Jockey Victor Espinoza sensed trouble before California Chrome stepped inside the starting gate. The champion balked.
“He’d never done that,” Espinoza said. “That was a bad sign.”
But it wasn’t until after the gates opened Saturday in the $12 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational at Gulfstream Park that Espinoza knew Chrome was cooked. When he asked the horse for his usual burst, none was there.
“He was empty today,” Espinoza said. “He just completely shut down.”
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All Espinoza could do was watch helplessly as Arrogate — his rival and the 4-5 favorite — leave Chrome and the rest of the field in the dust for a 4 3/4-length victory.
“I was loaded,” winning jockey Mike Smith said.
The crowd of more than 16,000 that turned out for the richest race in thoroughbred history gave its loudest applause to California Chrome when the 6-year-old star headed out to the track for what was the final race of his career.
But they saved plenty of cheers for Arrogate when he stormed home an easy winner on a picture-perfect afternoon at Gulfstream Park.
The Pegasus was a succession of power.
Arrogate, who narrowly defeated California Chrome in the Breeders’ Cup Classic two months ago, put away the 2014 Kentucky Derby winner — and 10 other horses — in convincing fashion.
“This horse is just coming around,” winning trainer Bob Baffert said.
Casual fans might not be nearly as familiar with Arrogate as they are with California Chrome, a rags-to-riches story who had developed a following over the past few years.
Arrogate was a late-developing horse who missed the limelight of last summer’s entire Triple Crown series before emerging as a major force in August with a lopsided victory in the Travers Stakes at Saratoga in New York. Then came his determined effort to defeat California Chrome in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita in November, setting up Saturday’s showdown in the inaugural running of the Pegasus.
The inducement? A $12 million purse and a $7 million payout to the winner.
“It took me $12 million to get me off the couch,” Baffert joked.
Baffert is no stranger to big races. In 2015, he trained American Pharoah to the first sweep of the Triple Crown in 37 years.
But even Baffert’s stomach was turning with anxiety Saturday.
“I’ve got to admit, I was really nervous,” Baffert said.
While California Chrome arrived to South Florida two weeks ago to acclimate to the weather and the Gulfstream racing surface, Arrogate remained in California, where torrential rainfall had hampered his training.
“We’ve been working on nothing but mud this past month,” Baffert said.
Arrogate didn’t get to Florida until Tuesday.
On Saturday, he showed no indication of any hardship. Breaking from the inside post, Smith urged Arrogate out of the gate to gain forward position. On the far outside, Espinoza did just the same with California Chrome.
But Chrome wasn’t quick enough to clear the field and was four wide rounding the first turn. Espinoza said it wasn’t a factor. What was: Chrome didn’t fire.
With Noble Bird setting the the early fractions on the lead, Smith was content to allow Arrogate to sit in third, with California Chrome on his right flank. The two stars raced that way up the backstretch.
And that’s where Chrome began to struggle.
“I was good heading up to the 5/8-mile pole,” Espinoza said. “But then he just completely shut down.”
Smith looked to his side and saw Chrome was in trouble.
“I knew he wasn’t firing,” Smith said. “He wasn’t running his race.”
Baffert, watching from the stands, spotted it, too.
“I could tell by Victor’s body language that he was struggling on him a little bit,” Baffert said.
The race was over then and there.
Arrogate took command in the final turn and spurted away. Shaman Ghost was second, with Neolithic taking third.
Espinoza, realizing defeat was certain, wrapped up on Chrome and eased him across the wire, ahead of only three horses. Chrome’s lack of response came as a surprise to Espinoza.
“It really did surprise me today,” he said. “He had never run a bad race.”