Any time a horse is honored with the title Horse of the Year, he or she joins elite company.
Plenty of previous horses have earned multiple Horse of the Year awards—11 (since 1936, when awards became official), to be exact—but only two before California Chrome won in non-consecutive years.
The fleeting nature of the sport, which often sees youthful horses retire before full maturity, does not lend itself to horses finding top form in non-consecutive years.
But the California-bred son of Lucky Pulpit who has captured so many hearts is now in the company of Hall of Famers Native Dancer (1952 and 1954) and John Henry (1981 and 1984) as those who have sustained excellence enough to be considered the best horse in the country at significantly different stages of their careers.
In his 2014 Horse of the Year season, California Chrome took horse racing by storm. The unassuming colt tore through Southern California's Triple Crown preps, then made his bid to end the Triple Crown drought with victories in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1) and Preakness Stakes (G1), before running fourth in the Belmont Stakes (G1). His only other victory that year was on grass in the Hollywood Derby (G1T), but it was enough to secure him the top honor in North American racing.
As impressive as he was during his 3-year-old season, the physical specimen that returned to trainer Art Sherman’s barn at Los Alamitos Race Course late in 2015 after a disappointing spring and summer was a different horse in mental maturity and physical stature.
“He’s significantly larger than he was when he was a 3-year-old,” Sherman said upon California Chrome’s arrival in November of 2015, after an extended turn out at Taylor Made Farm. “He looks great. ... It’s going to be a challenge to get him back to his peak, but there’s a chance he could be a better horse. You just don’t know. If he’s better, he’s going to be an awesome horse next year.”
The veteran conditioner’s comment was prescient. For much of the year, “awesome” was an apt description.
Back under the care of Sherman and his son, Alan, California Chrome began his 2016 campaign with a serviceable win in the San Pasqual Stakes (G2), his first start in more than nine months.
Then came his trip to Dubai, where he ran second in the Dubai World Cup Sponsored by Emirates Airline (G1) in 2015, which was the final start of his derailed 4-year-old season. California Chrome easily won his handicap prep for the World Cup. Then came the main event. With the richest purse in the world on the line, the fully developed 5-year-old was wide throughout, and even though his saddle slipped nearing the wire, still humbled the field en route to a clear victory.
Back at home in Southern California, he got a stiff challenge in another big-race prep. In the San Diego Handicap (G2) at Del Mar, California Chrome shadowed the hulking Dortmund in the backstretch and inched ahead in the final turn, but he could not fully turn away his rival. The duo battled to the wire in a stretch run to remember, but it was the smaller chestnut who came up a half-length on top.
In the big race at Del Mar, however, there would be no challengers. In one of the most anticipated matchups in Pacific Classic (G1) history, California Chrome set the pace under regular jockey Victor Espinoza and defeated fellow champion Beholder, as well as Dortmund, in an absolute rout. The winning margin at the wire was five lengths, but it might as well have been 10 ahead one of the best racemares in recent history, who had similarly romped in the Pacific Classic a year before. Espinoza gave California one tap of the whip at the eighth pole just to make sure, but geared his mount down to a gallop in the final strides.
In California Chrome’s next start, the Awesome Again Stakes (G1), Dortmund served as runner-up. However, another Bob Baffert stablemate played spoiler in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1). Upstart 3-year-old Arrogate, who in his previous start ran the fastest Travers Stakes (G1) in history, wore down the front-running California Chrome in the stretch to snatch away the Classic and the seven-time grade/group I winner's undefeated season.
Arrogate, the 3-year-old male champion of 2016, was also a finalist for Horse of the Year. He may have defeated California Chrome, but his rival’s full résumé ultimately won out.
“You’re around a lot of good horses—like Kelso and all of them—that stood up at an older age and you wonder, could he be like that?” Sherman pondered one morning, after watching California Chrome work at Los Alamitos. “I think, to me, he’s outstanding. But could he be an all-time great? Like Secretariat, or John Henry—could you put him in the same category?”
The horse who won the last stakes race at Hollywood Park as a 2-year-old in 2013 had more in store for Sherman, but on that morning the question hung in the crisp winter air. There was no answer, and there is truly no clear answer when comparing the all-time greats. What is clear is that California Chrome provided a rare occurrence in horse racing—a first act of brilliance and a second act where he came back even better.