01/06/2017 10:26AM

2016 Eclipse Awards: California Chrome

John Bambury
California Chrome would come up a half-length short in the Breeders' Cup Classic, his only loss in eight starts in 2016.

Here are some of the things California Chrome did not do in 2016.

He did not win the Breeders’ Cup Classic. He did not win the most Grade 1 races, nor did he compete anywhere other than California and Dubai.

He also did not get up on his hind legs and recite the Gettysburg Address, or rip the Pipeline off Oahu’s North Shore, or dope-slap Garry Kasparov over a friendly game of cutthroat chess.

But that’s only because he didn’t try.

Few horses can boast the kind of mythic aura enjoyed by California Chrome. Even fewer deserve such devotion. John Henry, Fourstardave, Cigar, Zenyatta, Rachel Alexandra, Smarty Jones, American Pharoah – like California Chrome, they all stirred a fan frenzy that broke through the rigid borders of the Thoroughbred sport.

:: Eclipse Awards: 2016 finalists with profiles

If California Chrome appears to be a slam-dunk choice in the Eclipse Award category of champion older dirt male and the favorite for Horse of the Year, it is because he fulfilled a carefully crafted 2016 campaign that was purposely aimed at the highest levels of the game, and came within a few feet of absolute perfection.

It did not have to happen that way. There was no guarantee that the 5-year-old version of California Chrome would be an improvement on the 3-year-old colt who came within two lengths of winning a Triple Crown on an injured hoof. He was the 2014 Horse of the Year anyway, and 2015 was supposed to be his oyster. Then the bubble burst, and he went to the farm halfway through his 4-year-old season, bruised and discouraged. At least it was fun while it lasted.

Enter Tayor Made Farm, led by Frank and Duncan Taylor, who partnered with co-breeder Perry Martin and brought a group of like-minded breeders into the California Chrome fold. There was money to be made with a fresh and healthy 5-year-old horse, whose value as a stallion had to be earned on the racetrack instead of the pedigree page.

Their plan for 2016 was simple: Let Art Sherman call the tune. The trainer circled three dates – the Dubai World Cup in March, the TVG Pacific Classic in August, and the Breeders’ Cup Classic in November. He plotted prep races for each major goal. Then one by one he knocked down the pins.

After wins in the San Pasqual Stakes and a minor prep race in Dubai, California Chrome literally ran out from under his saddle in winning the World Cup by nearly four lengths. Somehow, Victor Espinoza hung on, then dismounted, tightened the girth, and loped the red horse back to the cheers of a delirious crowd.

To prepare for the Pacific Classic, California Chrome faced down a determined Dortmund to win the San Diego Stakes. In the Pacific Classic itself, Chrome led defending champ Beholder on a fruitless chase to win by five.

California Chrome faced Dortmund again in the Awesome Again Stakes at Santa Anita, a month before the Breeders’ Cup. By then, Dortmund had seen enough of California Chrome, who won with Espinoza wrapped up and ready for more. That left it to Dortmund’s younger stablemate, Travers winner Arrogate, to find out if California Chrome was mortal after all.

He was, but by only half a length at the end of an inspiring Breeders’ Cup Classic that pitted the best older horse against the best 3-year-old in the nation. The victorious Arrogate camp gave full credit to California Chrome, who seemed to gain as many fans in valiant defeat as he ever had in victory.

California Chrome ended his year with a mid-December exhibition of raw speed in a minor Los Alamitos race designed to keep him on edge for his final start in the new $12 million Pegasus World Cup on Jan. 28 at Gulfstream Park. He ended 2016 with career earnings of $14.5 million, tops among North Americans, and a career record of 15 wins in 25 memorable starts.