One week after receiving both the Horse of 2016 and Champion Older Horse Eclipse Awards, California Chrome met his chief rival for Horse of the Year, Arrogate (the winner of the 3-year-old Male Eclipse). The two were entered in the premiere of the Pegasus Stakes at Florida’s Gulfstream Park.
Created by Frank Stronach, chairman of the company that owns a collection of American racetracks including Santa Anita and Gulfstream, the Pegasus offered a $7million first place prize. To provide that large of a payout, owners of twelve entrants were required to each put up a $1million entry fee. They were guaranteed a minimum $250,000 return, no matter where their horse finished.
While Arrogate was the betting favorite (at 4 to 5 at post time), Chrome was close by at 6 to 5 and earned the largest roar from the crowd as he and jockey Victor Espinoza headed to the track. The Pegasus was to be Chrome’s final race before retiring to stud at Taylor Made Farms.
Crowds watched at Gulfstream, via simulcasts at other racetracks across the country, and on NBC-TV. Not only were the “Chromies” on hand, but so were fans of the sport who have watched the highs and lows of Chrome’s career- wins at the Kentucky Derby and Preakness followed by missing the Triple Crown with a loss in the Belmont; success at the Dubai World Cup; an unsuccessful attempt at English racing; and a terrific 2016 season with six straight wins until he met Arrogate at the Breeders’ Cup Classic and lost by half a length.
For the Pegasus, Arrogate and jockey Mike Smith drew the more enviable number one post position while Chrome had the far outside number twelve spot. This meant Espinoza would have to get Chrome to immediately take off, much like the winged horse Pegasus, to be near the front of the pack before the early first turn in the 1 1/8 mile distance at Gulfstream.
And Espinoza did just that, successfully placing Chrome at fourth and then up to third alongside Arrogate. The race looked like it was going to be the much anticipated match race until the contenders neared the far turn along the backstretch. At that point, while Arrogate and Smith took off, aiming for the lead, Chrome and Espinoza started to slow. Stunned crowds watched as other horses passed Chrome. Entering the final stretch, Espinoza stopped urging the champ. They ultimately crossed the finish line in ninth place.
The victory was Arrogate’s in a perfectly run race. But, the final career race for Chrome was a reminder that, as in any sport, injuries are a possibility. Chrome’s trainer, Art Sherman, told TVG after the race that Chrome was exhibiting issues with his front right leg. His leg was to be examined to determine whether the cause was fluid on Chrome’s knee or a bone chip.
Either way, despite the disappointing finish, the bright side is that Espinoza worked as a team with Chrome. When the champ began to slow rather than take off, Espinoza didn’t push the thoroughbred to “work through the pain.” By easing up at the top of the final home stretch, Espinoza respected Chrome’s condition and put the thoroughbred’s welfare first.
Over his career, California Chrome has experienced a roller coaster of events. The product of a $10,000 investment, he went on to win purses totaling $14.75million, making him North America’s top money-earning horse. And, despite some awkward public comments from his original owners, Chrome has always had racing fans’ hearts. He twice won the Vox Populi (in 2014 and 2016), an award created by Secretariat’s owner Penny Chenery to let racing fans vote for their favorite horse of the year.
Chrome reinvigorated the training career of 79-year-old Sherman and made jockey Espinoza a household name the year before he was associated with Grand Slam winner American Pharoah. So, it is with thanks to a true thoroughbred champ that Chrome is wished a speedy recovery and a very successful retirement at Taylor Made in Kentucky.