01/26/2017 3:56PM

Hovdey: One last chapter to be written in the California Chrome story

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This is a story without an ending, so don’t expect a big finish or a mind-blowing, dramatic twist in the final paragraph. That might come Saturday at Gulfstream Park in the $12 million Pegasus World Cup, or it might not. Horse racing is a sport in which anything can happen, and usually does. How else do you explain California Chrome?

The players in the saga of California Chrome each had their own moment when the connection was made.

For Art Sherman, it was his second breeze, when the unfurnished stride of the young colt tipped him as a racehorse destined for good things.

For Victor Espinoza, it was watching from the sidelines as California Chrome kept charging forward despite a nightmare trip in the 2013 Del Mar Futurity.

For Steve Coburn, it was the day in 2010 when he took his family to visit Love the Chase in foal to Lucky Pulpit at Harris Farms in California’s Central Valley.

“I looked down, and there was our little granddaughter standing underneath the mare, reaching up to touch her belly,” Coburn said. “Love the Chase is so sweet, she didn’t care at all. I thought right there, whatever she’s got inside her is going to be something special.”

For this reporter, it was the evening of April 5, 2014. A few hours earlier, California Chrome had won the Santa Anita Derby with impressive ease. Now, after a crosstown van ride, he was back in his stall at Los Alamitos Race Course, head over the webbing, ears forward, and eyes bright as if to say, “Okay, what’s next?”

“Of all his races out West, that was my favorite,” Sherman has said more than once. “The way he did it, and the way he acted afterwards, it showed me he was ready for a challenge like the Kentucky Derby. Maybe more.”

So it began.

California Chrome was the dominant 3-year-old through the first half of 2014, then left the stage after losing the Belmont Stakes – and the Triple Crown – to recover from a wounded foot at Harris Farms, where Love the Chase occupied a nearby field.

The wound healed, and California Chrome went back to work in midsummer, with the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Classic as his late-season goal. Sherman would have preferred a local prep for the big dance, but the incentives dangled for participation in the Pennsylvania Derby were too tempting. He finished fourth to Bayern, trained by Bob Baffert.

“He didn’t get much out of the race either,” Sherman recalled. “It was like I had to train him up to the Breeders’ Cup, and he was always a horse who did best with a good, solid prep race.”

Still, California Chrome ran well in the Classic and was lapped onto the victorious Bayern and the British colt Toast of New York at the end. A frustrated Sherman then took California Chrome to Del Mar for the Hollywood Derby on turf, which he won for fun, beating Canadian Horse of the Year Lexie Lou. Horse of the Year voters appreciated the gesture, and Chrome took the title, with 195 votes to 56 for Bayern.

California Chrome’s 4-year-old campaign was a mishmash of lofty goals and grim reality. He started with a second to Pacific Classic winner Shared Belief in the San Antonio Stakes, then shipped to the Middle East for the Dubai World Cup, which had returned to dirt. The result was a respectable second to Godolphin’s Prince Bishop, an 8-year-old gelding who never raced again.

At that point, California Chrome had been in steady training for eight months. Sherman’s instinct was to give the colt a break and then gear up for another crack at the Breeders’ Cup Classic. However, co-owner Perry Martin was enthralled with the idea of running at Royal Ascot in June, which is why California Chrome woke up one April morning to find himself in the Newmarket yard of trainer Rae Guest.

The British were appropriately impressed, but California Chrome was not. For all the care and attention he received, he could not be fooled into thinking this was where he belonged.

“I had to pretty much give up the idea I was his trainer anymore,” Sherman said. “But you know he had to miss the barn back home. When I got there the week before the race, I was shocked to see how much weight he’d lost. He really hadn’t adapted to the way they train over there.”

California Chrome returned to the U.S. without running in England. After passing through quarantine at Arlington Park, he took up residence at Taylor Made Farm, which had just bought the 30 percent of the colt owned by Coburn and his wife, Carolyn. Over the next several months, Taylor Made and the Martins – Perry and Denise – peeled off portions of their shares to attract a group of investors with well-bred mares to help stock Chrome’s first book.

As an individual, California Chrome brought a lot to the party. There was his neon name, his polished copper coat, white socks in all four corners, and a beacon of a blaze to light the way. There was also his youthful libido, on full display while saddling for both the Derby and the Preakness. The wisecracks were unprintable.

“There he goes again,” Sherman would cackle at the unfurling of the colt’s manhood. “They’re in trouble now.”

Even as he matured, California Chrome kept ever on the muscle. Frank Taylor, who runs the farm operations at Taylor Made, was asked if Chrome had been tested for fertility, given the scope of their investment. Taylor fought back a laugh. “For one thing, you can’t test them if you’re going to insure them,” Taylor said. “Anyway, I don’t think I’m going to have any trouble breeding him.”

With Chrome’s 2015 campaign so severely stunted, the deal engineered by Taylor Made included one more season of racing, if California Chrome was up to the challenge.

“When he came back to the barn that October, I could hardly believe it,” Sherman said. “In my mind, I had kind of turned the page. To see him come off the van looking like a racehorse again – it was a dream come true.”

The new Chrome partnership was launched on the evening of Jan. 8, 2016, at a Pasadena restaurant where Taylor Made hosted a dinner for the Martins and their new partners. The next day, California Chrome would make his debut for California Chrome LLC in the San Pasqual Stakes at Santa Anita Park. The dice were about to be rolled.

“I know I must have sounded like a lunatic that night,” Taylor said. “But can you believe how much of it came true?”

Taylor’s toast that evening included a prediction that California Chrome would win the Dubai World Cup, the Pacific Classic, and the Breeders’ Cup Classic to retire at the end of 2016 as the richest Thoroughbred in U.S. history. He was only a half-length from getting it right.

After winning the San Pasqual, California Chrome headed to Dubai with Alan Sherman, Art’s son and assistant. Two months later, he returned the conquering hero – after winning the World Cup under Espinoza’s slipped saddle – and headed straight for Taylor Made for a break.

“At the farm, they put back on the 50 pounds he lost in the trip,” Art Sherman said. “When he came back, he looked great.”

He trained that way, too. Never deviating from Sherman’s master plan, California Chrome won the San Diego Stakes, the Pacific Classic (over defending champ Beholder), and the Awesome Again Stakes at Santa Anita. The stars had aligned.

And yet there was no way Taylor could have accounted for the ascension of the 3-year-old Arrogate in making his sweeping predictions. It was not until the gray colt overwhelmed the Travers Stakes in August – one week after California Chrome’s Pacific Classic win – that he was anything more than a smile on Baffert’s face.

The showdown between Chrome and Arrogate in the Classic loomed larger than life, and the two came through with their best punches in a monumental stretch duel before the younger colt edged past California Chrome. After the race, Espinoza was criticized for his tactics. Sherman, who won more than 1,700 races as a jockey, conceded that his rider could have been more aggressive, but he was reluctant to pile on.

“What I’d really like is another shot at Arrogate,” Sherman said.

Be careful what you ask for because here it is. Fresh from outpolling Arrogate for 2016 Horse of the Year, 202-40, the racehorse portion of the California Chrome story comes to an end Saturday in the Pegasus. He will face Arrogate again, this time with a first prize of $7 million on the line, and if he wins, California Chrome will be the world’s all-time leading money winner. If he loses, he’ll still be a two-time Horse of the Year and Kentucky Derby winner.

“Life is a journey and not a destination,” wrote theologian Lynn H. Hough in 1920. “The heart must be set upon those matters of character which are eternal and not upon those matters of sensation which pass away.”

Hough had no idea that 90 years later his sentiments would fit a chestnut Thoroughbred with four white socks to a T. What a journey it has been for California Chrome. And what a character.