Goose bumps. They happen when sports fans witness greatness, and there was no mistaking what a crowd of 24,155 was feeling and seeing from start to finish during Saturday's $1-million Pacific Classic at Del Mar.
California Chrome, the world's No. 1 money-winning thoroughbred, burst out of the starting gate from the No. 1 hole and led every step of the 1 1/4-mile race en route to a five-length victory over three-time Eclipse Award winner Beholder. Dortmund finished third.
"He's just an amazing horse," jockey Victor Espinoza said. "He won so easy today. I'm going to say this now — this is the best horse I've ever ridden."
A lot of jockeys say that after a big win, but consider that Espinoza rode American Pharoah to the Triple Crown last year.
This was supposed to be the race of the year. It became a mismatch right before the gate opened when Espinoza made a split-second strategic decision.
"When when I was behind the gate, I thought, 'You know what, I'm going to send him out of here,'" he said. "I'm going to send him hard out of the gate. I tapped California Chrome a couple of times and I was surprised I opened up two or three lengths right away."
Beholder's jockey, Gary Stevens, said he was hoping Dortmund's trainer, Bob Baffert, would have told jockey Rafael Bejarano to put pressure on California Chrome from the start.
"Victor was loaded," Stevens said. "He ran a great strategic race. What a horse. California Chrome is as good as I've ridden against."
California Chrome, winner of the 2014 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, has won all five of his races in 2016. The $600,000 winning purse gives him career earnings of $13,252,650, a North American record. Espinoza had been 0 for 15 in the Pacific Classic. The winning time was 2:00.13. California Chrome went off as the even-money favorite and returned $4.20, $2.60 and $2.20.
"How can you say anything more about him?" said his 79-year-old trainer, Art Sherman. "He's just been a super horse. He's the best horse in the country."
Earlier Saturday, the 3-year-old filly Alicanto became the 15th horse this summer at Del Mar to be euthanized following an injury. She broke down during a workout, injuring exercise rider Manny Rotella, who was listed in good condition after being transported to Scripps La Jolla Hospital.
"We always monitor things very carefully," said Dr. Rick Arthur, equine medical director of the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and advisor to the California Horse Racing Board. "There's no trend we can identify. We will continue to look at this well past the end of the meet. We're obviously concerned whenever there's a fatality. We're aware of what's going on."
It was a day to remember in horse racing. At Saratoga, the unbeaten 3-year-old filly Songbird improved to 10 for 10 in her career by romping to a seventh-length victory in the Alabama Stakes under jockey Mike Smith. Tourist won the $500,000 Fourstardave Handicap.
In the Grade I, $300,000 Del Mar Oaks, it was a blanket finish, with the East Coast invader Harmonize winning by a head over Decked Out, who was a nose in front of Stays In Vegas. In the Grade II, $250,000 Del Mar Handicap, Ashleyluvssugar won a nose victory over Metaboss. Texas Ryano was third.
Aug. 22, 8:45 a.m.: This article has been corrected to state 15 horses had been euthanized this summer at Del Mar following an injury.