08/22/2016 3:46PM

Hovdey: Chrome leaves 'em speechless – almost

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Shigeki Kikkawa
Victor Espinoza, who had the best view of the Pacific Classic, was among those impressed with California Chrome's performance.

You could hear it throughout the stands Saturday at Del Mar. Gasps of “Oh!” as California Chrome took command of the Pacific Classic right from the start and dared anyone to run with him. “Gee” as he bounded along, oblivious to those in pursuit. “Wow” when he burst clear once and for all at the head of the stretch.

Oh-gee-wow moments in horse racing are few and far between. They require a race of importance, preferably of some length, with a best-case scenario for unforgettable drama. When it happens, the grandchildren will be told the tale.

Still, oh-gee-wow means very little without context, which is why those closest to California Chrome should be taken at their word for the joyous excess of their post-game comments.

Art Sherman said Chrome should be heading straight to the Hall of Fame, and Sherman sat on Swaps, which is all the historical context anyone ever needs when it comes to judging horseflesh.

Victor Espinoza, who rode War Emblem and a young version of Tiznow, already knew what a good one could do. When badgered by the press to choose between Chrome and American Pharoah, his winner of the Triple Crown, Espinoza relented and went for the horse he has ridden to more than $13 million in earnings, and counting.

Context is a harsh mistress.

As California Chrome churned past the finish post last Saturday, with Espinoza geared down and Beholder resigned to her admirable second ahead of Dortmund, certain memories began fighting their way through the cobwebs, of great horses challenged by great mares of the era.

Here is Dr. Fager, 130 pounds up and his tail on fire, leaving good horses like Rising Market and Kissin George in the dust in the 1968 Californian at Hollywood Park, with only the stubborn mare Gamely in serious pursuit.

Here is Spectacular Bid, making one, two, three moves, as usual, in the 1980 Amory L. Haskell Handicap at Monmouth, breaking all hearts except the one belonging to Glorious Song, less than two lengths back at the end.

Here is John Henry, already a legend, icing the 1984 Arlington Million like he owned the place, but not before dealing with the filly Royal Heroine, who crushed the rest of the field.

Having just witnessed Songbird climb another rung up history’s ladder in the Alabama Stakes at Saratoga, TV analyst and former rider Richard Migliore thought he was through being inspired for one Saturday. Then, as the 9 o’clock hour arrived in New York, the California Chrome show filled the screen.

“That was an incredible performance,” Migliore said. “He stayed in the bridle much farther than most horses I’ve ever seen.”

For those of us who do not speak fluent jockey, Migliore was describing the way California Chrome was attacking the race, teeth clenched and taking Espinoza for a ride. Ideally, a horse will come “off” the bit early in a race to conserve strength for the final run to the wire. To Migliore’s eye – and Espinoza agreed – California Chrome was ripping through a series of 12-second furlongs without dissipating energy or resolve.

Gary Stevens can tell us what it looked like from aboard Beholder, who followed Chrome all the way around.

“Going into the far turn, Victor moved way outside trying to get me to go inside of him,” Stevens said. “I wouldn’t do it, so he dropped back to about the 3 path, and Beholder swapped to her left lead. I thought, ‘Ah, there we go. Just like last year.’ ”

Last year, for those who need a refresher, Beholder made a move at that point that blew the Classic wide open, as she went on to win by 8 1/4 lengths.

“Then, all of a sudden, he opened up three lengths on me,” said Stevens, who added an “Oh” of his own with another word attached.

“Victor took a peek under his arm, and it was almost like Usain Bolt with that Canadian guy in the qualifying the other night,” Stevens said. “ ‘Really, you’re going to test me, and that’s all you’ve got?’ That’s what Victor had. And believe me, he won with something in the tank.”

The thought is kind of scary – that California Chrome can be trained to such a pitch that he would make a great mare like Beholder settle for second-best.

“The only other time I had that feeling of helplessness when I thought I was going to win was riding Rock Hard Ten in the Preakness,” Stevens said. “I was loaded at the quarter pole. I thought I had Smarty Jones any time I wanted. My colt dropped and went to running, and Smarty Jones just opened up on me. You feel like a little kid who thinks he’s fast, and some guy comes galloping by. You never want to feel that again.”

What’s next? What’s left for California Chrome to accomplish? Art Sherman will let us know when to gear up for another day like Saturday. His immediate reaction to the race was, “Wow.” He said more, but you get the idea.

In the meantime, the trainer was taking time out this week to have routine cataract surgery – first one eye, then eventually the other – so let the wisecracks begin.

“I do my best work in the dark,” Sherman said with a laugh. “Imagine how good Chrome would be if I could actually see him train.”

Oh. Gee. Wow.