The Breeders’ Cup Classic may not have seen horse turned folk hero California Chrome in the winner’s circle, but in the end he can still celebrate victory.

As the entrants prepared for the richest race run in North America, questions surrounded California Chrome. Sure the Kentucky Derby and Preakness champion had captivated the nation with his storybook tale and scintillating stretch runs, but did he still have enough left in the tank to take down the steep competition in the Classic. With $5 million up for grabs, the best of the best would be dueling in the dirt at Santa Anita. Defeats in the Belmont Stakes and Pennsylvania Derby in his last two starts obviously raised concerns.

Training well and looking great, California Chrome looked shiny as he strode proudly to the starting gates on November 1 with cheers ringing in his ears. Breaking from post 13 in the 14 horse field, this son of Lucky Pulpit was primed. As the bell rung for the 31st running of this blessed event, Chrome may have become a little confused. When the horses broke he may have thought he had been entered in a NASCAR race. Front-running speed horses Bayern and Toast of New York to his inside began trading paint with others as they bumped their way forward and tried to put the competition “into the wall” with swerving tactics. It worked for them as others had to check up and they raced to the front while Chrome patiently worked his way over using his turn of foot.

Settling in third behind Earnhardt and Petty…I mean Bayern and Toast of New York, Chrome ran just off a solid pace into the far turn. Swinging wide under jockey Victor Espinoza, California Chrome ran with the heart many knew he still had. As his stride got bigger he gave the 61,000 onlookers exactly what they wanted, a thrilling finish. With the three runners in a line they battled to the finish. Unfortunately for Chrome, he ran out of real estate. Finishing a diminishing nose behind Bayern and Toast of New York at the wire, Chrome was in front one jump later. A steward’s inquiry did not overturn the outcome. The horses that were compromised at the beginning could have changed things as race favorite Shared Belief and frontrunner Moreno had no chance to really play a part after swerving and checking. But nothing was changed and the decision stood.

“We couldn’t be more proud of him for his effort,” says Chrome owners Steve and Carolyn Coburn. “We are walking on air right now because he showed everyone he runs like a champion. He was prancing around at the barn after the race because he thinks he won.”

In reality, California Chrome did win. It may not have been the first place share of the 5 mill, but he gave his many adoring fans another thrilling run and he should have earned even more respect. Like how many licks it takes to get to the center of a tootsie pop we’ll never know if a different beginning would have put Chrome in the winner’s circle. But we do know he is a proven winner with the heart of a champion.

California Chrome came out of the Breeders' Cup a winner

California Chrome came out of the Breeders’ Cup a winner