The 2016 Winter Challenge at Los Alamitos
As his five-year-old season nearly reached its conclusion, California Chrome had done it all. A winner of two-thirds of the Triple Crown, two Eclipse Awards, and four California Thoroughbred Breeders Association honors, the chestnut horse who captured the hearts of many stood tall as one of the most popular and accomplished horses in recent memory.
He had also enjoyed a year of renewal. After taking Thoroughbred racing by storm in as a three-year-old in 2014, California Chrome did not experience much upon becoming an older horse at four. Two runner up finishes in as many stakes was the extent of his 2015 campaign, but he returned in full force in 2016. After taking over the record for earnings among California-bred horses (and later among all North American horses), Chrome avenged his loss in the Dubai World Cup from a year earlier and scored a popular victory in front of his fans at Del Mar when he captured the Pacific Classic that summer. Going in with momentum for the Breeders' Cup Classic after winning the Awesome Again at Santa Anita, Chrome experienced his first defeat of the year when Arrogate overtook him late. Depsite the loss, however, 2016 had been Chrome's year.
And he was not done.
Going back to his two year old season, California Chrome had resided at Hollywood Park. But when the Track of the Lakes and Flowers closed down at the end of 2013, he and many horses stabled there needed a new home.
Enter Los Alamitos Race Course.
The Cypress, California track stepped in to help the Southern California racing circuit after Hollywood Park closed, and hundreds of horses, including California Chrome, moved to its stables. In the years afterward, Los Alamitos became known as the "Home of the Chrome" as the son of Lucky Pulpit embarked on a journey that entailed victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness along with several other graded stakes wins and accolades.
Interestingly, though, California Chrome had never competed at Los Alamitos despite being based there for much of his career.
Until December 17, 2016.
With a start in the inaugural Pegasus World Cup looming in January 2017, California Chrome was set to retire after starting that race. It was decided at Los Alamitos to set up a race for its star Thoroughbred, which gave his fans one more chance to see the area's hero in action before heading East.
Dubbed the Winter Challenge Stakes, the race was 1 1/16 miles in length over the Los Alamitos surface. Nine horses went on track to take on Chrome, but none of him were given any chance to win by the bettors. The wagering reflected sentimentality as well as Chrome's class in abundance. No one in the field was on his level of talent or credentials. Set at odds of 1-20 at post time, Chrome was the only horse below 20-1 on the tote board.
Assigned post ten in the starting gate, California Chrome was destined to begin his final race in the Golden State widest of all. But it did not matter. With regular rider Victor Espinoza in tow, California Chrome moved past most of his rivals, settling in third place by the time he made his first trip by the wire.
Even with the good start, a wide trip was in store for California Chrome. He was on the outside as he traveled around the first turn and backstretch. At one point, Chrome was no less than eight wide on the backstretch, but he was not bothered by it. Hovering around fifth or sixth, Chrome had the leader, Presidentsky, within striking distance.
The Winter Challenge unfolded at a moderate pace, and that suited Chrome just fine. He gradually gained on the horses in front of him, moving with complete ease. It seemed effortless, and in no time at all, Chrome seized the lead in the far turn. He was still wide as he prepared to straighten up for the stretch run, but he shrugged that off. Chrome was a tough horse, a determined horse, and a wide trip was nothing.
Clearly ahead as he began the last stretch of the Winter Challenge, Chrome was now in the midst of a victory lap in front of the home crowd. Everyone in the Los Alamitos grandstand saw the chestnut horse, with his gray blinkers and the gray silks Espinoza wore, dust off his rivals. No one was going to interrupt this moment. Thousands of eyes watched the Art Sherman trainee powerfully stride towards the wire and share one more moment with his fellow Californians.
He won in style, putting a dozen lengths between himself and runner up Point Piper. He also left one final momento to his native state. The final time for the 1 1/16 miles was 1:40.03, a new track record. It still stands in 2020.
California Chrome had done it again. He captured another victory that he shared with his fans, the Chromies. Knowing this would be the final time they would see him in action, they no doubt hoped he had one last big run in him. Chrome gave them that and then some.
As Chrome went into the winners' circle, it could be said that it was a bittersweet celebration. One of the most popular and accomplished California-breds of all time, Chrome had put together exciting victories since 2014. He attracted fans by eclipsing what was an ordinary pedigree to achieve some of racing's grandest honors. He was the protagonist of a memorable underdog story, and the latest episode came at home with an adoring public on hand.
The Winter Challenge was not California Chrome's final start. That came in the Pegasus World Cup, which resulted in a ninth place finish, but that is hardly a career-defining performance. It may not have been the perfect ending to Chrome's career, but it had no adverse effect on his legacy, either.
Thanks to Chrome, the Winter Challenge is among the most important races in Los Alamitos's history. Built in the 1940s, it has long been more of a domain for Quarter Horse racing, but more people learned about the track because of its most famous resident.
Being a California-bred, perhaps it was apropos that Chrome's final win came in his home state. Looking back on it, no other track seems more suitable to be the host of that moment than Los Alamitos.