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California Chrome’s Pegasus prep finalized: Winter Challenge at Los Alamitos

By Kellie Reilly

Track officials at California Chrome’s home base, Los Alamitos, have succeeded in whipping up a 1 1/16-mile stakes race to serve as his prep for the $12 million Pegasus World Cup (G1) at Gulfstream Park.

Daily Racing Form’s Steve Andersen reported Monday that, following Los Alamitos’ discussions with the Thoroughbred Owners of California, the stakes is now officially on the schedule for December 17 as the “Winter Challenge.”

Although initially thought to carry a purse of $100,000, the Winter Challenge is expected to offer more as an incentive to attract entrants. Racing secretary Bob Moreno told Andersen that $50,000 would go to the winner, $30,000 to second, $20,000 to third and $15,000 apiece to fourth and fifth. If more start, each of the remaining finishers would take home $10,000.

“If I get six or seven, it’s gravy. I think we can get five or six,” Moreno said.

The Winter Challenge is obviously a boon to Los Alamitos, where California Chrome has lived and trained, but hitherto not raced, and to the “Chromies” who’ll love the opportunity to see North America’s all-time leading earner compete one last time in Southern California.

But first and foremost, the Winter Challenge meets the logistical desiderata of Team Chrome. Trainer Art Sherman and his assistant son, Alan, wanted to get a race into him between his runner-up effort in the November 5 Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) and his career finale in the Pegasus World Cup on January 28. While Santa Anita would be a plausible spot, that would mean waiting until early January for a suitable prep. Alternatively, he could try to tune up at Gulfstream, but that would entail leaving his Los Al home a lot earlier than preferable.

Establishing a minor stakes at his home track in mid-December solves all of those dilemmas at a single blow.

“The timing would be perfect,” Art Sherman told The Blood-Horse’s Jeremy Balan back on November 18. “I think it would be great for the fans and all the people who are involved. It would be great. That way we don’t have to ship him anyplace. We can tune up right here, rather than having to work him a mile to try to tighten him up. It makes my job easier.”

The Winter Challenge will now highlight Los Alamitos’ closing weekend. The $100,000 Soviet Problem for juvenile fillies was already on the calendar for December 17, with the $100,000 King Glorious bringing down the curtain on December 18.

The King Glorious tie-in is especially apt. California Chrome concluded his juvenile campaign by romping in the King Glorious, the final stakes held on the last day at old Hollywood Park. Now he’ll bid adieu to Southern California on King Glorious weekend.

Looking ahead to the inaugural running of the Pegasus World Cup, the world’s richest race may give “Chrome” an opportunity for revenge upon Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Arrogate.

If I were forced to guess right now, though, I’m not sure Arrogate has a burning interest in facing Chrome over 1 1/8 miles at Gulfstream in January, when presumably Juddmonte’s Prince Khalid Abdullah would have the March 25 Dubai World Cup (G1) uppermost in mind. Not that Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert can’t do both – after all, Arrogate’s record-setting Travers (G1) was two months before the Breeders’ Cup Classic. But it is a little different dynamic to start the season that way, as opposed to peaking in the second half.

Other possible competitors have emerged from this past weekend’s major races, with Clark H. (G1) hero Gun Runner and Cigar Mile (G1) victor Connect under Pegasus consideration after beating their elders. But both had previously been overwhelmed by Arrogate in the Travers, so their successes boost his stock.

And from a totally different direction, Aidan O’Brien’s Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1) star Highland Reel is reportedly in the mix for the Pegasus too. Plans will crystallize after his next target, a title defense in the December 11 Hong Kong Vase (G1). But I can see the Coolmore brain trust wanting to give it a whirl. Coolmore already owns a slot in the 12-horse Pegasus field, and Highland Reel had been given a second-preference entry in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Since there’s not much else going on in January/February for a world-class middle-distance turf operator who loves to travel, wouldn’t the lads take a “why not?” approach?

Gary Tasich photo of California Chrome’s Saturday work, courtesy of Los Alamitos via Twitter