12/19/2016 1:56PM

Hovdey: California Chrome wins one for the purists

Benoit & Associates
A crowd of 5,023 saw California Chrome crush his rivals in the Winter Challenge on Saturday.

Sometimes it’s okay to just watch them run, to strip away all the folderol that has nothing to do with the heart of the matter and simply enjoy the sight of a remarkable Thoroughbred in action.

It happened that way with Tom Fool on Oct. 24, 1953, when he faced just two in the Pimlico Special, the final start of his career. There was no betting on the race – I mean, what’s the point? – and Tom Fool already had secured his Horse of the Year title with nine straight wins. But the 18,965 fans were there to see the big horse run, as well as gamble on eight other races, and Tom Fool did not disappoint. He won by eight in track-record time.

The New York fans who gathered at Aqueduct on Sept. 22, 1965, had no way of knowing that the featured Stymie Handicap would be Kelso’s last moment in the sun. Yes, he was 8 years old, but he was also a force of nature who had been Horse of the Year at 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7. The sight of Kelso entering the stretch in splendid isolation that day moved the crowd to applaud in cadence with his every stride – a rare tribute usually saved for Olympians and opera divas – as he drew off to win by eight.

And what if a tree falls in a forest and no one’s there to bet which way it lands? Forego’s followers found out on May 23, 1977, when a parimutuel clerks strike shut down wagering at Belmont Park. They ran the races anyway, for the benefit of OTB. But save a place in the racing fans’ Hall of Fame for the 7,514 who showed up to watch the three-time Horse of the Year in the flesh win a seven-furlong allowance race that set him up to take the Met Mile one week later.

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The 5,023 fans who filled tiny Los Alamitos on Saturday afternoon to watch California Chrome strut his considerable stuff were a far cry from the 164,906 who jammed into Churchill Downs for his 2014 Kentucky Derby victory, or even the 72,811 who witnessed his donnybrook with Arrogate in last month’s Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita.

But never have five thousand souls been more thoroughly entertained. This was Springsteen playing the local club, Picasso fingerpainting in day care, Fred Astaire dancing at a father-daughter ball. Last Saturday’s Winter Challenge was a fitting thank you to the neighborhood that has played host to racing’s latest Cinderella story.

“I’ve loved having California Chrome here,” said Dr. Ed Allred, owner of Los Alamitos. “But I’ll have to admit I won’t be sorry to see him go.”

The message was clear. California Chrome’s evolution from a promising 3-year-old to an international star with a ripe stallion career on the horizon has put his every move under a microscope, with pressure increased accordingly. Even a setup like the Winter Challenge could not be taken lightly.

“To tell you the truth, I’m a little nauseous,” confessed Art Sherman an hour before California Chrome’s race.

Good for him. Trainers should have butterflies every time they send a horse into battle, no matter what’s at stake. Anyone who believes that any race is routine has not been paying attention. The Winter Challenge was serious because there were nine others in the field, purse money was offered – along with scaled-back gambling opportunities – and California Chrome would be asked to uncork a fast one in ongoing preparation for his final start in the Pegasus World Cup next month.

If nothing else, California Chrome’s track-record win by a dozen lengths served to file a little bit of the edge off a horse who was spoiling for a fight. That morning, as the stallion was leaving the track after a routine jog, he went up on his hind legs right in front of his trainer.

“It seemed like forever, but it was probably for about 10 yards,” Sherman said. “I would’ve got a nosebleed if I’d been on him.

“He’s been doing some crazy things with me lately. That’s why it’s very important with this horse to get a race into him. He gets bored with all the workouts. He knows his routine, and he knows when it’s not for real.”

A mile and one-sixteenth in 1:40.03 is real enough under any circumstances, even over a track that had been sealed tight a few days earlier because of heavy rain. California Chrome returned to the Los Alamitos winner’s circle to a house full of standing fans, waves of cheering, and a “Chrome-Chrome-Chrome” chant that had his ears twitching in appreciation.

“The last time a horse got this kind of reception here was more than 40 years ago,” said Brad McKinzie, who runs the Los Alamitos Thoroughbred meet for Allred. “His name was Kaweah Bar.”

Known as the Palomino Express, Kaweah Bar was a beer-drinking, crowd-pleasing Quarter Horse legend who was twice voted World Champion, in 1968 and 1970. California Chrome, Horse of the Year in 2014, is favored to receive a similar honor of non-consecutive titles in the Eclipse Award voting that commenced this week. McKinzie is not alone in thinking it should be a done deal.

“This race ought to just about clinch it for him,” he said. “Don’t you think?”