiles warmly at how far he’s come.
It’s a journey that began with a simple vacation last August. At the time, he was working with a few horses in Maryland, but the cold weather began to take its toll on the middle-aged Delgado, who jockeyed from 1985 to 1995 before eventually trying his hand at training.
“I wanted a change,” he said. “But I’m getting older … I was training a few horses myself and just got burnt out. It was just too much.”
Itching for some sun, Delgado went to visit his brother, longtime jockey Alberto Delgado, in California. Within a month, he was on a new path.
“I went out there, fell in love with it and moved out there,” he said.
A few months after the move, he saddled California Chrome — a horse his brother had ridden before —and rediscovered what he calls his true calling, galloping as the colt’s exercise rider.
Through daily morning workouts over the last several months, Delgado and the colt bonded. “Willie and Chrome are buddies,” Sherman said.
Delgado said everything felt familiar as he rode California Chrome on his first trip around Pimlico — except he took an extra moment to reflect.
“This morning I said, ‘Man, I’d never thought I’d been back here with the winner of the Kentucky Derby,’” he said. “It’s nice.”
As he searched for words to sum up the homecoming and the reunion with his daughter, Delgado could only find one: surreal.
“This is where I started. I learned how to gallop here. I rode races here, was a trainer here,” he said. “It’s a good feeling, basically. It’s a really good feeling coming home.”
Chrome likes track
California Chrome took a quick liking to the surface at Pimlico Race Course Tuesday in his first workout since arriving in Baltimore.
Delgado said the Kentucky Derby champion traveled smoothly throughout his one-mile jog at about 6:45 a.m.
“The second he hit the track, he was jogging,” he said.
Delgado said California Chrome seemed to prefer the dirt at Pimlico to that at Churchill Downs. “Churchill wasn’t one of his favorite tracks,” he said. “He just tolerated it.”
Sherman said he wanted to give his horse an easy morning so he could look around and become accustomed to the new running environment. “He’s just a curious horse,” he said.
Sherman said California Chrome will gallop 11/2 miles Wednesday morning and will likely gallop Thursday and Friday as well. Meanwhile, the horse’s trainer, 77-year-old Art Sherman, was set to arrive from California on Tuesday afternoon.
General a Rod ready for better showing
General a Rod didn’t make much of a splash with his 11th-place finish in the Kentucky Derby, but trainer Mike Maker came away thinking the colt never got to show his true talent.
“It looked like every choice Joel [Rosario] made ended up being the wrong one,” Maker said Tuesday at Pimlico. “It just didn’t end up being a good trip. So you cross it off and go to the next one.”
General a Rod will run the Preakness under Javier Castellano, the nation’s leading money winner among jockeys. Castellano rode him to a second-place finish in the Fountain of Youth Stakes on Feb. 22.
Maker went against the trend in pointing his Derby also-ran toward the Preakness instead of the Belmont Stakes. The lesser strength of the field motivated his choice.
“This race looked like, not an easy race, but it’s coming up lighter than the Belmont would if we waited,” he said.
General a Rod hasn’t won since January but established himself as a solid contender with a third-place finish in a deep Florida Derby field on March 29. After arriving at Pimlico Monday afternoon, he galloped 1 1/8 miles on his first trip around the track Tuesday morning.
“He looked great over it,” Maker said.
Sagamore to run four horses
Sagamore Racing won"t have a Preakness Stakes entry this year, but the Maryland operation of Under Armour founder Kevin Plank will have four horses running Preakness weekend.
"It's the big day in Maryland racing and we want to be part of it and be competitive that day," trainer Ignacio Correas said during Tuesday's media day at Sagamore Farm, which Plank purchased in 2007.
Sagamore's entries include Daring Dancer, which will run in Friday's Hilltop Stakes for 3-year-old fillies.
Happy My Way, Tizgale and Hamp will run in Saturday's Preakness undercard.
Sagamore had its first Preakness Stakes starter, Tiger Walk, in 2012.