08/22/2016 2:46PM

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.

James Ronan 8 months ago
Let's try to be realistic everyone, the finances involved also include the ridiculous amount of insurance it would cost to cover AP as a racing 4 year old with the possibility always there of a breakdown and no breeding money at all.  If any one of us had the amount of money staring us in the face for AP to go to the breeding shed would we think any differently.  We don't give back our winnings ever at the mutual windows for the "good of the sport" owners and breeders are no different!!!!!

Chuck Seddio 8 months ago
right now there isint a horse in training that can beat this horse beyond a mile. he is getting better with age and finally sane ownership leaving it in the hands of sherman. thank goodness,he had a mild injury that prevented him from running at royal ascot or we may not be as lucky to see this horse run today. just dreaming but what if,american pharoah,shared belief and the good bayern  were still around,that would be a dream race but alas at least we still have chrome
ProXstream Gaming 9 months ago
Fourth generation ( great grandsire ),  so the breeding is a bit diluted, but A.P. Indy ran like that too.........."staying on the bridle much longer than usual", as Migliore described Chrome. 
ProXstream Gaming 9 months ago
Reading some of these comments......... opinions are all over the map. Here's my 2 cents : I love Chrome, adore him. He's a great horse, but not one of the all time greats. And for the person who mentioned Cigar ---- Cigar was the better horse. If ALL horses EVER we're at their best, Secretariat destroys everyone. Man 'O War and Native Dancer would be next.  As for Chrome and Pharoah ?   If both were at the top of their game,   I think Chrome vs. Pharoah would be very close. We'll never know for sure.  NOTHING against Pharoah, but he always had easy trips vs. suspect 3 yr. old competition ( Frosted was still learning and developing ).  And then wire to wire in the Classic with no pressure whatsoever.  Fun discussion. 
Connie Anderson 8 months ago
When are people going to realize you can't compare horses across decades.  Training, medications, shoes, starting gates. track surfaces etc. to ad nauseum ALL change how fast, long, etc. a horse runs.  so quit comparing CC to Secretariat or Man O War, or how about Eclipse.. When and if we could ever have true clones of these magnificent specimens all raised and trained the same on the same track and under the same conditions we can never say which one is the better.  
Kathy Pickett 9 months ago
why can't people give Chrome and his crew the respect they deserve. The PC was one hell of a race and no what ifs can change it. Chorme is still running and those others are not or chose not to take him on.In my humble opinon I don't think anyone was going to beat Chrome on that day. Masterful ride by Victor as Chrome was gunned out of the gate, got the position he was looking for and settled into his high crusing speed, just like a car with a big block engine. Enough said.
Marvin Keene 9 months ago
Chrome is a very fine horse.   He reminds me a bit of Cigar or Curlin.  They were not always brilliant, but nearly always very very good.  They would gamely crank out Beyers from 110 to 116 which was enough to demolish everything in their path most of the time.   Neither was as brilliant as say...Ghostzapper on his best days or Frosted in the Met Mile this year or heck...Formal Gold, J.O. Tobin, or Prove Out on their peak days---however, how often do you run into such a peak performance?  Not very often.   On a given day, I take Chrome over many on this list--but not on their best days.    
Thomas Georgetown 8 months ago
I liked J.O. Tobin. I used to go to Santa Anita when he was running.
Mary McLeod 9 months ago
Excellent essay, Jay! Enjoyed the mention of Smarty Jones. Wish Art a speedy recovery...Oh. Gee. Wow.: quite right if Art gets any better. I love how he stuck by his Chrome when CC spent time out in the wilderness...Just a man and his horse. Thank you, Jay, and take care, Mary in Boone
Gunner 9 months ago
"the richness, the magnificence, and splendor is beyond all description." 
-  John to Abigail Adams (in reference to a first visit of France)
It suffices here, as well.
John Leach 8 months ago
Nice! The Thorougbred is woven into our historical fabric so I very much appreciate your reference. 
Scott Samuel 9 months ago
Pharoah was a much better horse than CC.  While I like CC, the fact is that he could not withstand the "Test of Champions" and he failed to win the TC.  If Pharoah had run this year, just like he destroyed older horses in the BCC, he would have beaten CC without a doubt.  Also, when Espinoza was repeatedly asked about which horse he would rather ride, he stated "Pharoah as a 3 year old and Chrome as an older horse."  Look at what Frosted has done.  Pharoah beat him down in the Belmont and easily won the TC.  Additionally, Chrome got smashed by Shared Belief last year before Shared Belief broke down.  To even suggest that CC and Pharoah are similar is unfair as AP never ran as an older horse, he won the TC - the first time it had been done in 37 years and he won the BCC against all horses that lined up against him - Frosted, Tonalist, Effinex, Honor Code, etc...  Pharoah was quicker than Chrome and his Belmont shows that he was a true champion.
JimMcCarthy1 9 months ago
Wrong. Pharoah was all out against Frosted in the Travers, and then had no answer to Keen Ice in the stretch. Chrome completely dominated Frosted in the Dubai World Cup, the real test of champions.

Pharoah also had the benefit of having his foot ripped open during the running of the Belmont like Chrome did.

But too bad the connections of Pharoah are too greedy or pusillanimous to run their horse as a 4yo, otherwise this could be settled on the racetrack like it should be.
JimMcCarthy1 9 months ago
"not" having his foot ripped open.
Wonderagain 9 months ago
I was at Del Mar on Saturday with a great view of the horses as they entered the track. Beholder looked good and Dortmund looked phenomenal. From my vantage point those two made a better appearance than Chrome. Then Chrome went out and annihilated both. I'm not sure Shared Belief could handle Chrome these days. At this point in Chrome's career, he'd give AP all he could handle. It'd be an interesting matchup that unfortunately we'll never get to see. 
jay 9 months ago
That reminds me of being at Belmont for the 1998 Woodward Stakes. Gentlemen was one of the most beautiful horses I've ever seen.  Free House looked like a weightlifter.  Compared to them, Skip Away looked like your average run of the mill horse, yet he won fairly easily.
Mark Barrie 9 months ago
Chrome ran in the Belmont on three legs. His grit and determination was unbelievable. Pharoah was incredible and may have been even better at four or five. Too bad we will never know.  Tough to compare, but Chrome has done it longer, so he wins the debate. 
AndyIntheDesert 9 months ago
Shared Belief never broke down....he died during colic surgery Jeeze get it correct. I don't want to sound overly harsh but to be taken seriously in this sport one needs to use the proper terms. A horse 'breaks down' on the track, usually during a race.

Do you have a crystal ball?!? Anybody who makes a "without a doubt" statement in this crazy business shows his prejudice and I daresay that his seriousness is taken as shallow. More credibility would result in statements like "I believe, given such and such and so and so facts (e.g pace ability, speed figures, outright blazing speed etc. etc.) that on his day, Twinkletoes would defeat Starry Stud."

..To my 40 + years of following this wonderful sport, Chrome as a 5 year old proves the point that it takes awhile for some horses to totally "get it". Until this season I'd say his glimpses of brilliance showed his potential in select races. You're not a flash in the pan horse when, as a three year old, you win 6 races in a row from December 2013 until June of 2014, against the best of your peers, with three being G1's and one a Grade 2. Then after fully maturing you are now in the midst of a 5 race winning streak, with another two G1's and two G2's. Now I believe he understands what it's all about; even to the point of loving everything: the training, the schooling, the post parade, and the the competition, though there's been very little of the latter lately.
Sire_InteIIect 9 months ago
North American race horses needs to race until they are 5 like Chrome, and others before him, so that we get to see them developed, and dispelled the myth that North American horses can't go a distant of ground. I have always said, horses are bred to run any distant, but it comes with age and maturity. If you don't give thoroughbreds a chance to mature, how can you effectively measure how far they can go. One of my favorite horses was Skip Away, a prime example of what am talking about. Skip Away was the only 3 year old that beat Cigar, but yet, he was still headstrong. But @ 4 and 5, Skippy could go any distance due to maturity and age. Kudos to the connection of Chrome, because after he lost the Belmont, a lot people thought he lost because it was beyond his scope. No, he was an immature runner who is now a mature racehorse that knows how to run, he proves that in the Pacific Classic.