The first running of the $12million Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park on January 28 was supposed to be a scintillating two horse race but only one of them showed up sound on the day, allowing the Bob Baffert-trained Arrogate to win easily.
Unfortunately the Pegasus will be remembered by many as the one time that the usually ultra-consistent California Chrome failed to fire on the racetrack. It was a deflating swansong for trainer Art Sherman’s star.
While Chrome retires to stud, Arrogate powers on and next on his bucket list is the $10m Dubai Gold Cup on March 25, now merely the second richest race on the planet. He is 2/1 favorite in the futures betting with the top USA sportsbooks, ahead of last year’s runner-up to California Chrome at Meydan, the 5/1 chance Mubtaahij.
Arrogate had only beaten California Chrome half a length in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and started as the 9/10 favorite in the Pegasus. California Chrome was close behind him at 6/5 but it was the 20/1 shot Shaman Ghost who finished second, beaten far more easily than the distance of five lengths implies.
California Chrome was eased by Victor Espinoza at Gulfstream Park when he realised his horse was not able to be competitive. They finished with only three horses behind them, beaten 30 lengths. It was tissue time for the Chromies as their hero’s racetrack finale was a flop.
California Chrome’s 79-year-old trainer Art Sherman was hoping that he could reverse the Breeders’ Cup Classic placings with Arrogate. The slightly shorter Pegasus distance should have been advantageous for a horse with superior tactical speed, especially as they were going head-to-head off level weights for the first time.
Espinoza was convinced that he could make a better job of riding California Chrome than he did in the Classic too. He failed to use California Chrome’s speed to maximum effect and was blamed by many for his defeat at Santa Anita.
The trainer and jockey were optimistic but the gods of horseracing were not smiling on California Chrome before the Pegasus. He was drawn widest of all whilst Arrogate started from the prime spot of stall one.
Sherman was philosophical about his starting berth believing that the one potentially positive thing was that his horse would spend less time than any of his rivals waiting in the gates. He also remembered that a wide draw (stall 11) did not prevent California Chrome from winning the Dubai World Cup in 2016.
Sherman did not make any excuses after the Pegasus but was initially perplexed that California Chrome had underperformed, saying that he should have finished second if he had been able to run his race. Sherman commented that he did not break as sharply as usual. If he had he would not have been caught horribly wide on the first turn but that would not normally be a race-ending problem for him and he soon managed to gain a good position.
Arrogate broke fairly well and his jockey, Mike Smith, was waving his whip frantically from the moment the gates opened. He had hoped to win the race from the front, fearing the consequences of getting boxed in mid pack, but Noble Bird outpaced him from stall four and managed to head the field into the first bend.
Noble Bird held on to his lead, closely followed by Neolithic leaving Arrogate to race in third on the rail with California Chrome alongside him in fourth. For a short time it looked as if everything was in place for another epic battle but the writing was on the wall at the 3/8 pole when Espinoza started nudging California Chrome and found no response. For whatever reason California Chrome’s fifth gear was not operational, allowing the majority of the pack to pass him. Smith noticed that his only serious rival was struggling and eased Arrogate into a lead that the field were unable to challenge.
What was wrong with California Chrome?
California Chrome was filmed by one of his loyal fans getting washed down afterwards, he appeared happy and relaxed, obviously enjoying the lavations. He certainly did not have the demeanour of a horse who had suffered a distressing experience on the track such as an acute breathing problem or pulmonary bleeding.
Bleeders are usually wide-eyed and sometimes unsteady on their feet. They do not raise their heads and lift their top lip into the ‘laughing horse’ position when water trickles over their muzzle. California Chrome stood absolutely still and ‘laughed’ but his right foreleg was positioned at a strange angle.
He had appeared sound when he trotted back after crossing the wire but the adrenalin was still pumping then. Calm after his bath, when he walked away to his stable he was definitely striding a little short on that leg. It was Art’s son Alan who supervised the process.
In a later interview, after Art Sherman had presumably been notified of California Chrome’s irregular stride and subsequent swelling and heat in his right knee, Art thought that he might have a bone chip in his knee that was causing pain. That scenario would have explained why he had not traveled with his usual effortless verve.
California Chrome’s routine post-race x-rays did not show anything so obvious but there are many forms of damage that will not feature on an x-ray. Knee or leg issues look the most likely reason for California Chrome’s lacklustre performance.
Whatever the cause of his no show in the Pegasus, no one is complaining about California Chrome’s $40,000 stud fee. Art and Alan Sherman are hoping to relive their unique experience through the offspring of this exceptional, cheaply bred son of Lucky Pulpit who won almost $15 million in lifetime earnings.
California Chrome was not only a record-breaking money machine but, after he had outgrown his unruly ways as a two-year-old, was the nicest horse ever to be around according to Alan Sherman. The Shermans will be hoping that his offspring inherit his temperament as well as his talent.