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He didn't fire.
Although California Chrome realistically would not have beaten Arrogate in the first Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park Saturday, his 9th place finish in the $12 million race, the richest in the world, was a disappointment to his many fans seeking at least a showdown between two of the best horses on the globe, if not an outright win.
But 'Chrome had an excuse. After the race, trainer Art Sherman and 'Chrome's connections revealed that the six-year-old experienced fluid and swelling in his right front knee. A possible bone chip, the injury is treatable. He has had the issue before.
But take nothing away from Arrogate. He controlled, and then dominated, the entire race, striding out, geared down at the end, to a nearly five-length win over Shaman Ghost and Neolithic. Arrogate paid $3.80, $2.80 and $2.20. With more than $15 million in earnings after only seven races, Arrogate has acquired the "superhorse" tag and will keep it until he loses.
Perhaps an omen, California Chrome put up quite a fuss, reluctant to load into the gate as the last of 12 entries. He popped from the bell in decent fashion, but I agree with Sherman's assessment of 'Chrome's struggles.
"It looks like he scrambled away from there and couldn't get his footing," Sherman said. "It looked like he wasn't getting a hold of the racetrack, like maybe his feet were getting out from under him. I don't know why. He worked good over it."
Inevitably, 'Chrome was wide, albeit very reasonably, in the short dash to the first turn. It was reminiscent of his early days, when that was a position he demanded if he was to have any hope of winning. He conquered that problem, especially in 2016, so it doesn't seem as if he had any problem with the trip Saturday. Unable to respond to jockey Victor Espinoza's urging, 'Chrome seemed to flatten out. He looked spent into and on the far turn and then began to lose significant ground.
Meanwhile, Arrogate, from the one hole, really had the race won early and only had to negotiate the traffic of a bunch of lousy horses. His rider, Mike Smith, had 'Chrome on his radar throughout.
"Chrome just didn't fire his race today at all," Smith, in a wistful tone of resignation over the battle that never developed, said during NBC's broadcast immediately after the race. "I was able to tip (Arrogate) out and he was gone after that. Getting out was the anxious part. Once I was able to get him out and let him stretch his legs . . . if you can let him use it to his advantage, why not?"
Now's the time to assess the Pegasus, a race that, purse-wise, has become a benchmark for U.S. racing, just as the Arlington Million became the first million-dollar race here and the Breeders' Cup Classic has inched up to the $6 million level.
As explained by some horsemen in the lead-up to the Pegasus, the race could probably only have been run on the date it was (and in Super Bowl limbo), a pro and a con. While it was held early enough for a horse to still make the trip to the Middle East for the Dubai World Cup, it fell past the 2016 season, in weeks where horses are usually freshening and dealing with their winter coats. Rhythms and all that, especially for older horses.
And with race conditions requiring owners to pony up $1 million apiece to enter, it seems like a pipe dream to expect international participation when a long trip here compromises a horse's likelihood of winning. Many Europeans are already back home after the Breeders' Cup, and Hong Kong's Sha Tin is running full steam right now.
While richer than the Classic, Pegasus did not measure up in the least to any important, deep race, like the Classic or even Dubai often do. From seventh place on, you had horses with odds they deserved of: 160-1, 75-1, 138-1, 188-1 and 82-1.
You have a horse like 'Chrome with his difficulties, and it's not much of a race at all.
Also, Gulfstream has got to do something about its track layout. The race started and ended almost on the clubhouse turn. You can argue that California Chrome lost the race when he drew the 12-post days earlier. If the track is basically 9 furlongs around, why not just move the wire back? Oaklawn Park and Arlington Park use different finish lines for "in-between" distances.
And why not run the race at the classic distance, 10 furlongs (1-1/4 miles)? The mantra all week was that the nine furlongs would make it more possible for a true miler or even a sprinter to extend into this race. As it was, only Semper Fortis and Argentina import Eragon could be considered mile specialists, and they finished seventh and 12th, respectively.
California Chrome. As I said, I will remember his entire career and not just these last two losses. Again, he ran his heart out every time, nothing less. Losing the Triple Crown? That has happened many times in the decades since Affirmed. I'll remember the tough second in Dubai in 2015, only to come back and win it this year. He won some big races in 2016 and acquitted himself superbly in the races he lost. At 26-16-4-1 lifetime, he won a lot of money ($14,752,650) the hard way: With that white face, he'll be instantly recognizable for years to come.
What I won't miss, except for the father-son training team of Art and Alan Sherman, are the horse's two most prominent ownership interests, Steve Coburn and Perry Martin.
Coburn's 30 percent ownership ended in 2015. Whether was a true picture of the man, his sour grapes rant after the 2014 Belmont Stakes loss will follow him forever. He should have known better, because for many years the Triple Crown, in an age when horses run less, has evolved into an opportunistic undertaking. Lose the Derby and why would you want to run the horse into the ground? And Preakness runners are often much more suited to its 1-3/16ths miles.
His reaction was distasteful and bad for the game and hurt 'Chrome's legacy, through no fault of the horse. There are people whose enthusiasm for the horse tailed off as a result.
Then-majority owner Perry Martin has been no prize either. Through the bickering, 'Chrome's mismanagement must be laid at his feet.
Sure, the horse needed to run to make the big coin; he was that good and his lack of pedigree will significantly limit his breeding income, at least to begin with.
But shipping him to England - an entirely different world of racing these smart animals can sense - with the vainglorious notion of conquering Europe's turf world was absurd and dangerous for 'Chrome. He didn't look good, head down and underweight. 'Chrome's fans even started a petition begging for them to bring him home.
They did, and because Arlington Park is one of just a few quarantine facilities for international arrivals, they got the idea of taking on the Arlington Million, still without any turf experience and not even a prep over the course. Luckily, he was still too down to run and they finally took him home to California. You can say that only the Shermans' wise care and 'Chrome's own fortitude helped him resurrect his career.
And in his last official function of the horse's career, receiving 2016's Horse of the Year Eclipse Award, Martin threw a painful-to-watch acceptance speech that betrayed his true ungratefulness and so sadly added to today's social viciousness.
But sharing first class on Air Horse One, the kid Arrogate short-hopped through Kentucky on his way to California in the seat next to 'Chrome, now safely at Taylor Made Farm to begin his new career.
In the end, I see him getting the last laugh.
Previously: TrackNotes: Pegging The Pegasus.
Tom Chambers is our man on the rail. He welcomes your comments.
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