Linda Robertson

Even in defeat, California Chrome delivers a parting gift for horse racing

Arrogate comes out of turn four with the lead during Pegasus World Cup Invitational at Gulfstream Park at Hallandale Beach on Jan. 28, 2017.
Arrogate comes out of turn four with the lead during Pegasus World Cup Invitational at Gulfstream Park at Hallandale Beach on Jan. 28, 2017. adiaz@miamiherald.com

The purple-and-green silks of the young, unknown California Chrome were imprinted with a cartoon figure of a buck-toothed donkey and the DAP acronym his owners chose for themselves.

Dumb Ass Partners. They heard the ridicule when they bought a neurotic mare and paid $2,000 to breed her to an undistinguished stallion.

From that humble union — the partners weren’t bluebloods, either — came California Chrome, who ran his finale at Gulfstream Park in the richest race in thoroughbred history, the $12 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational. Chrome will retire with $14.7 million in career earnings.

Dumb luck? No, usually Chrome left everyone dumbstruck with his victories.

Not on Saturday, though. The 6-year-old Chrome said farewell with the worst, most puzzling performance of his career, a ninth-place finish, nine lengths behind winner Arrogate, who had such a commanding lead down the homestretch that jockey Mike Smith was able to cruise home. Arrogate, the striking, charcoal-colored 4-year-old who beat Chrome by a neck in their previous meeting on Nov. 5, ran an elegant, savvy race and collected the $7 million winner’s purse.

Chrome was the star, the prerace favorite, but by the midway point, it was clear he was going to lose, badly. Jockey Victor Espinoza pumped his arms, then applied the whip, begging for acceleration, grasping for a spark. Nada.

“Wide, asked, no response” will be recorded as the last track notation on Chrome.

“He faded by the half-mile pole. I was pretty much done by that point, but he never really got into the race,” Espinoza said. “Honestly, there’s nothing I can tell you I could have done different. He was just empty. At the first turn I thought I was good, but when we hit the five-eighths, he just completely shut down.”

The head-to-head showdown between Chrome and Arrogate didn’t materialize, although both escaped tricky post positions — Chrome outside in No. 12 and Arrogate on the rail — in decent shape.

“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,” said Chrome’s 79-year-old trainer Arthur Sherman, who dearly wanted the fan favorite to go out on top. Chrome will go out to stud as the biggest earner in North American history, but the goal was for him to surpass Japan’s Orfevre ($19 million) as the richest racer ever.

Maybe Chrome became too spoiled a celebrity. Maybe he woke up on the wrong side of the stall. Maybe something was bothering him physically. His “Chromie” groupies won’t stop loving him when he’s frolicking in Kentucky pastures and making $40,000 per breeding shed encounter.

“It’s been an unbelievable journey with him, even in defeat,” Sherman said. “Not every horse can keep the record up like he has.”

Chrome delivered a huge parting gift to the sport. Saturday’s $40.2 million betting handle was a Gulfstream record. The crowd of 16,653 was about what Gulfstream draws for its most popular race, the Florida Derby. And these patrons paid $100 for admission that’s usually free.

The electric atmosphere on a gorgeous South Florida afternoon and the array of festive hats — including a pink flamingo — reminded Arrogate trainer Bob Baffert of the vibe at the Kentucky Derby.

“It was like the Breeders’ Cup times two,” Smith said. “When they called, ‘Riders up!’ I said, ‘Oh, man, $12 million.’ Got a little extra jitters.”

Gulfstream owner Frank Stronach beamed. He wants everyone to love horse racing the way he does. He’d like to see it return to its status as “Sport of Kings,” and he knows big, rich, nationally televised events are the only way to lift it.

“It should be the No. 1 sport in the world because it gives so many people the feeling they can be winners,” Stronach said. “Look at the spectators, they’re riding the horse home: ‘I’m Mike Smith, I’m riding, I’m riding.’ Even when you only have two bucks or five bucks on the horse, that’s great.”

South Florida should thank Chrome because the success of Pegasus could make it an annual Gulfstream fixture, Stronach said. The Doral golf tournament has left for Mexico, the Miami Open tennis tournament is endangered. The spectacle and characters of horse racing make it a sport that deserves revival.

Chrome did his part. His owners resisted the temptation to put him out to stud after his 2014 Kentucky Derby and Preakness victories. Too many 3-year-olds retire after Triple Crown success. College basketball has a similar problem with early exits. All sports need rivalries, personalities, a thriving narrative.

Chrome did not go out with a pretty bouquet. But sometimes disappointment is more interesting than fairytale. Down the road fans can fall in love with foals that have Chrome in their name and see if they can avenge daddy’s defeat in the richest race ever.

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