California Chrome, the 2014 Kentucky Derby (G1) winner and Horse of the Year, transformed Saturday’s $1,001,380 Pacific Classic (G1) at Del Mar from a showdown into a one-horse race. By demolishing a field including three-time Eclipse Award champion Beholder and 2015 Derby third Dortmund, he posted arguably his career-best performance – and elicited effusive praise from jockey Victor Espinoza.

Espinoza, famous for guiding American Pharoah to the first sweep of the U.S. Triple Crown in 37 years, said that California Chrome ranks even more highly.

“I’m going to say this now – this is the best horse I’ve ever ridden,” Espinoza said.

Specifically asked if that means “Chrome” eclipses American Pharoah, their rider confirmed his opinion:

“Yes. The way he’s running now, yes.”

Of course, it’s easy to get carried away in the heat of the moment when your old partner has run roughshod over two other stars. And to be fair to American Pharoah, he retired to stud after his historic three-year-old campaign of 2015. He didn’t have the chance to progress as an older horse, as the now five-year-old California Chrome does.

And as a younger horse, California Chrome couldn’t equal American Pharoah’s record. California Chrome wasn’t a champion at two; American Pharoah was. Chrome couldn’t complete the elusive Triple Crown when dead-heating for fourth in the 2014 Belmont (G1). Chrome was a close, and game, third in his Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) at Santa Anita; “Pharoah” romped in his at Keeneland last October.

Considering how much better American Pharoah was at two and three, it’s unclear whether he could have kept improving had he continued racing. With the strength that comes from full physical maturity, perhaps he could have hit new heights.

But what is certain is that California Chrome had more room to improve, and he’s done so in a remarkable way. That’s a credit to trainer Art Sherman, his son-cum-assistant Alan, exercise rider Dihigi Gladney (pictured on California Chrome in Dubai), and the whole team, who’ve each contributed to Chrome’s well-being.

Far and away in the form of his life right now, he’s unbeaten from five starts in 2016 – from his successful comeback from a nine-month layoff in the January 9 San Pasqual (G2); his handicap prep in Dubai February 25; his sensational win in the world’s richest race, the $10 million Dubai World Cup (G1); his U.S. return over Dortmund in the July 23 San Diego H. (G2); and now to Del Mar’s signature race, Chrome has reached the stratosphere.

Until Saturday, California Chrome’s greatest performance had come in the March 26 Dubai World Cup, where he surpassed Hall of Famer Curlin to become North America’s all-time richest Thoroughbred. But his Pacific Classic was even more emphatic.

From a tricky draw on the rail, Espinoza decided to put California Chrome right onto the lead, and once he easily bounded clear of Beholder and Dortmund, the race was virtually over. He began to get away from them nearing the far turn, opened up in the stretch, and coasted home five lengths clear of Beholder. Dortmund checked in a further 2 1/4 lengths back in third.

Despite gearing down late, California Chrome sped 1 1/4 miles in 2:00.13 and recorded a career-high BRIS Speed rating of 112.

Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens had a good view of the whole race aboard champion mare Beholder, and he summed it up well.

“Victor (Espinoza) was playing with us. I don’t think he really let him run. That’s scary to think about. Hats off to California Chrome.”

Chrome increased his North American record earnings to $13,252,650, put himself in pole position to regain his Horse of the Year title, and burnished his own future Hall of Fame plaque.

“He’s Chrome and I can’t believe that I get to train him,” Art Sherman said. “I’m sure he’ll be in the Hall of Fame some day and it will be good to know that I trained a horse that’s in the Hall of Fame.”

The Pacific Classic was a “Win and You’re In” race for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Chrome’s year-end goal on November 5 at Santa Anita. After a projected start in the newly minted, $12 million Pegasus World Cup (G1) at Gulfstream in January, he’s expected to retire to stud next year at co-owner Taylor Made Farm in Kentucky.

Duncan Taylor, Taylor Made’s President & CEO, paid Chrome quite a compliment.

“I’ve been around horses all my life,” Taylor said. “There’s a lot of attributes that make California Chrome great, but his mind is one of them. He’s the smartest horse I’ve ever seen and that’s what sets him apart. He can do whatever you want him to do.

“He’s the most intelligent horse I’ve ever been around.”

 Photo of California Chrome (with exercise rider Dihigi Gladney) in Dubai courtesy of Dubai Racing Club/Mathea Kelley