To the cheers of an enthusiastic crowd at Los Alamitos, champion California Chrome and jockey Victor Espinoza galloped five-wide around the track to easily defeat nine rivals by 12 lengths in the $180,000 Winter Challenge. The 5-year-old son of Lucky Pulpit set a new track record for 1 1/16 miles, shattering the old one by four-fifths of a second to stop the clock in 1:40.03. Trainer Art Sherman was emotional after Chrome's final West Coast race, the first at the horse's home base of Los Alamitos.
“I can breathe now,” Sherman said. “I was pretty nervous before the race. You know your horse is better than the others running in the race, but it is a horse race and anything can happen. (Jockey) Victor (Espinoza) rode him with a lot of confidence. You could see he was much the best. I told Victor keep him in the clear and don't get him in any trouble. He rode him like he was about 10 lengths the best horse. It was just perfect.”
California Chrome broke very well from his outside post position, but Presidensky and Lucky J Lane were also sent to chase the early lead in the run to the first turn. Lucky J Lane was on nearly even terms with California Chrome, forcing the 2014 Horse of the Year to stay at least five paths off the rail through the first turn. Meanwhile, Howdy slipped in between the two leaders to make a four-wide group at the top of the backstretch, with California Chrome widest of all while a length off the lead through a first quarter in 23.64 seconds.
Forced to stay very wide, nearly eight paths off the rail, up the backstretch, California Chrome dropped to three lengths off the lead. Presidensky held the front position over Howdy, with Lucky J Lane in third. Wrightwood and Point Piper were looming along the inside just behind the leaders, but Espinoza still hadn't moved a muscle aboard a very relaxed-looking Chrome as the field clocked a half mile in 47.45 seconds.
Heading into the far turn, Point Piper made his bid between horses to take the lead briefly, but as soon as Espinoza gave California Chrome the slightest bit of rein the horse took off while five wide, gliding past his rivals as if they were standing still. After three-quarters in 1:11.28, California Chrome held a two-length lead at the head of the lane.
Espinoza never had to move a muscle as the gallant chestnut accelerated all on his own down the lane, galloping through the wire with his jockey keeping a tight hold on the bridle. The official win margin was 12 lengths, but Espinoza had all the horse in the world at the end of the race as the pair galloped out strongly around the turn. Point Piper did hang on to be second, with Papacoolpapacool getting up to be third and Ain't Misbehavin fourth.
In a race without place or show wagering, California Chrome's heavy favoritism still created a “minus win pool,” meaning that Los Alamitos and other wagering interests lost money on that bet – $58,170 to be exact.
“When I got on him today he was stronger and it really surprised me,” said Espinoza. “When that happens I have a lot of confidence. I played it by ear coming out of the gate and when I saw some horses inside of me go, I just decided to sit off them and keep him in the clear. He's very tactical and doesn't need the lead. It was perfect.”
Greeted by the cheers from his local “Chromie” fan club chanting “Chrome, Chrome, Chrome,” the Sherman trainee held his head high walking away from the winner's circle for the 16th time in 26 starts. The $50,000 winner's share of the purse increases his earnings to $14.5 million, the highest of any horse in North America and sixth on the worldwide listing.
California Chrome was bred in California by Steve Coburn and Perry Martin; Taylor Made bought out Coburn's 30 percent share in July of 2015. The Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner was named Horse of the Year in 2014, but in 2015, the colt faded into the background with some bone bruising as American Pharoah catapulted to the top of the U.S. racing scene. Since then, California Chrome went overseas to win the Dubai World Cup, and had compiled an undefeated season in 2016 before just losing the Breeders' Cup Classic to Arrogate.
His final career race is expected to be the $12 million Pegasus World Cup on Jan. 28 at Gulfstream Park. According to Sherman, California Chrome is scheduled to ship to Gulfstream on Jan. 6 to begin his Pegasus preparations.
“Now I can relax and get ready for the Pegasus,” Sherman said. “I want (Breeders' Cup Classic winner) Arrogate bad. I have something in my heart that says Chrome can beat him. The atmosphere here was just wonderful. It did my heart really good to be able to run him in front of Orange County people. They are such loyal fans. This was a great day for racing. You can see what happens when you have a star.
“Let's hope he pulled up well. He looked fine when he came by. I know with his record he will be Older Horse of the Year, but I'm rooting for him to be Horse of the Year. That would be a great way for him to go out.''
California Chrome takes first in our ninth race of the day!!! pic.twitter.com/a3QzqtDXbd
— Los Alamitos Racing (@losalracing) December 18, 2016
Watch the race replay here:
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