Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 6, 2016

Chrome Finishes A Neck Short Of A Perfect Year

As the Breeders’ Cup Classic field of nine horses turned for home at Santa Anita Park late Saturday afternoon, jockey Victor Espinoza had California Chrome in front by two and one-half lengths. The five-year old chestnut colt had surged to the lead right out of the gate, leaving the other horses to chase him the first time past the packed grandstand, around Santa Anita’s sweeping turns and down the back stretch. The pace had been quick but not blazing, and Espinoza appeared to have plenty of horse left with a quarter-mile to run.

The horse’s legion of fans, self-styled as “Chromies,” came to their feet and offered their support with full-throated roars that seemed to echo off the distant San Gabriel Mountains. California Chrome, one of the most unlikely champions in the history of American horse racing, was two furlongs from claiming the winner’s share of the Classic’s $6 million purse and becoming the richest race horse ever.

No one, least of all Perry Martin and Steve Coburn, could have imagined such a scene when, in 2010, they paid $2,000 to breed Love the Chase, a mare they had purchased for $8,000, to Lucky Pulpit, a relatively unknown sire who had won three times in twenty-two starts on the track. In naming the foal they combined the state of his birth with horsemen’s slang for the white blaze on his face. When Chrome was ready for race training at age two, the low-budget owners turned to Art Sherman, an old school trainer with a small stable of horses housed at Los Alamitos Race Course, a poor cousin to the high-end Hollywood vibe of Santa Anita.

There was little to impress in the horse’s campaign as a two-year old. California Chrome won just twice in his first seven tries, often broke poorly, and showed a dislike for running in traffic. But late in 2013 Sherman decided to switch jockeys, giving the mount to Victor Espinoza. On the last day of racing before historic old Hollywood Park was shuttered for good, Espinoza and Chrome cruised to an easy victory in the King Glorious Stakes.

The new pairing continued their success in Chrome’s three-year old season. They scored a five length win in the California Cup Derby in late January, and won by more than seven at the Grade II San Felipe Stakes in early March. One month later, when California Chrome romped home by a widening margin at the Santa Anita Derby, the improbable star was made the early favorite for the Kentucky Derby.

Racing fans know the story from there. The horse became just the fourth California-bred to win the Derby, making the 77-year old Sherman the oldest trainer to saddle a winner of the country’s premier race. Two weeks later at the Preakness Chrome again went off as the favorite. Just as at the Derby he took the lead at the top of the stretch and went on to win comfortably. All eyes turned to the Big Sandy, the mile and a half oval at Belmont Park. But after three weeks of intense hype because of the long, long wait for a Triple Crown champion, Chrome had his heel clipped by another horse coming out of the gate, and wound up in a dead heat for fourth, less than two lengths behind the winner Tonalist. After the race the garrulous Coburn had a televised meltdown, angry over the fact that the winner had not attempted the grueling schedule of running in all three Triple Crown races.

Still Chrome went on to win another graded stakes race late in 2014 and was named the Horse of the Year. This is the point where the horse’s story veers from the norm. The lure of stud fees usually lure the owners of major stakes winners to retire their steeds after their three-year old season. But Martin and Coburn eventually decided to continue to race their horse. He was sent overseas to try his luck in the Middle East and England in 2015. Separated from his trainer for long periods, California Chrome turned in lackluster performances and was eventually diagnosed with a leg injury. He was shipped back to the United States and given three months off to rest and recuperate.

The long break proved beneficial as Chrome continued to race this year, now at the age of five. Prior to the Breeders’ Cup Classic, he had been sent to the post six times in 2016, from his home state to Dubai and back to the west coast. All six times, at distances ranging from eight and one half furlongs to a mile and a quarter, California Chrome came home at the front of the field. The half dozen wins added to his war chest, and every Chromie knew that their hero had become the career winnings leader among North American horses, with more than $13.4 million in earnings before Saturday.

In the movie version of the horse’s story, perhaps he would have charged down the lane, crossing the wire in front and adding to his legend. But Saturday was not California Chrome’s day. Arrogate, a late-blooming three-year old who set a race record in winning the Travers Stakes at Saratoga in August by thirteen lengths, swung to the outside at the top of the stretch and began to close. Espinoza urged Chrome on, and the leader responded. With a furlong to go it looked like he would hold off jockey Mike Smith and Arrogate. Then in the final hundred yards the pursuer rallied, bounding in front as the pair approached the wire. In the end it was Arrogate by a long neck.

There was disappointment for California Chrome’s many fans, but there should not be dismay. It is the nature of racing that all horses get beat. Secretariat lost. The great filly Zenyatta defeated all comers nineteen times in a row before losing her final race in 2010. Triple Crown champion American Pharoah was rightly called a “horse of a lifetime” by track announcer Larry Colmus as he romped home in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic. But Pharoah had been defeated two months earlier at the Travers.

Rather than despair, the Chromies should celebrate their hero’s many accomplishments and his unmatched heart. For a $2,000 stud fee and from an $8,000 broodmare, two unlikely owners and a little known trainer have given racing fans memories that will last long after California Chrome’s final race has been called.

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