What if I told you 12 months ago that by the time his career had concluded, California Chrome would be the most accomplished U.S. Classic winner since Spectacular Bid, the leading U.S. money earner of all-time, and a certain first year Hall of Fame inductee? Well, I think we know what most, if not all racing fans and writers alike would have thought, not a chance.
Count me as one of those skeptics, though I kept my skepticism to myself. I am a California Chrome fan, but let’s face it, I was fully prepared to read the headline of California Chrome being sent to stud every day I read the latest racing news for many months after the Royal Ascot plan unraveled. Let’s back up even further when looking back at the remarkably unique and unparalleled career of the horse who came from humble beginnings.
After losing the Belmont Stakes, and the Triple Crown by a little less than two lengths, after stumbling outward at the start in June of 2014, California Chrome reappeared 14 weeks later in the Grade 2 Pennsylvania Derby and proceeded to finish up the track in sixth place. I remember the conversations after the race, and the quick rush to judgment by many fans after the race. They ranged from calling for his retirement, to needing a rest, entering in a lesser race to “get his confidence back”, you name it, and the opinions were out there.
A close up third place finish in the controversial 2014 Breeders’ Cup Classic silenced some of the critics, and then a nice win in the Grade 1 Hollywood Derby a month later seemed to open up other options for the son of Lucky Pulpit. California Chrome was voted Horse of the Year in 2014, but in many people’s eyes, he didn’t get the respect he deserved. The complaint was that he had not won a dirt race since the Preakness Stakes, or a race over older horses.
Anticipation was high for the 2015 debut of California Chrome as he was taking on Shared Belief in a showdown between the top three-year-olds of 2014. Shared Belief defeated Chrome that day, and afterwards, it was confirmed California Chrome would point for the rich Dubai World Cup. Seven weeks later, Chrome would finish second to 15-1 outsider Prince Bishop.
The plan now was to send California Chrome to Royal Ascot for an expected start on the grass in the Prince of Wales's Stakes (Eng-I) mid-June. A move like this was nearly unprecedented for a Kentucky Derby winner. There were many skeptics, but a bruised foot ended any hopes of California Chrome running a Royal Ascot. The next move was to try and make run in the Arlington Million.
Shortly after shipping to Arlington from England to prepare for the Million, he was diagnosed with a bruised cannon bone and was declared out for the remainder of 2015. There was much speculation that he would be sold and retired. There was also speculation that he would head overseas for stud duty. But just five days after his diagnosis, Taylor Made Farm closed a deal to purchase an interest in the dual classic winner from Steve and Carolyn Coburn, Chrome’s co-breeders, with the intent of racing him this year, then standing him at stud in 2017.
Even with this news, did anyone out there really believe that he would see the starting gate of a race again? I know I thought the chances were slim. He was going to get some R & R at Taylor Made, and if that went well he would be sent back to his caretaker from the start, trainer Art Sherman. Just getting him back in his double wide stall at Los Alamitos would be quite an accomplishment.
California Chrome eventually did return to his home at Los Alamitos and the plan of getting him back to the races seemed like it was on track. Workout after workout, Sherman was getting his prized pupil closer and closer to a return to the races. It was announced late last year that Chrome would make his long awaited return to the races in the first major stakes for older horses of 2016, the Grade 2 San Pasqual. Fans would see a new look California Chrome on the track, complete with new silks and a new ownership name. Silver-gray racing silks reflecting his new partnership, California Chrome LLC. Sherman proclaimed his readiness, “He's the best he's ever been since I've had him” and “He truly is something special,” he said.
By entering the gate, California Chrome became only the sixth Kentucky Derby winning colt to run at age five in the last fifty years. No one knew what to expect in this race, would he be the same? Would he be able to win being away from the races so long and all of the stops and starts he encountered? He was favored, but there was widespread doubt he could come back and race at the highest of levels. He did not disappoint his massive fan base as he coasted to an easy win over Hoppertunity.
Next up was a return trip to Dubai for some unfinished business except this time the connections wisely decided to ship in early and get a race over the track. In his prep, he coasted to an easy win. One month later, he went favored in the Dubai World Cup, but at the time, many fans and writers alike fancied Frosted in this race. It was no contest. California Chrome dominated by nearly four lengths despite breaking from post 11, traveling three or four wide on each turn, and the saddle slipping badly in the stretch.
The message California Chrome sent on that March night was clear, this was a much different California Chrome than anyone had seen. He was grown up, and he ran his opponents into the ground. The question on everyone’s mind was, what was next. Could he comeback from Dubai and maintain this form that many past U.S. based winners had struggled to do?
After a few months off, California Chrome was set to return in the Gr2 San Diego Handicap at Del Mar, a prep for the Pacific Classic. This was a Grade 1 caliber race as he was set to face off against a very tough customer in Dortmund, also coming into the race off of a long layoff, at a distance Dortmund would relish. The race lived up to the anticipation as California Chrome and Dortmund battled it out in the stretch, with California Chrome prevailing by a half a length. This race figured to help both in terms of fitness moving forward towards the Pacific Classic.
This year’s Pacific Classic has long been on everyone’s racing calendar because of the possibility of a Beholder and California Chrome match-up. Toss in Dortmund and even Hoppertunity, and this year’s Pacific Classic was widely viewed as the most anticipated edition since the 1996 running with Cigar. Stunningly though, it was no contest. California Chrome from post position number one, a post that was worrisome to many, dominated the race from start to finish to win under wraps by five lengths. He again took the race to his opponents by going straight to the lead, setting fast fractions, and coasting home over a track that was duller than usual and which played to late runners almost all day.
Jockey Victor Espinoza got so excited after the race he called Chrome the best horse he has ever ridden. That may be up for debate by many, but I understand his excitement. He was correct though when he said, “The way he's running now he could beat anyone, anytime. He's run on dirt. He's won on grass. He has won all over the world. He's just so, so special.”
In his last start, California Chrome again won easily in his final prep for the Breeders' Cup Classic. Winning the Grade 1 Awesome Again over rival Dortmund meant that California Chrome is now the only horse to have ever led the NTRA poll for every week heading in to a Breeders’ Cup.
California Chrome is in some very elite company right now. He is a win away in the Breeders’ Cup Classic from being the being the most accomplished U.S. Classic winner since "The Bid". Yes, I know about Alysheba and what he did at age four, and for now, he is the most accomplished since Spectacular Bid. Silver Charm raced as an older horse but he was nowhere near this dominant, and only won one Grade 1 race as an older horse. There have been a few others who have had success. Curlin won the Dubai World Cup and counted three Grade 1 wins as an older horse.
Winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic, though, in the same year after already winning the Dubai World Cup, really places California Chrome in a new light. The way he has won his races, the unbeaten record this season, the fact that he will still run after the BC, all of this is so rare for a sport that has seen so many of its stars whisked away to retirement too soon.
Fans and writers alike need to enjoy this run because we may not see anything like this from a Kentucky Derby winner as an older horse ever again. For most of his career, the California Chrome story has been the most polarizing I have seen in racing in many years. I think most fans and writers can now agree on where this horse stands from a historical perspective. Not a bad career for a horse that came from a $2,500 stud fee and an $8,000 mare. It’s okay now, you can admit you are a “Chromie”, you will have lots of company.