California Chrome wins his first race of 2016

California Chrome on his way to winning the San Pasqual at Santa Anita. Photo by Terri Keith.

California Chrome on his way to winning the San Pasqual at Santa Anita. Photo by Terri Keith.

California Chrome, the 2014 Horse of the Year, made a victorious return Saturday to the races in the Grade 2 San Pasqual at Santa Anita Park after more than nine months on the sidelines.

With a 1 ¼-length win as the 3-5 favorite, California Chrome surpassed 2000 and 2001 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Tiznow to become the top-earning California-bred thoroughbred ever with more than $6.4 million in earnings.

“He’s back! He’s back!” trainer Art Sherman’s son, Alan, jubilantly yelled after California Chrome finished the 1 1/16-mile race in 1:43:39.

California Chrome beat second-place finisher Imperative and last year’s San Pasqual winner, Hoppertunity, and four other rivals.

California Chrome’s longtime jockey Victor Espinoza – who was also aboard for his wins in the 2014 Kentucky Derby and Preakness – told reporters afterward, “The way Chrome (ran) today that’s the way he used to run … I’m so proud of him, the way he ran today.”

Espinoza called the 5-year-old son of Lucky Pulpit “one of the top, top horses” that he has ever ridden, saying he is a different kind of horse than last year’s Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, also ridden by Espinoza.

“I just consider myself to be very lucky to be in this position,” he said.

Espinoza was clad in new gray, silver and red “Chrome” silks chosen on behalf of California Chrome LLC after the Kentucky stallion farm Taylor Made acquired Steve and Carolyn Coburn’s ownership interest of the horse last summer. Perry Martin remains the horse’s majority owner.

Art Sherman said it wasn’t difficult to find California Chrome during the race, though Espinoza wasn’t wearing the usual purple and green silks that had been so easy to spot during the Triple Crown campaign that ended with a fourth-place finish in the Belmont Stakes.

“I didn’t have a camera in my face this time,” he said. “A lot of times, especially in the Preakness, I had to look up at the board to see where he was.”

California Chrome’s trainer said he expected the chestnut colt with the big white blaze to “benefit a lot from this race, a whole lot.”

“I think the horse was ready, but I can tell after this race he’s going to be a different animal when I bring him over to Dubai …,” Art Sherman said. “If he can win the Dubai World Cup, he’ll be the richest thoroughbred ever and that means a lot to me.”

Art Sherman said the horse will leave Southern California on Jan. 21 for Dubai, where he will race once before the Dubai World Cup — a race in which he finished second to Prince Bishop last March 28.

California Chrome had been unraced since then, with plans to run him on the turf at Ascot and Arlington Park in 2015 called off because of foot and leg issues.

“I’m just happy that he’s back and he’s sound and he’s doing good …,” Art Sherman said. “He looks so darn good this year. You know, he’s big and he’s strong.”

Fans packed the walking ring before California Chrome was brought from the stable area, with some toting signs and others wearing T-shirts and baseball caps paying tribute to the horse.

As for the crowd that always gathers to cheer on one of California’s favorite sons, Art Sherman said, “It’s a pleasure to see the crowds, you know, we miss that in our game. And you can tell when a hero comes by. Look, they had American Pharoah and now maybe California Chrome can pick up the pieces. It would really be good for our business.”

Horse Bits:

 American Pharoah was honored with the Secretariat Vox Populi award in a winners’ circle ceremony featuring Secretariat’s owner, Penny Chenery. Bob Baffert, who trained American Pharoah during a near-perfect career, called Chenery “the queen of racing” and said she made sure that everyone who wanted autographs got one. Meanwhile, Baffert said, “I’m just glad that I’m in the Triple Crown club, (as) she calls it.”

 Two of Baffert’s three-year-old colts finished first and second in the Grade 3 Sham stakes at Santa Anita. Collected, the 3-2 favorite and a son of City Zip owned by Speedway Stables, finished 1 ¼ lengths ahead of stablemate Let’s Meet in Rio, with Laoban coming in third for trainer Eric Guillot. Baffert said that Collected – who had run twice on the turf and raced on dirt for the first time — “showed a lot of promise today.” He said his goal is to get back to the Kentucky Derby. “It keeps the fire going and that’s what we need in this game,” Baffert said. “There’s nothing like these young horses.”