08/20/2016 11:19PM

California Chrome toys with classy rivals in Pacific Classic

Emily Shields
California Chrome romps by five lengths under Victor Espinoza in the Pacific Classic.

DEL MAR, Calif.  – It was minutes after California Chrome had won the Grade 1, $1 million Pacific Classic on Saturday at Del Mar when his trainer, Art Sherman, walked into a media room for a press conference, looked up, caught the eye of someone standing nearby and said, under his breath, “We kind of spooked ’em a little, didn’t we?”

 Use whatever adjective you want – spooked, embarrassed, dominated. Any superlative will do, for California Chrome throttled – how’s that! -- top-class horses like Beholder and Dortmund in the Pacific Classic, romping over a track that was duller than usual and played to late runners almost all day.

 The lone exception was an exceptional horse, California Chrome, who shot to the front, set legitimate fractions, had plenty in reserve when Beholder and Dortmund tried to go after him, and cruised to the wire with jockey Victor Espinoza taking a long hold on the reins. The official margin was five lengths, and it was just that emphatic. The best horse in the world had produced another masterpiece on his brilliant 2016 campaign.

 “I’m more confident going forward for the future,” said Espinoza. “We beat the Queen – Beholder – and Dortmund.”

 Beholder, who beat the boys in last year’s Pacific Classic, chased California Chrome throughout and settled for second, 2 1/4 lengths in front of Dortmund. Hoppertunity was fourth and was followed, in order, by Dalmore, Imperative, War Story, Hard Aces, and Win the Space in the field of nine.

 California Chrome ($4.20), the favorite, covered 1 1/4 miles on a fast track in 2:00.13. The fractions were all his, 23.20 seconds for the quarter-mile, 47.29 for a half, 1:11.22 for six furlongs, and 1:35.69 for a mile.

 The victory was the fifth straight this year for California Chrome, whose biggest victory the first half of the year was the Dubai World Cup, and whose year-end goal is the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita on Nov. 5. He secured a fees-paid berth to the Classic by winning the Pacific Classic, a Win and You’re In race.

California Chrome prefers to be outside horses, but he drew the rail. As a result, Espinoza sent him hard away from the gate, taking the track from his two main rivals.

 “I wasn’t worried about the post,” Espinoza said. “I was more concerned with how he’d break out of the gate. I sent him out of there, hard as I can. Try to move out and go from there.”

 Espinoza kept California Chrome a few lanes off the rail, daring anyone to drop inside him. No one took the bait. But as the race unfolded, Gary Stevens on Beholder and Rafael Bejarano on Dortmund had to decide when to move.

 Stevens said he thought he would end up chasing California Chrome.

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“I was hoping they’d send Dortmund, but I suspected they might not because maybe they’re not sure he wants a mile and a quarter,” Stevens said. “I had to try and time my move, because if I hooked him too early I might not even be second.”

 Stevens said that when he asked Beholder to go after California Chrome moving around the far turn, he quickly realized she would not repeat.

 “I was hoping for the same kick she had last year. She kicked, and he opened up,” Stevens said. “When he opened up, I knew I’d have to save something for the last eighth if I wanted to be second. Victor was playing with us. I don’t think he let him run. That’s kind of scary.”

 “The mare ran a hell of a race,” Sherman said of Beholder, “but she was hooking different horses than last year.”

 Bejarano was hoping Stevens would be more aggressive, and thought Stevens settled for second. But he also confirmed that 1 1/4 miles might be stretching it for Dortmund.


“It’s a little far for him. He might want a mile and an eighth,” Bejarano said.

 Sherman had said during the week that he expected California Chrome to move forward off his last start, the San Diego here last month, much as he did in the Dubai World Cup following a prep in Dubai. He beat Dortmund by a half-length in the San Diego; he beat Dortmund by 7 1/4 lengths Saturday.

 One tipoff that California Chrome would fire, Sherman said, was his demeanor in the paddock.

 “He had his game face on,” Sherman said. “He bows his neck. He’s ready.”

 The victory was the 14th in 23 starts for California Chrome. His resume includes the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 2014, as well as that year’s titles as champion 3-year-old male and Horse of the Year. He is the clear leader this season for Horse of the Year, a title he will seek to nail down in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

 California Chrome was scheduled to return to his base at Los Alamitos on Sunday morning, according to Alan Sherman, Art’s son and assistant.

 Now age 5, California Chrome, a son of Lucky Pulpit, is owned by a partnership – called California Chrome LLC -- that includes co-breeder, Perry Martin, as well as Taylor Made Farm, where he will go to stud.

 California Chrome earned $600,000 on Saturday, bringing his career earnings to $13,252,650, a record for a horse born in North America.

 This was the 26th Pacific Classic, and was the strongest ever. The field collectively boasted a Kentucky Derby winner, the first- and third-place finishers from the Dubai World Cup, two winners of the Santa Anita Derby, runners who have won five Eclipse Awards, two Breeders’ Cup races, a Horse of the Year title, and 19 Grade 1 races, plus the race’s only female winner.

 In the end, though, the race was a showcase for the current brilliance and dominance of California Chrome

 “I can’t believe I’m just lucky enough to have him,” Sherman said.