The Winter Challenge was supposed to be a procession—a proper sendoff for the King of California.
And that's exactly what it was.
California Chrome , the California-bred with an unpretentious pedigree who has captured so many hearts during his four seasons of racing, romped in the race that was designed for him to romp in. The son of Lucky Pulpit cruised home 12 lengths ahead of the rest of the field in the $180,000 event and stopped the clock in 1:40.03 for 1 1/16 miles, a track record at Los Alamitos Race Course. The previous track record of 1:40.82 was set by Uncle Lino , appropriately in the California Chrome Stakes.
Four-wide in the first turn and six-wide entering the second, tracking a group of runners intent on being ahead, California Chrome took command just in front of the three-eighths pole and pulled away from the field with ease. The roar as he made his move far exceeded what should be expected from a crowd of 5,023.
Presidentsky, a 257-1 longshot, was the leader early and ran the first quarter in :23.64, with California Chrome fourth but only two lengths off the lead. That margin remained through a half-mile in :47.65, but California Chrome checked in fifth at that call. The superstar chestnut took over to run six furlongs in 1:11.28 and a mile went in 1:34.09. From a furlong out to the wire, he extended his advantage from six lengths to 12 without any asking from jockey Victor Espinoza.
“He felt strong—super strong today," Espinoza said. "I know the competition wasn’t that great, but for me, the most important thing was how he felt physically. It’s pretty amazing how this horse—he can never go down for a second. It doesn’t matter how many times he runs, he comes back stronger and loves to run.”
Grade III winner Point Piper, far and away second best and 3 1/4 lengths ahead of Papacoolpapacool, was the closest to the 2014 Horse of the Year, but was never a threat as California Chrome galloped to the wire.
And what was trainer Art Sherman thinking as his prized pupil and Espinoza turned for home?
"Go on with him now. Don’t be looking over your shoulder," the 79-year-old conditioner joked, in reference to criticisms Espinoza received for his ride on California Chrome in the Nov. 5 Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I).
Espinoza has been candid in response to that criticism, that his looking around late in the Classic without asking California Chrome soon enough contributed to his loss to Arrogate , and Saturday was no different.
“Maybe I blew it. Maybe I gave it away," Espinoza said. "You can’t be perfect every race. I’ve ridden many races, and some incredible races. But that one race, the Breeders’ Cup Classic, I could have just done a little bit better. ... But to me, we’ve been through a lot, California Chrome and myself. He turned around my career. His career is just like mine—ups and downs and he still comes back."
On Saturday, Sherman got the exact trip he wanted. With by far the best horse, a wide trip in the clear was ideal.
“I told (Espinoza), ‘Keep him in the clear. You might be on the lead, but you don’t have to rush him.’" Sherman said. "People don’t realize, this horse is a better horse coming off the pace. His last couple of races, the way it came up, they let him have the lead, but I really think he’s push-button. You can ride him any way you want.”
Sherman embraced a visibly emotional Ed Allred in the winner's circle after the race. Allred, the owner of Los Alamitos, has taken the task of keeping the track's most famous resident sound very seriously.
“I’m so glad it’s over," Allred said, wiping tears from his eyes, about the horse who has trained at the Orange County racetrack since early 2014. "When he went to the front, I (was just relieved). It’s been two wonderful years, but it’s time for him to go. He’s so sound and he’s such a wonderful horse."
There was more than enough relief to pass around following the race.
“Me and (Allred)—you get nervous—even when you think you’ve got the best horse," Sherman said. "Any time you leave them in the gate, being a former rider, so many things can happen. You can stumble, you can grab a quarter, you can get knocked down leaving there by the horse next to you. I was just happy we had a safe trip.”
Espinoza, as soon as he jumped aboard, shrugged off any worry. He's been on California Chrome enough to know what he had under him Saturday, even during his warmup.
“The minute I sat on his back—he’s just different," Espinoza said. "Walking to the track and warming up—he’s just completely different. I’ve been riding him for so long, I can tell the difference, and today he surprised me. He was stronger. When that happens, I ride with a lot of confidence."
Where he'll go next is to Gulfstream Park for the $12 million Pegasus World Cup (gr. I) Jan. 28 and from there he'll begin his breeding career in Kentucky. Los Alamitos wrote the Winter Challenge to serve as California Chrome's prep for the Pegasus, but also to put on one last show for his home state in his only start at his home track.
Off as the overwhelming 1-9 favorite, California Chrome paid $2.10 to win. There was no place or show wagering. With nearly 88% of the $740,956 win pool wagered California Chrome, Los Alamitos and other wagering interests lost $58,170 because of a negative pool. His California career came to a close with a 12-3-1 record from 18 starts in the state.
“It’s great for racing," Sherman said. "We gave back—this is what it’s all about. It brings new fans to the races and we need a lot of new fans to keep the game going.”
As for Arrogate, who could run in the San Pasqual Stakes (gr. II) Jan. 1 at Santa Anita Park as his prep for the Pegasus World Cup, Sherman can hardly contain his excitement to get another shot at the gray colt trained by Bob Baffert.
“I’m ready. I’m going to be chomping at the bit," Sherman said. "I think you’re going to see a hell of a race. I really do.”