California Chrome's trip around Los Alamitos reminiscent of Ussery's Alley

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TwinSpires Staff

December 22nd, 2016


Farewell tours seem to be in vogue in sports lately. Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter and David Ortiz each took a whole baseball season to say goodbye.

Not to be outdone, horse racing has joined the trend as CALIFORNIA CHROME (Lucky Pulpit)’s career is winding down. The earner of more money than anyone in the history of North American racing, Chrome’s final race will be the upcoming Pegasus World Cup (G1) at Gulfstream Park next January but his connections wanted to give southern California fans one more glimpse of their locally-based hero.

Left with a bitter taste in their mouths when he was beaten by ARROGATE (Unbridled’s Song) in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1), California Chrome, and his fans, needed a race as a prep for the Pegasus World Cup and the ownership of Los Alamitos put together a race on short notice that gave him what he needed to get ready.

But, more importantly, it gave his fans, which there are many, one more chance to see the flashy California-bred in person and like the performer that he is, he did not disappoint.

On a track that yielded very fast times all day, California Chrome was sent from post position 10 and Victor Espinoza was in no hurry to go after the lead. Four wide on the first turn, he was even wider down the backside and if it weren’t for the palm trees and sunny skies, I thought I was back at Aqueduct 40 or 50 years ago with “Ussery’s Alley.”

Back then, jockey Bobby Ussery would put his mounts on the far outside of the Aqueduct backside then swoop off the crown of the track going into the turn and make one, big run. Espinoza was as wide as Ussery ever was on the tight, paper clip of a main track that Los Alamitos is and kept California Chrome on the far outside around the far turn as he joined the leaders with a disdainful effort.

Cruising to the front in the stretch, Espinoza got exactly what he needed out of the race as he rode him through the wire and galloped out strong. This was in sharp contrast to what we saw him do in the Awesome Again Stakes (G1) when he took his foot off the gas pedal 50 yards from the wire in an easy win.

As a handicapper and race watcher, I don’t like seeing riders ease up at the wire. I think it sends mixed signals to the horse and they pay for it next time out. Espinoza, who did it in the Awesome Again and then, lost the Classic next time out, also did it in the Haskell Invitational Stakes (G1) before he was beaten in the Travers Stakes (G1) aboard Triple Crown winner AMERICAN PHAROAH (Pioneerof the Nile).

Espinoza knows what he is up against when they face Arrogate in five weeks so even though he lost an outrageous amount of ground, he still broke the track record for 1 1/16 miles at Los Alamitos. His BRIS speed rating of 102 does not include ground loss. As far as a prep race, it was absolutely perfect.

The fans of California Chrome were out in droves and gave their hero a huge welcome coming back to the winner’s circle. All it needed was Bob Hope singing “Thanks for the Memories.”

Having used Bob Hope and Ussery’s Alley in the same column, it looks like I am heading for the old folks home. As we used to say to our elders when I was growing up, “You’re living in the past, man.” Indeed.

Trainer Art Sherman said after the race that he would ship California Chrome to Gulfstream Park around January 6 to allow him time to acclimate. It worked when he went to Dubai early to get a prep race for their World Cup win this year and south Florida has two things that California Chrome has not been subjected to: humidity and wet tracks.

Bob Baffert will take a different approach with Arrogate. He will use the San Pasqual Stakes (G2) at 1 1/16 miles at Santa Anita on January 1. Baffert’s usual modus operandi is to ship in as late as he can so unless southern California gets a deluge of winter rain storms, look for Arrogate to get his prep race and then do his important training at Santa Anita.

On Wednesday of this week, Arrogate was up to his old tricks in the morning, breezing seven furlongs in 1:24 and change. While Sherman is all in on the Pegasus World Cup, Baffert is still playing wait and see but he wouldn’t be working like he did yesterday and have a race on New Year’s Day unless he was planning on going to meet California Chrome again.