The 33rd running of the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Saturday was supposed to be the coronation of California Chrome, widely regarded as not only the best horse on the planet but also one of the most beloved.
He is the Horatio Alger of the equine set, a determined athlete who outran his modest pedigree and endured the chaos often foisted upon him by the humans around him.
Happy endings, however, are hard to come by at the racetrack, especially when there is a $6 million purse on the line, as there was on Saturday at Santa Anita Park for the Classic.
Such a purse is catnip for deep-pocketed owners and the Hall of Fame trainers they employ.
Exhibit A is Juddmonte Farms, the name under which members of the royal family of Saudi Arabia breed and race some of the most expensive and exquisite horses in the world.
Among those horses is Arrogate, a late-developing 3-year-old whom the Saudi royal family paid $550,000 for as a yearling and parked in the barn of Bob Baffert, one of America’s most successful trainers, who bounces slow horses from his barn at a rate that would make “Dancing With the Stars” contestants dizzy.
How good is Baffert? Two words: American Pharoah, a colt who last year became the first Triple Crown champion in 37 years and only the 12th in history.
How good? In August, Arrogate showed up in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., for the Travers Stakes as an 11-1 outsider and left not only with the trophy but also with the record for the fastest mile and a quarter in more than 150 years of racing at the Spa.
Arrogate’s dramatic upset of California Chrome on Saturday punctuated just how good they both are.
Art Sherman, the 79-year-old trainer of California Chrome, knew what he was up against.
He is a racetracker, a man who as a teenager slept in a boxcar from California to Louisville, Ky., with a colt named Swaps who, once they arrived, won the Kentucky Derby. He has never had more than a couple of dozen horses, and he had to work part time as a mutuel clerk during some of his barn’s leaner times.
Sherman loves his horse, the best one that he has ever had and probably ever will.
Chrome, as he is known, came to Santa Anita a perfect 6 for 6 this year after a globe-trotting campaign that took him to the desert of Dubai and to the beach party that is Del Mar in Southern California. His more than $13 million in purse earnings made him the richest horse in the history of North America.
Sherman will probably never be in the Hall of Fame, but thanks to Chrome, he will forever be known as the trainer of a Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Dubai World Cup winner. He is the first to say that Chrome — whose name was pulled from a cowboy hat, combining his birthplace with the term used by horse people for the flashes of white on a horse — owes him nothing.
“I think Chrome’s going to run a race that everybody is going to admire,” Sherman said before the race.
California Chrome did, too. His rider, Victor Espinoza, gunned him from the gate and led a field of eight rivals around the first turn, down the backstretch and into the stretch as if he were the grand marshal at the Thanksgiving Day parade. Chrome’s ears were pricked up, and he looked as if he were running by himself — controlled, relaxed and wickedly fast.
In the clubhouse, Baffert thought Arrogate had lost.
“When Chrome was out there cruising, I thought, ‘No way he’s going to catch him; he’s going to run second,’” Baffert said.
But Arrogate’s rider, Mike Smith, knew better. He may have been seven lengths behind California Chrome entering the stretch, but Smith had not asked his colt to turn it on yet. Smith started scrubbing on Arrogate’s neck and smooching in his ear, coaxing the colt to find that supercharged gear.
He did. Arrogate bounded down the lane as if he were on a trampoline, his strides widening, his momentum matching a runaway steamroller on a downhill slope.
“It was incredible,” Smith said. “I’m at a loss for words.”
Sherman was not. He watched Arrogate get his head to Chrome’s hip and then his neck and then pass him altogether yards before the finish line.
“He ran his race but just got beat in those last couple of jumps,” Sherman said. “That winner is the real McCoy.”
The record books will reflect that, yes, Arrogate caught Chrome at the wire of the mile-and-a-quarter race. He won it by a half a length, in 2 minutes 0.11 of a second. The $3.3 million made his rich owners, Juddmonte Farms, richer.
It gave Baffert his third consecutive victory in one of the world’s most prestigious races: American Pharoah won it last year and Bayern the year before. Arrogate was the 8-to-5 second choice and paid his backers $5.40 for a $2 bet.
But Sherman was hardly heartbroken. He still loves his horse, the best he has ever trained, and knows that old Chrome ran his heart out. This ending was happy enough.
“We had no excuses,” he said. “He’s been so good all year long, but it just shows that you can’t win every race.”