California Chrome returns a winner in the San Pasqual Stakes.

California Chrome returns a winner in the San Pasqual Stakes.

Benoit Photo

California Chrome Powerful in Winning Return

The 2014 Horse of the Year took the Jan. 9 San Pasqual (gr. II) in his 2016 debut.

The smile on Alan Sherman's face as he thrust his 19-month-old grandson Logan into the air in celebration didn't wane until after he left the Santa Anita Park winner's circle Jan. 9.

It wasn't just a relief for Sherman, assistant to his father Art Sherman, to see California Chrome  back racing again when he cruised to victory in the $200,000 San Pasqual Stakes (gr. II), his first start since a second-place finish in the Dubai World Cup (UAE-I) last Marchwhich was followed by a globetrotting adventure to England, Chicago, and Kentucky.

Video: San Pasqual S. (G2)

It was an opportunity to recapture the emotion surrounding their once-in-a-lifetime horse

"It was awesome. He got a little tired in the last part, like we expected, but he ran a great race," Alan Sherman said. "He's got a lot of heart and it's kind of neat to have four generations of Shermans here... We feel privileged to have this horse and I'm so happy for my dad."

When the 5-year-old son of Lucky Pulpit  spurted out of the gate in the 1 1/16-mile San Pasqual and settled into a stalking trip behind longshot front-runner Alfa Birdtracking 1 1/2 lengths behind fractions of :24.82 and :49.12 through a half-milethe 78-year-old patriarch and trainer had a good idea of what kind of race his pupil was going to run.

After California Chrome breezed by on the outside to take the lead in the final turnhe was just a head behind Alfa Bird through six furlongs in 1:12.90he opened up a 1 1/2-length advantage at the top of the stretch and largely maintained that margin to the finish. With a few healthy, right-handed reminders from jockey Victor Espinoza, he held off a determined closing drive by Imperative to win by 1 1/4 lengths, hitting the wire in 1:43.39 in his new chrome-colored silks. Hoppertunity closed from seventh to finish third, a length back.

"I thought, when he went to the lead, he had a lot of horse," the elder Sherman said in the middle of a winner's circle overflowing with supporters. "He just waved the stick at him and I knew he would respond. You have to go by him to beat him and I didn't see anybody. They were closing, but he had a little left in the tank."

Espinoza said he was hesitant to ask the 2014 Horse of the Year too much, but also wanted to make sure he felt the same burst he experienced during California Chrome's 3-year-old season.

"He feels like a champ," the jockey said. "The most important thing about him today was that he accelerated in the stretch. Before, he was just steady, but this time he came back like the old Chrome... I had to just let him do his thing and let him run a little bit in the lane."

Off at 3-5, California Chrome paid $3.20, $2.40, and $2.10 across the board. Imperative brought $5.80 and $3, while Hoppertunity, the 5-2 second choice, delivered $2.20 to show.

Grade I winner Hard Aces made mild gains to finish fourth, followed by Blingo, Point Piper, and Alfa Bird to complete the order of finish. Mystery Train was scratched earlier in the day.

The victory also pushed California Chrome to a unique honor. With the $120,000 winner's share from the San Pasqual, the dual-classic winner bred by majority owner Perry Martin and Steve Coburnnow owned in partnership by Martin and Taylor Made Farmis the highest-earning California-bred with $6,442,650 in purse money, edging out Tiznow , with $6,427,830. It's a distinction Art Sherman, a self-described "California-boy" has been looking forward to clinching for some time.

"It means a lot to me that he's now the all-time winningest Cal-bred," the conditioner said. "It's a great honor, and being a California boy like myself, starting out hereit brings back a lot of memories. I'm elated. I really am."

Alan Sherman said after the race that they will ship California Chrome to Dubai Jan. 21. There he will have one prep race before another try in the World Cup, which is set to run March 26.

"We've got to pack our bags," Alan Sherman said. "We'll be over there for almost three months."

Following his trip to Dubai, California Chrome's connections have indicated a path to the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I), with a possible stop at the Pacific Classic (gr. I) in between.

"He'll be a different horse after this race and that's why I was a little nervous (today)," Art Sherman said. "After a nine-month layoff, his first race back, we didn't really crank the screws on him."