California Chrome's racing career in his home state finished in the spectacular fashion everyone expected. He won Saturday's $180,000 Winter Challenge by 12 lengths at Los Alamitos and did it without really trying.
If that's not enough, he set a track record for 1 1/16 miles by more than three-quarters of a second with a time of 1:40.03. The previous record was set by Uncle Lino in, coincidentally, the California Chrome Stakes.
Chrome is stabled at Los Alamitos, yet he had never run a race there. Still he is a rock star at the Orange County track, and pretty much everywhere else. He routinely attracts crowds at Los Alamitos on Saturday mornings when he works out at 5:30 a.m.
The Winter Challenge was a prep in every sense of the word. The real target is the Pegasus World Cup, a $12-million race on Jan. 28 at Gulfstream Park in Florida. After that race, Chrome will retire from racing.
The Pegasus will be a rematch with Arrogate, who handed Chrome his only loss this year in the Breeders' Cup Classic.
"I want Arrogate bad," trainer Art Sherman said. "One more time. … I got something in my heart that says I can beat him."
Chrome broke well from the 10 hole in the 10-horse race. He settled nicely outside as jockey Victor Espinoza was mostly concerned with keeping him out of trouble.
He rounded the first turn in fourth place and then settled into fifth at the half-mile mark. At times he was four to six horses wide, losing ground that to a lesser horse would be extremely valuable. Chrome didn't need it.
At about the three-quarter-mile mark Chrome took the lead with little to no urging. The rest of the race was simply a matter of how much Chrome wanted to win by.
Chrome paid $2.10 to win, the lowest amount a track can pay on a $2 bet. About 88% of the total win pool of $740,956 was bet on Chrome. There was a minus pool of $58,170 but Los Alamitos is liable only for money bet at the track or at Southern California satellite sites. The crowd was 5,023.
Sherman thinks the race was good enough to settle the debate over who should be horse of the year. Arrogate has won five of six races, two of them Grade 1 stakes. Chrome has won seven of eight races — including the Dubai World Cup — six of them graded stakes.
"This will be great for horse of the year," Sherman said. "I got a chance."
Co-owner Perry Martin was also ready to throw down the gauntlet, using his dry sense of humor.
"He's a good horse," Martin said of Arrogate. "His body of work is two big races. I don't know how many we won. I think we have unfinished business. … We'll take care of it."
No one expected the race to be competitive. How could it have been?
"We knew going in on paper this was going to be a non-competitive race," said Brad McKinzie, vice president and general manager of the Los Alamitos Racing Assn. "But how do you make a competitive race with California Chrome right now?
"The Breeders' Cup had a $6-million purse and Arrogate and California Chrome beat the best horses in the world by 12 lengths. Unless Arrogate is going to run, who are we going to put in there that's going to be competitive with California Chrome? That animal doesn't exist right now."
Nevertheless, they were able to fill the field with nine other horses, although there was some added incentive.
Normally the first-place horse would get about 60% of the purse, but Chrome's connections agreed to just $50,000 for first place. Second place was worth $30,000, followed by $20,000 and $15,000. Merely finishing the race was worth $10,000.
Two of the horses, Ain't Misbehavin and Unusual Meeting, were claimed one race back for $20,000. By virtue of a fourth-place finish Ain't Misbehavin got back 75% of his claim price. Unusual Meeting's last-place finish was good for half the claim ticket.
While the nine losing horses all did well, the day was really about a celebration of California Chrome.
"It done my heart really good to be able to run him in front of Orange County people," Sherman said. "They are so loyal fans and the Chromies are just great. It was a great day for racing. You can see when you have a star what happens. It's just perfect."