12/15/2016 4:56PM

Hovdey: Chrome faces the curse of the unbeatables

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It wasn’t hard for Art Sherman to recall the time the shoe was on the other foot.

“We ran that gray horse, Carthage, in a race they put on at Golden Gate for Lost in the Fog coming back as a 4-year-old,” Sherman said recently. “I didn’t think I could beat him, but my horse was doing real good, and we were getting some weight. So, why not run?”

It was April 2006. Lost in the Fog was the reigning Eclipse Award sprint champion, with 10 wins in 11 lifetime starts and an ambitious campaign ahead. Management created the Golden Gate Fields Sprint to give his hometown fans a thrill, and trainer Greg Gilchrist and owner Harry Aleo were glad to oblige. Then Sherman stole the show, as Carthage and Dennis Carr went after Lost in the Fog and Russell Baze from the start and drew off to win by three.

“Would you believe they booed my horse coming back?” Sherman said. “That’s how popular Lost in the Fog was.”

California Chrome is held in similar esteem. Each of his races provides an invitation to celebrate not only his singular career but also the nature of this chestnut beast – his dedicated work ethic, his feisty charm, his occasional flashes of studly temper. There have been other Thoroughbreds as popular – Secretariat, John Henry, Zenyatta, Cigar – but California Chrome has written a story all his own, from his modest origins, to his international adventures, to the creative ownership that has kept him running long after his contemporaries have been retired.

Above all, there’s been the Shermans – Art and his son Alan – now familiar in every corner of the racing world, their nasally California twangs identifiable in a darkened room. Art relies on Alan, Alan defers to Art, and they both stand in wonder at the miracle of a horse like California Chrome lavishing upon their blue-collar stable a notoriety historically reserved for people named Baffert, Lukas, Pletcher, or Whittingham.

On Saturday afternoon, true to their horse, the Shermans will lead California Chrome over from his double-wide Los Alamitos stall for a holiday surprise appearance in a race being called the Winter Challenge. The date falls in perfect relationship to the pie-in-the-sky Pegasus World Cup in Florida on Jan. 28, which is destined to be California Chrome’s last hurrah. At an advertised $12 million, a windfall like the Pegasus encourages every screw to be tightened, which is why the Shermans were looking for a race.

“You want your horse to be fresh, but you can’t just keep training on them or they might get a little sour,” Art Sherman noted. “That’s why we were so glad Doc came up with the idea for this race. It’s great to finally run Chrome where he’s trained all this time. And it’s also great we don’t have to ship.”

“Doc” is Dr. Ed Allred, the Quarter Horse titan and owner of Los Alamitos who has been the finger in the dike of the Southern California stabling crisis since the closure of Hollywood Park. Art Sherman, a Hollywood regular, set up shop at Los Alamitos in the winter of 2014, when California Chrome was the budding star of the barn, a California-bred colt who would go on to victories in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Pacific Classic, and Dubai World Cup and earn more than $14 million in prize money.

In offering the Winter Challenge, Allred is treading in the footsteps of dice-rolling track owners like Richard Duchossois, who lured Cigar to Arlington Park in 1996 by inventing the Citation Challenge. That race, won by Cigar under 130 pounds against an all-star field, was of considerably more heft than the Los Alamitos event. But as Art Sherman will tell you, anything can happen in a horse race, and usually does.

“Even Swaps got beat when he was supposed to win,” Sherman said.

He’d know. As a teen, Sherman worked for Rex Ellsworth, the owner of 1956 Horse of the Year Swaps, and regularly exercised the chestnut flash for trainer Mesh Tenney. Swaps ran nine times on the dirt in 1956 (plus one flop on grass), won eight, and set or equaled seven track records. His one shocking loss came in the Californian Stakes at Hollywood Park, where Bill Shoemaker got a little cocky and let Milo Valenzuela and Porterhouse nail Swaps on the wire. The brief comment in the past performance line of Swaps reads that he was “eased by mistake.” Oops.

Count on Victor Espinoza to be anything but cocky with California Chrome on Saturday. And count on California Chrome to deliver a satisfying benediction to three remarkable years as the lord of the Los Alamitos manor. Whatever happens to the track in the future, it will always be known as the Home of Chrome.

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Wires were badly crossed in a previous column that insisted that Love the Chase, the dam of California Chrome, was scheduled to be bred to European super-stud Frankel next year. In fact, she will go to the court of Pioneerof the Nile, who stands at WinStar Farm and already takes credit for Triple Crown winner American Pharoah. Your reporter regrets if anyone lost a bar bet because of the unforced error and promises that he’ll start looking stuff up, even when he is a hundred percent certain of the answer.