Weekend Recap: California Chrome Makes Successful Return

Weekend Recap: California Chrome Makes Successful Return

© Benoit Photo

Jockey Victor Espinoza has a moment with Californa Chrome after their victory in the San Pasqual Stakes at Santa Anita - © BENOIT PHOTO
Jockey Victor Espinoza has a moment with Californa Chrome after their victory in the San Pasqual Stakes at Santa Anita – © BENOIT PHOTO

When a champion racehorse returns from a long layoff, you cross your fingers and hope for the best, but until they actually race and prove themselves to be just as good as ever, there’s always a question mark–will they still be as good as they were at their peak?

When 2014 Horse of the Year California Chrome returned from a 9 1/2-month layoff in the San Pasqual Stakes (gr. II), it was hard to know exactly what to expect. At his peak, he had been brilliant, storming to victory in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I), Preakness Stakes (gr. I), Santa Anita Derby (gr. I), and San Felipe Stakes (gr. I) during a six-race week streak in 2013 and 2014. He had also run well in 2015, finishing second to champion Shared Belief in a thrilling renewal of the San Antonio Stakes (gr. II) and running second in the $10 million Dubai World Cup (UAE-I) at Meydan. But an excursion to England to train for a start at Royal Ascot ended with a minor injury, and when he returned home to target the Arlington Million (gr. I), he was diagnosed with cannon bone bruising and sent to the sidelines.

Still, from all appearances, California Chrome had recovered well from his injuries and was expected to be ready for a big season in 2016, which would start with a run in the $200,000 San Pasqual Stakes (gr. II) on January 9th at Santa Anita. His workouts before the race had been impressive, culminating with six furlongs in 1:10 flat a week before the race, but he would be facing a quality field led by HoppertunityImperative, and Hard Aces, a trio of capable graded stakes winners that have proven on many occasions that they can fire off a big effort on their best day.

So although California Chrome was expected to win–he was sent off as the heavy favorite at 3-5–it wasn’t a given that he would win in his first start off the layoff. But as it turned out, there was no need to worry, for California Chrome won in relatively easy fashion by 1 1/4 lengths (click here to view a slideshow of photos from the race.)

Granted, California Chrome did get a very good trip, tracking longshot Alfa Bird through fractions of :24.82, :49.12, and 1:12.90–very easy fractions given the caliber of the race. As a result, California Chrome had plenty left in the tank to run his fourth quarter-mile in :24.06 and his final sixteenth in :06.43 without jockey Victor Espinoza asking him for his absolute best. With something left in the tank, California Chrome crossed the wire a bit more than a length in front of Imperative, with Hoppertunity another length back in third after closing a lot of ground from last place.

Given the slow pace and the tactical advantage that California Chrome was able to secure, you have to give some credit to Hoppertunity for running as well as he did to finish third, but even with a faster pace, I’m not sure the results would have been different. I have long felt that California Chrome’s biggest advantage is his early speed and the ability to sustain a solid pace for a long distance, so from some perspectives, setting a slow pace might have been a disadvantage–it might have actually given Imperative and Hoppertunity a better chance to catch up in the homestretch, since they did not have to exert much energy early on by keeping up with a fast pace.

All that said, it was very impressive that California Chrome did accelerate in the second half of the race, running the second half-mile in about :47 3/5 as opposed to about :49 2/5 for the first half-mile, and it was this acceleration–the mark of a very good horse–that secured him the victory.

But regardless of how he won the race, California Chrome should gain a lot of fitness from this performance, and I’m looking forward to seeing how he fares in Dubai this winter. He is expected to ship there on January 21st to run in one or two prep races before taking a second shot at the Dubai World Cup, where a victory would make him the highest-earning U.S.-based racehorse of all time. Notably, Hoppertunity also has the Dubai World Cup as his goal, and it will be interesting to see if the longer homestretch and somewhat tiring track at Meydan will help Hoppertunity turn the tables on California Chrome.

Collected overcomes a wide trip to win the Sham Stakes (gr. III) at Santa Anita - Benoit Photo
Collected overcomes a wide trip to win the Sham Stakes (gr. III) at Santa Anita – Benoit Photo

The other graded stakes race held on Saturday at Santa Anita was the Sham Stakes (gr. III), the first of Santa Anita’s winter prep races for the Kentucky Derby. Trainer Bob Baffert swept the exacta with Collected and Let’s Meet in Rio, and while the final time wasn’t fast–just 1:38 flat for a mile, which translated to a Beyer speed figure of 80–both colts were more impressive than their times and speed figures imply. Collected, breaking from the far outside post position, was caught wide every step of the way and covered substantially more ground than some of his rivals, yet still managed to take command decisively in the homestretch and win by 1 1/4 lengths. His pedigree suggests that more distance could be a question mark, but Baffert was pleased with the way Collected performed in his first start on dirt.

“He really impressed me with his last couple works, so I was sort of excited to see what he could do, but you never know until they do it.” Baffert was quoted as saying in the official post-race quotes on the Santa Anita website. I was hoping for a little easier trip, hoping to lone speed, but that didn’t work out. Everybody had the same instructions, but Martin [Garcia, the winning rider] did a great job. He stayed patient with him and still had something left at the end after all that, so that was pretty impressive.

Still, as well as Collected ran, even more eye-catching was Let’s Meet in Rio, who trailed by six lengths with a furlong to go before gobbling up ground late to finish second, a little more than a length behind his stablemate. The most impressive aspect of Let’s Meet in Rio’s performance was that he seemed to be just getting started in the final furlong, which bodes well for his chances to stretch out in distance. Baffert voiced similar thoughts: “Let’s Meet in Rio looks like he’ll go longer. He was really coming late. It’s the time of year when you want to see something like that, so it’s exciting. He really had to work a little extra hard on the outside like that… but he responded the way you want him to respond. He kept on digging away at it.”

“I think this race will do him some good. I could tell in the paddock he looked a little heavy. He’s a very fast horse and there’s something about him in the mornings that really encouraged me that he’s going to be a runner.”

Kent Desormeaux, the three-time Kentucky Derby-winning jockey that was aboard Let’s Meet in Rio, was also impressed with his mount’s late rally. “He was just getting his motor running there at the sixteenth pole. I think he’ll relish more ground, and that’s encouraging.”

Across the country at Gulfstream Park, three quality graded stakes races were somewhat overshadowed by an impressive performance from the Dale Romans-trained three-year-old Cherry Wine, who won an 8.5-furlong allowance optional claiming race by six lengths. Reserved in last place through slow fractions of :23.98 and :48.05, the son of Paddy O’Prado began to gain ground as the field bunched up through six furlongs in 1:12.29, then swallowed up his rivals in the matter of a single furlong to open up a one-length lead passing the eighth pole. From there, it was just a question of how many lengths Cherry Wine would win by, and the final margin–while finishing under a hand ride–was six lengths.

Given the modest early pace, it was very impressive that Cherry Wine won so easily, but it didn’t necessarily come as a surprise. On November 28th at Churchill Downs, Cherry Wine broke his maiden with a similar late run, overcoming a slow pace to win by 9 1/4 lengths (click here for a recap). His Beyer speed figures have been a bit slow so far–75 for his Churchill win and 78 for his Gulfstream victory, respectively–but Dale Romans is very excited about this colt, who should have no trouble handling ten furlongs, and Romans has mentioned the January 23rd Holy Bull Stakes (gr. III) as a likely target for Cherry Wine’s next start. That should give us a good feel for how Cherry Wine stacks up against some of the best colts in his crop, as Mohaymen, Greenpointcrusader, and Conquest Big E are also expected to run in the Holy Bull.

One race before Cherry Wine’s allowance win, the Todd Pletcher-trained three-year-old Gettysburg won a nine-furlong maiden special weight by 4 1/2 lengths. Sent straight to the lead by jockey Javier Castellano, Gettysburg posted fractions of :23.73, :47.46, and 1:12.10 before opening up to win in easy fashion by 4 1/2 lengths. Visually, it was an impressive effort, but his final time of 1:51.12–achieved while running the final three furlongs in just :39.02 seconds–was on the slow side, and translated to a Beyer of 82. Gettysburg will have to keep improving if he’s going to be a factor on the Derby trail, but that’s definitely not out of the question–his performance on Saturday was a huge step forward off his previous race, a third-place finish behind Neolithic in an 8.5-furlong maiden race at Gulfstream in December.

Among the stakes races at Gulfstream, the highlight was a thrilling renewal of the one-mile Hal’s Hope Stakes (gr. III), which saw Mshawish prevail by a neck after a long stretch duel with Valid. For Mshawish, a grade I winner on turf, winning the Hal’s Hope on dirt has opened up a whole new set of options for him, and while he’s been campaigned primarily at a mile, he’s shown good form at nine furlongs as well and has the pedigree to suggest that even longer distances might not be out of the question. It will be interesting to see if another trip to Dubai is in the cards–he ran third in the Dubai Turf (UAE-I) going nine furlongs on the grass last year, but if he returns to Dubai, the ten-furlong Dubai World Cup on dirt could be a definite possibility.

Heart to Heart and Sandiva, two capable graded stakes winners on turf, added to their résumés with front-running wins in the Fort Lauderdale Stakes (gr. II) and Marshua’s River Stakes (gr. III), respectively. Time will tell if they can step up into grade I company this year, but at the very least, they should be major factors in the remainder of Gulfstream’s turf stakes races this winter.

Up at Aqueduct, the Eclipse award finalist La Verdad looked great winning the six-furlong Interborough Stakes by 2 3/4 lengths over a capable field that included Dancing House, Room for Me, and Princess Violet. The six-year-old mare is expected to run just once more before retirement, but with 16 wins from 25 starts, including four graded stakes victories, she’s clearly stamped herself as one of the most talented and consistent female sprinters in recent memory.

I’d also like to briefly mention the results of the Turf Dash Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs, which saw Fast Flying Rumor triumph by 4 3/4 lengths while earning a massive 108 Beyer speed figure. Fast Flying Rumor achieved that number by posting incredible fractions of :21.03 and :43.72 before drawing off to defeat the graded stakes winner Power Alert in the time of :55.06 seconds–wow! If Fast Flying Rumor can repeat this effort down the road, he’ll be one to watch in the major turf sprints this year.

Now it’s your turn! Who impressed you the most this weekend?

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Follow J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman"):

J. Keeler Johnson is a writer, blogger, videographer, and all-around horse racing enthusiast who was drawn to the sport by Curlin's quest to become North America's richest racehorse. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He lives in Wisconsin and also writes for the Bloodhorse.com blog Unlocking Winners.

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