California Chrome impresses in Santa Anita return

California Chrome impresses in Santa Anita return
California Chrome, with jockey Victor Espinoza board, wins the $200,000 San Pasqual Stakes on Saturday. (Benoit Photo)

A year ago, he was the most recognized name in horse racing.

Fresh off a 3-year-old campaign that brought him two lengths shy of a Triple Crown and a neck within a Breeders' Cup Classic win, California Chrome was soon to embark on a globe-trotting tour designed to enhance his legacy and his owners' retirement accounts.


His season expired after two races, short-circuited by a bruised foot. Then the phenomenon of American Pharoah blotted out the sun that shines on other thoroughbreds, and Pharoah's slight elder became the answer to, "Who was the 2014 horse of the year again?"

California Chrome emerged from dormancy as a 5-year-old to renew acquaintances with an adoring public Saturday at Santa Anita by owning the Grade II San Pasqual Stakes.

Aside from a wardrobe update for jockey Victor Espinoza, Chrome was the spitting image of his dazzling 3-year-old self.

Clad in newly commissioned silver and gray silks to reflect the horse's surname, Espinoza willingly yielded the early lead to Alfa Bird, settled Chrome into second place until the backstretch, then roared past the longshot.

Chrome fended off Imperative to triumph by 1 1/4 lengths, a misleading margin that fails to quantify his dominance.

"For such a long time off, I didn't want to burn him too much," said Espinoza, also the rider of American Pharoah, which explains his permanent smile nowadays. "I wanted to go easy on him today. I expected him to be more tired than he was."

California Chrome "could have opened up turning for home, but Victor put the full-Nelson on him," trainer Art Sherman said.

Sherman, accustomed to agonizing over how to prepare Chrome in narrow time frames between starts, now worried about his game plan with a 287-day layoff.

But then, Sherman said, "After watching him work the other day, he impressed me so much that I figure he could overcome anything."

There was little to overcome after 2015 Santa Anita Derby winner Dortmund, expected to inject suspense into the race, was not entered.

Fifteen minutes before post time, co-owner Perry Martin glanced up at the tote board at the odds and said, "Is that 1-to-9?"

It was, though the 12,528 patrons at Arcadia and other wagerers at off-track sites did not quite show that much love. With a few wielding "welcome home, Chrome" signs, they sent the state-bred off at odds of 3-to-5.

Sherman and the ownership, which no longer includes the irascible Steve Coburn, have differed before on Chrome's racing schedule, and they appear headed toward more debate.

Martin believed the horse tired down the stretch and suggested two additional outings are required prior to the Dubai World Cup on March 26.


Sherman scoffed at the notion. "He don't need two more races" before the World Cup, the trainer said. "I'll run him once more."

Either way, California Chrome has an overseas flight booked on an odyssey his camp anticipates will be more gratifying than the one that drove him off the racing grid.