12/17/2016 9:51PM

California Chrome gives home state fans one last thrill in Winter Challenge

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Benoit & Associates
California Chrome cruises to a 12-length victory under Victor Espinoza in his final start in California.

CYPRESS, Calif.- California Chrome is leaving home a winner.

In his final start in the state where he was bred, California Chrome scored a popular win in the $180,000 Los Alamitos Winter Challenge on Saturday, which was created in recent months as a farewell race.

California Chrome is scheduled to make the final start of his career in the $12 million Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 28 before going to stud in Kentucky in February.

California Chrome, the 2014 Horse of the Year, drew a crowd of more than 5,000 to Los Alamitos on Saturday. They saw what they wanted. As California Chrome left the winner’s circle, the audience crowded on the rails shouted his name, “Chrome! Chrome! Chrome!”

Ridden by Victor Espinoza, California Chrome raced wide for the first six furlongs, took the lead entering the stretch, and won by 12 lengths without urging. California Chrome ran 1 1/16 miles in a track record time of 1:40.03.

“It’s a good day,” trainer Art Sherman said. “You could see what happens when you have a star.”

California Chrome won the 15th stakes of his career in the Los Alamitos Winter Challenge. This year, he has won 7 of 8 starts, with the only loss a second to Arrogate in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita on Nov. 5. Earlier this year, California Chrome won six stakes, including the $10 million Dubai World Cup in the United Arab Emirates in March and the $1 million Pacific Classic at Del Mar in August.

The recent loss was on Sherman’s mind when Espinoza urged California Chrome to the front with more than a quarter-mile remaining.

“Go on with him, now,” Sherman recalled thinking. “Don’t look over your shoulder. We’ve seen a couple of those rides. He was much the best today. This is great.”

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California Chrome led through many of his recent races, but was fourth and then fifth through the first half-mile of the Winter Challenge. Breaking from the outside in a field of 10, California Chrome was three wide on the first turn and five wide on the backstretch and turn. While the trip may have rattled the nerves of California Chrome’s backers, Sherman said he was comfortable with the 5-year-old’s position.

“I told Victor, ‘Keep him in the clear. You don’t have to rush him,’ ” Sherman said in the winner’s circle. “People don’t remember he’s better coming off the pace. He’s a push-button horse.”

California Chrome led by three lengths with a furlong remaining and drew off without urging. Point Piper, the winner of the Grade 3 Longacres Mile at Emerald Downs in August, closed from sixth to finish second, 3 1/4 lengths in front of Papacoolpapacool, who closed from last.

Ain’t Misbehavin finished fourth, followed by Avanti Bello, Presidentsky, Howdy, Wrightwood, Lucky J Lane, and Unusual Meeting.

To encourage participation against such a heavy favorite, the track boosted prize money for the other runners, paying $30,000 for second, $20,000 for third, and $15,000 for fourth and fifth. The other finishers received $10,000 each.

Espinoza said he thought California Chrome was ready when he climbed aboard in the paddock.

“He was super strong today,” Espinoza said. “The most important thing was how he felt physically.”

While the Los Alamitos Winter Challenge was a minor race, Espinoza said the race helped soothe the loss in the BC Classic when Espinoza rode with confidence only to be caught in the final strides by Arrogate.

 “After the race I got beat, it was nice to win the race the way he did today,” Espinoza said. “Maybe I blew it [in the Breeders’ Cup]. It wasn’t perfect. I could have done a little better.”

Espinoza said he was not concerned California Chrome had a wide trip.

“I moved a little early on the turn. I took the first turn a little wide,” he said. “The last turn I thought if the horse next to me doesn’t take the turn I didn’t want to lose ground.”

California Chrome paid $2.10 and was so heavily backed that he created a minus win pool of $58,170. There was no place or show wagering offered.

California Chrome has won 16 of 26 starts and earned $14,502,650, the highest earnings of a North American-based Thoroughbred. Saturday’s win was worth $50,000, and put the famous runner on schedule for the Pegasus World Cup.