11/01/2014 9:12PM

California Chrome redeems himself with near-miss

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Tom Keyser
California Chrome, ridden by Victor Espinoza, made a game run at Bayern in the stretch, but fell a half-length short in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

ARCADIA, Calif. -- The roller-coaster ride that was California Chrome’s star-studded 2014 campaign came to a bittersweet end in the gloaming at Santa Anita late Saturday afternoon, where the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner came within a half-length of winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic and clinching not only the 3-year-old championship but perhaps Horse of the Year honors as well.

In the end, California Chrome had no real excuse after avoiding the early trouble that eliminated several key contenders in the Classic,  including his chief rival for 3-year-old honors entering the race, the previously undefeated Shared Belief.  Now it is Bayern, who survived a stewards’  inquiry to add the Classic to earlier victories in the Haskell and Pennsylvania Derby, and becomes the front-runner for the title.

California Chrome, who came from humble beginnings, captured the country’s imagination following his victories in the Derby and Preakness. But he became vilified in the eyes of many when his quest for the Triple Crown ended with a fourth-place finish in the Belmont due to inflammatory comments made by co-owner Steve Coburn moments after the race.

California Chrome returned to California and received a well-deserved  break following the controversy in New York.  Training in the relative obscurity of his home base at Los Alamitos, he would start just once prior to the Classic, finishing sixth as the odds-on favorite in the Pennsylvania Derby on Sept. 20.

“I wish we could have gotten in one more race before this one,” said jockey Victor Espinoza, who was lauded for his rides aboard California Chrome in the first two legs of the Triple Crown and then criticized for his handling of the colt in both the Belmont and Pennsylvania Derby. “I had a good trip today. I thought they’d go a little quicker the first half-mile but the other speed [Moreno] got completely eliminated out of the gate. I knew [Bayern]was tough when he’s in front, but I already had my position so I had to wait and be patient. He tried really hard, although in the end he just got a little tired. But it was a tremendous year. It was such a great run winning the Derby and Preakness and after his race today, I still think he deserves to be the 3-year-old champion.”

Alan Sherman serves as an assistant for his father, trainer Art Sherman, and was an integral part of California Chrome’s Triple Crown run, overseeing the horse’s training on the East Coast throughout the series. The younger Sherman said after the Classic that he couldn’t have been prouder of his horse, even in defeat.

“Of course you’d like to win,” said Sherman. “I don’t know if he idled or got a little tired at the end of the race. Maybe it was just that the other two horses kept on running.  Whatever the case, Chrome ran his heart out and that’s all you can ask. Although I do believe Bayern should have been disqualified. What happened after the start really changed the whole dynamic of the race.”

Sherman said he believes the 3-year-old championship and perhaps Horse of the Year honors, could well come down to a close vote among  his horse, Bayern,  and Shared Belief.

“You can probably give the award to any of the three,” said Sherman. “As for us, it was an awesome experience, so much fun. And whether he wins the championship or not, it was still an amazing year.”