California Chrome bid a fond farewell to his loyal fans in his home state with a track-record performance in the $180,000 Winter Challenge Saturday at Los Alamitos Race Course.
The race, which was created specifically for California Chrome, amounted to a prep race for the $12 million Pegasus S. (G1) next month at Gulfstream Park. Regular rider Victor Espinoza avoided any potential trouble by keeping the 5-year-old well out in the racetrack.
Despite the very wide trip, California Chrome coasted to the lead nearing the top of the stretch, then cantered home a 12-length winner in a track record 1:40.03 for the 1 1/16-miles.
“When I got on him today he was stronger and it really surprised me. When that happens I have a lot of confidence," said Espinoza. "I played it by ear coming out of the gate and when I saw some horses inside of me go, I just decided to sit off them and keep him in the clear. He’s very tactical and doesn’t need the lead. It was perfect.’’
An emotional Art Sherman, California Chrome's trainer, was talkative afterwards.
“I was pretty nervous before the race. You know your horse is better than the others running in the race, but it is a horse race and anything can happen. Victor rode him with a lot of confidence. You could see he was much the best. I told Victor keep him in the clear and don’t get him in any trouble. He rode him like he was about 10 lengths the best horse. It was just perfect. Now I can relax and get ready for the Pegasus (World Cup Jan. 28 at Gulfstream Park). I want (Breeders’ Cup Classic winner) Arrogate bad. I have something in my heart that says Chrome can beat him. The atmosphere here was just wonderful. It did my heart really good to be able to run him 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. Let’s hope he pulled up well. He looked fine when he came by. I know with his record he will be (Champion older male) but I’m rooting for him to be Horse of the Year. That would be a great way for him to go out.’’
California Chrome picked up $50,000 for the win, upping his North American earnings record to $14,502,650.
The chestnut son of Lucky Pulpit will have one final career start in the Pegasus before he takes up stud duties at Taylor Made Farm, with an announced fee of $40,000.
With his 2016 season complete, California Chrome finished 7-1-0 in eight starts and earned $8,180,000, making him a certain finalist for Horse of the Year, an honor he also earned in 2014 after winning the Kentucky Derby (G1) and Preakness (G1).