In his farewell to his home state, California Chrome put on a show.
Saturday at Los Alamitos Race Course, America’s richest racehorse romped to a 12-length victory in the $180,000 Winter Challenge, the penultimate race of his storied career.
“I was pretty nervous,” trainer Art Sherman said. “There’s no such thing as a gimme. You know every time you lead one over, something can happen – it’s a horse race.
“But this was just perfect,” Sherman added. “This gives me a lot of confidence. Now, I can relax and get ready for the Pegasus. I want Arrogate bad!”
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Chrome leaves Los Alamitos – and California for the final time – on Jan. 6 for Gulfstream Park in Florida to train for the new $12 million Pegasus World Cup and a much anticipated rematch with Arrogate, the only horse to beat Chrome in 2016. Arrogate, a late developing 3-year-old, narrowly defeated Chrome in last month’s Breeders’ Cup Classic. The Jan. 28 Pegasus is slated to be the final race of Chrome’s career before retirement to Taylor Made Farm in Kentucky.
“We’ve got unfinished business,” said Yuba City’s Perry Martin, Chrome’s co-owner. “We’ll take care of it.”
Created as a showcase for California Chrome, the Winter Challenge lived up to its billing, including a few thrills. With Victor Espinoza aboard, the popular chestnut started from the far outside of nine foes. Instead of setting the pace, Espinoza kept Chrome outside and behind the leaders, tracking in fifth place 257-1 long shot Presidentsky down the backstretch. Heading into the far turn, Espinoza moved Chrome five wide around the leaders and seized the lead in a few long strides.
By the head of the stretch, Chrome had a three-length advantage. He quickly stretched it to double digits.
“When I got on him (Saturday), he was stronger and it really surprised me,” Espinoza said. “When that happens, I have a lot of confidence. I played it by ear coming out of the gate. … He’s very tactical and doesn’t need the lead.”
Sherman agreed, adding that Espinoza’s strategy was by design. “I told Victor to keep him in the clear and don’t get in any trouble,” he said. “He’s such a push-button horse. People don’t realize how much better he is coming off the pace.”
At odds of 1-9, Chrome covered the 1- 1/16 miles in 1 minute, 40.03 seconds, a track record. Point Piper, second choice at odds of 21-1, was a distant second followed by Papacoolpapacool.
Destined to be souvenirs were thousands of on-track $2 win tickets – worth $2.10 apiece if they were cashed. Due to California’s minimum race payouts, Chrome’s victory caused a $58,170 minus pool, meaning that the track had to pay out that much more than was actually wagered to win.
It was worth it, said track owner Dr. Ed Allred. “A lot of history – with (trainers) Wayne Lukas and Bobby Baffert – has come through here. But this was a great moment.”
On a wintry but bright afternoon, more than 5,000 fans turned out to bid the 5-year-old superstar horse goodbye. They chanted “Chrome, Chrome, Chrome!” as the big chestnut pranced to their applause after his 16th trip to the winner’s circle.
“The atmosphere here was just wonderful,” Sherman said. “It really did my heart good to be able to run 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.”
Saturday’s victory added $50,000 to Chrome’s record bankroll of $14,502,650. It also helped cement his bid for a second Horse of the Year title. After wins in the 2014 Kentucky Derby and Preakness, Chrome also was 2014 Horse of the Year.
“I’m rooting for him to be Horse of Year (again),” Sherman said. “That would be a great way for him to go out.”
Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington