Archive for California Chrome

Is It Time For an International End of the Year Award???

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Andrew Hawkins of South China Morning Post…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

World racing deserves its own Oscars, similar to America’s Eclipse Awards

The world racing year that was 2014 will be toasted in the next seven days with two separate awards functions on either side of the Atlantic – but what would happen if elements of both were combined to essentially create the Oscars of world racing?

In the United States, the annual Eclipse Awards will be held at Florida’s Gulfstream Park racecourse on Saturday night.

The awards are selected by a voting body of approximately 250 people, comprised of Daily Racing Form (DRF) columnists and writers, members of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters (NTWAB) – effectively representing the rest of the American racing media – and racing secretaries belonging to the National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA). The awards are completely subjective and at the hands of the voters, much like the Oscars.

There are 17 categories – 12 for horses, five for the human participants – but the jewel in the crown is the Horse of the Year.

In what has been an incredibly open season in American racing, there has been an immense debate about the merits of each of the Horse of the Year candidates – as well as some of those that missed the final cut.

There’s Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner California Chrome, who lost form in the middle of the year but returned to finish third in the Breeders’ Cup Classic before winning at Del Mar to close his season. Notably, he won on both dirt and turf, as well as winning on a synthetic surface right at the end of 2013.

Then there is his Breeders’ Cup Classic conqueror Bayern, an inconsistent front-runner who has been scintillating at his best but won the Classic in controversial circumstances and also flopped badly in two of the premier three-year-old races, the Preakness Stakes and the Travers Stakes.

Completing the trio is English import Main Sequence, who won four staying Grade One races on turf – far from a strong division in the US, although at his last start, he did hold off subsequent Hong Kong Vase winner Flintshire in the Breeders’ Cup Turf.

The debate between racing fans has made for some tense arguments and a fair bit of slagging, in particular both by and towards the California Chrome fans affectionately (or disparagingly) referred to as “Chromies”.

For the analyst, though, it has raised the question: what constitutes a worthy winner of Horse of the Year? Is it consistency across the course of a season? Is it raw ability? Is it the backstory or the ability to win the hearts of fans?

Each voter tends to have a different opinion, which makes the end result totally unpredictable. Speaking to three American fans on Thursday, all three were confident they knew who would win the Horse of the Year award – and all three nominated a different horse.

It’s dramatic and a fitting conclusion to a stellar year.

Then, on Tuesday night in London, the equine stars of 2014 will be honoured at the Longines World’s Best Racehorse Ceremony, celebrating the horses that finish atop the Longines World’s Best Racehorse Rankings.

Those rankings, compiled by handicappers representing each member jurisdiction of the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities (IFHA), are more of an objective exercise than the Eclipse Awards. Well, as objective as opinions can be in racing, an inherently subjective game.

Unlike the Eclipse Awards – where voters tend to look at a horse’s overall season – one spike performance can put a horse at the top of the rankings. While it is difficult to know whether Just A Way’s Dubai Duty Free romp was a spike, given he was tested at distances outside his comfort zone for the rest of the year – his win in the Yasuda Kinen over a mile was followed by three runs at a mile and a half – the six and a quarter length win at Meydan in course record time will be enough to see him claim the World’s Best Racehorse title.

The battle for second was made interesting by Epiphaneia’s four length Japan Cup win and Able Friend’s performance in the Hong Kong Mile. Able Friend is expected to be rated 127, and he is expected to be rated on par with Europe’s top three-year-olds Australia, Kingman and The Grey Gatsby, as well as his Champions Mile conqueror Variety Club. Where Epiphaneia rates among those is up for debate, with Japanese handicappers traditionally harsh on their own races, but he may take outright second on his own.

If the rankings were to be applied solely to American racing, then Bayern (125) would be Horse of the Year ahead of California Chrome and the now-retired Game On Dude (both on 124).

Really, though, where is the drama? Where is the excitement? It’s all pretty sterile and predictable, and while it recognises excellence, it fails to recognise one of racing’s strengths – its uncertainty.
Instead of a tradesmanlike approach to comparing horses, races and performances, simply using ratings, how would experts from different countries measure up form from around the world?

So, The Griffin would like to propose a new showpiece racing event in January each year, which we humbly suggest should be named ‘The Griffins’.

Combining the best of the Longines World’s Best Racehorse Ceremony with the Eclipse Awards – international racing awards voted on by racing officials and journalists from around the world – it would be racing’s answer to the Oscars.

Instead of a tradesmanlike approach to comparing horses, races and performances, simply using ratings, how would experts from different countries measure up form from around the world?

How would an Australian assess California Chrome against Bayern? How would an Englishman decipher Able Friend against Designs On Rome?

And then, take it one step further. In voting for Horse of the Year, how does one assess California Chrome against the likes of Able Friend, Just A Way, Australia, Kingman, Variety Club, Treve and Lankan Rupee?

How would an Australian assess it? How would an American? An Englishman? A Hongkonger?

It would be hard to compile a voting body that would be totally fair to every jurisdiction, though.

One way is to give every IFHA member an equal vote.

That would mean the member countries of the IFHA – Algeria, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Bahrain, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Chad, Chile, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Hong Kong, Hungary, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Korea, Lebanon, Macau, Malaysia, Mauritius, Mexico, Morocco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Oman, Pakistan, Panama, Peru, Poland, Qatar, Romania, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, Tunisia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, United States of America, Uruguay and Venezuela – would each get, say, five votes, creating a voting body of 290.

The flaw in this is obvious, though.

Say the United States, where the vote would likely be split between Bayern, California Chrome and Main Sequence. In Hong Kong, it would probably be split between Able Friend and Designs On Rome. In Australia, it could go any way with horses like It’s A Dundeel, Fiorente, Protectionist, Lankan Rupee and Terravista all possibilities.

In smaller countries with one standout, though, their horses would be likely to garner more votes. Take Macau, where Wonder Mossman would likely receive the top points from all judges.

What’s not to say Macau’s five voters would all give him top points, while Hong Kong’s five voters are split between Able Friend and Designs On Rome. That would leave Wonder Mossman ahead of both of John Moore’s superstars.

While a 10-1 points scale like the Eclipse Stakes would even it out in the end, with horses from bigger jurisdictions likely to scrape more of the minor points, it still seems a bit skewed.

However, recognition deserves to be given to countries with stronger racing as determined by the IFHA. The IFHA publishes a list of the top 100 races each year based on a three-year rating average.

At the end of the 2013 season, the list had 26 races from Australia, 20 from the United States, 17 from England, 11 from France, nine from Japan, six from Hong Kong, four from the United Arab Emirates, two from Ireland and Germany and one each from Singapore, Canada and South Africa.

If votes were awarded proportionally, though, it would then be skewed towards horses from Australia, the United States and England, making it racing’s version of the Coalition of the Willing.

Instead, we suggest that every IFHA member gets a certain number of votes, while the countries represented on the top 100 list get a far greater representation.

However it would be decided, though, the simple question is: who would win the Horse of the Year award?

While this blog’s personal top three would be Just A Way, Able Friend and Bayern, with a slight leaning to Just A Way, it is unlikely that the Japanese galloper would win. His Dubai success seems a distant memory, replaced by his slightly dull efforts stepped up to 2,400m, and the performances of Epiphaneia and Gentildonna since would probably come to the fore of voters’ minds.

Instead, the winner would probably be a horse like Adelaide, who won in Ireland, the United States and Australia and was placed in England and France, or Variety Club, another who would get support from multiple countries. Or maybe the focus will be on the winners of those traditional big races – the likes of California Chrome, dual Derby winner Australia or Arc winner Treve.

Nevertheless, these are all hypotheticals and they will never be answered. They can be debated and argued, but at this stage there is no definitive answer bar the view of world handicappers on individual performances.

It would be a win for the racing industry if one day, the world’s Horse of the Year is decided by the global racing community based on their efforts across the span of a season.

And besides, we haven’t even touched on the red carpet – John Moore in a safari suit would be all that is needed.


Could A Turf Race In November at Del Mar Decide Horse of the Year????

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Bob Ehalt of…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

Doug O’Neill’s suspension shows why little makes sense in horse racing

As odd as it may seem, Horse of the Year may ultimately be decided through a race at Del Mar … in November.

It’s been that kind of a year.

In a racing season filled with the likes of injuries, scandals, and a Triple Crown near-miss, just to name a few, the appearance of Kentucky Derby-Preakness winner California Chrome in a turf race just might be remedy for the bad taste lingering from the controversial and widely panned Breeders’ Cup Classic.

According to trainer Art Sherman, California Chrome will be given a workout on the turf on Nov. 23 and if all goes well, the California-bred will run in the Grade 1 Hollywood Derby at Del Mar on Nov. 29 at the track’s inaugural fall meet.

Considering the dilemma facing Eclipse Award voters, the ability of a dirt star like California Chrome to display a new dimension by adding a Grade 1 turf stakes to his resume could be enough to propel him to frontrunner status for racing’s most coveted prize.

At the very least, it would supply the kind of a satisfaction that the BC Classic was supposed to supply.

Instead, the decision by the Santa Anita stewards not to disqualify the victorious Bayern for bumping the favored Shared Belief at the start of the race has created a situation in which some voters seem intent on administering their own brand of justice by using their Eclipse Award ballots to offset the stewards’ verdict.

The Breeders’ Cup Classic was painted as the race that would settle the Horse of the Year debate, but in its aftermath turf star Main Sequence emerged from the Breeders’ Cup as the No. 1 choice in the final National Thoroughbred Racing Association poll. Bayern and California Chrome, who was third in the BC Classic, were second and third, respectively.

Main Sequence is a perfect 4-for-4 this year — all in Grade 1 stakes — and turned in an exceptional effort to beat Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe runner-up Flintshire in the Breeders’ Cup Turf. Yet, aside from the Breeders’ Cup, Main Sequence faced only modest competition in his turf victories.

In contrast, this year’s crop of 3-year-old males turned out to be a sensational group with runners like Bayern, California Chrome, Shared Belief, Tonalist and Toast of New York, who was second in the BC Classic. Given that level of depth and competition, it would only seem proper to honor the best member of that class as the year’s best horse.

The Breeders’ Cup Classic, though, may have pulled the plug on that notion.

Yet now, there may be a chance for redemption. The Hollywood Derby would give California Chrome a fourth Grade 1 win in 2014, two more than any of his 3-year-old rivals. His four-bagger, with the Santa Anita Derby, Kentucky Derby and Preakness, also carries more clout than Main Sequence’s quartet and has enough of a cushion to push his three 2014 losses into the background.

Plan B, in case California Chrome fizzles in his turf work, would be to run in the Native Diver, also on Nov. 29. It’s on the dirt, but is only a Grade 3 stakes and would lack the charisma that could come from a Grade 1 win on a new surface. Naming California Chrome Horse of the Year off a final push from a Grade 3 stakes seems a stretch.

So for now, the intrigue of finding out whether the grass will be greener for California Chrome has the Horse of the Year debate back on the right track. Instead of focusing on the actions of three stewards, there will be a race to ponder and an outcome that will be put under a microscope by discerning eyes.

It’s a dramatic improvement from the quagmire racing currently has on its hands … just as long as California Chrome doesn’t bump anyone.


Will the Derby and Preakness Wins Be Enough For “Chrome” To Hold Off Shared Belief for Three Year Old of the Year????

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Steven Crist of…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

Double Crown title streak could end

As any schoolchild knows, every 3-year-old since 1978 who won both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness failed to win the Belmont Stakes and complete the Triple Crown. But did you know there’s an even longer streak regarding the winners of the first two legs of the Triple Crown?

Since the Eclipse Awards began in 1971 through last year, 16 horses have won the Derby and Preakness – and every single one of them won the Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old: Canonero II (1971), Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977), Affirmed (1978), Spectacular Bid (1979), Pleasant Colony (1981), Alysheba (1987), Sunday Silence (1989), Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998), Charismatic (1999), War Emblem (2001), Funny Cide (2003), Smarty Jones (2004), Big Brown (2007), I’ll Have Another (2012) and … wait, not so fast on adding California Chrome (2014) to the list.

After Shared Belief’s impressive victory against his elders in the Pacific Classic last Sunday, he inched ahead of the idle California Chrome in the National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s weekly Horse of the Year poll. (Shared Belief and California Chrome are now ranked second and third behind the 7-year-old gelding Wise Dan.)

You have to go back 45 years, before the dawn of the Eclipses, to find a 3-year-old who won the Derby and Preakness but was not acknowledged as the division’s champion: That would be Majestic Prince in 1969. He beat Arts and Letters by a neck in the Derby and by a head in the Preakness, but Arts and Letters beat him by 5 1/2 lengths in the Belmont and then reeled off consecutive victories in the Jim Dandy, Travers, Woodward, and Jockey Club Gold Cup. (He also won the Blue Grass and, in between the Preakness and Belmont, the Met Mile.) Arts and Letters was understandably acclaimed as the champion 3-year-old and Horse of the Year.

It looked as if things might go the same way a couple of times since. Twenty years after Arts and Letters, Easy Goer had a very similar streak after falling short to Sunday Silence in the Derby and Preakness. He was heavily favored to complete the turnaround in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, but then Sunday Silence beat him for the third time in four meetings and was deservedly a nearly unanimous choice.

In 2003, it seemed that Empire Maker had edged ahead of Funny Cide when he beat him in the Belmont, giving him a 2-1 lead in head-to-head meetings and a 3-2 lead in Grade 1 victories. Neither one of them, however, won a race past June, and by the time ballots were due in December, Funny Cide’s Derby and Preakness made it seem to a majority of voters that he had been the more successful 3-year-old and deserved the nod.

The 2004 voting would have been interesting if Birdstone had won the Breeders’ Cup Classic. After denying Smarty Jones’s bid for the Triple Crown by beating him in the Belmont, Birdstone returned to win the Travers. Would a BC Classic victory have pushed him past the Derby-Preakness winner? We’ll never know since he finished seventh, and Smarty Jones was an easy Eclipse winner.

So, the question now is whether Shared Belief can catch up to a Derby-Preakness winner. Let’s say he makes his fourth and final start of an unbeaten 3-year-old season in the BC Classic and wins it, beating California Chrome in their only meeting. Would it be enough? California Chrome would still have a 3-2 lead in Grade 1 wins (Santa Anita Derby, Kentucky Derby, and Preakness vs. Pacific Classic and BC Classic), but Shared Belief’s two big victories would have been against older horses instead of the uninspiring 3-year-olds whom California Chrome was walloping last spring.

Still, winning the Derby and Preakness is a powerful double that tends to look even better in hindsight. The discussion then comes down to accomplishment vs. talent. It’s possible that one could simultaneously believe at season’s end that Shared Belief is the better horse but that California Chrome accomplished more this year.

It would be a fascinating debate if we get that far. Maybe the best part is that this could develop into more than a one-race rivalry: California Chrome is scheduled to race as a 4-year-old, and Shared Belief is a gelding with an unlimited future on the track. These things are always best settled on the racetrack, so here’s hoping.


Where Do All The Three Year Olds Rank Going Into the Fall????

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Art Wilson of San Gabriel Valley Tribune…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

California Chrome still shining brightly

In a sport where some pundits often rush to judgment, this year’s crop of 3-year-olds may be developing into a nice lot.

Whereas early in the year California Chrome was dispatching all comers and critics found fault in his opposition, it now appears the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner will face some stern tests this fall.

Take Bayern, for instance. He’s always had the talent to become a top race horse but he was so lightly raced his inexperience most times overshadowed that talent. Now look at him. He won the Woody Stephens on Belmont Stakes Day and parlayed that victory into a most impressive win in last weekend’s Haskell at Monmouth Park.

The Offlee Wild colt burst onto the scene in February after a 15-length victory in an allowance race at Santa Anita Park. The race had Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens excited later.

“I pulled up after the race and Mike Smith came up galloping behind me and he said, ‘Do you know how much you won by?’ ” Stevens said. “I said, ‘I have no idea.’ He said, ‘A pole. You won by a sixteenth of a mile.’ I actually made Bayern gallop out after the race because he’s a colt that’s progressing.”

A quarter crack set Bayern back a bit and he missed the Derby after a third-place finish in the Arkansas Derby on April 12 and a disappointing runner-up effort in the Derby Trial on April 26. Now, after a lackluster ninth-place showing in the Preakness, he’s put it all together with back-to-back victories.

Trainer Bob Baffert was leaning toward the seven-furlong King’s Bishop at Saratoga for Bayern’s next start, but the colt’s 7 1/4-length gate-to-wire victory in the Haskell might have changed his mind. Baffert now is thinking Travers Stakes on Aug. 23.

“I was just hoping he’d be able to get the mile and an eighth,” Baffert said post-Haskell. “Gary Stevens, after he rode him last time (Woody Stephens), said, ‘You have to let him route again. He’ll just keep going.’ ”

So one Hall of Famer took the advice of another and the result is we might see a Breeders’ Cup Classic in November that includes Palace Malice, California Chrome, Bayern and Shared Belief. Think maybe that race would have Santa Anita buzzing?

Here’s a look at how I rank this year’s 3-year-olds heading into August:

(1) California Chrome: One loss doesn’t knock the king off his throne, especially when he was not disgraced in defeat. His fourth-place finish in the Belmont, a race in which he was injured, earned Chrome a short respite, but he’s back in his barn at Los Alamitos and likely headed for a start in the Awesome Again Stakes at Santa Anita on Sept. 27.

(2) Shared Belief: The son of Candy Ride has done nothing wrong in his brief career and won all five starts by a combined 29 lengths. His 4 1/4-length victory in the Los Alamitos Derby on July 5 had folks debating whether California Chrome or Shared Belief is the better horse.

(3) Bayern: This guy might just be the most talented of them all, a question that figures to be answered by the end of the year. His victory in the seven-furlong Woody Stephens had some onlookers wondering if he should remain sprinting, but his Haskell romp may have changed most of those thoughts.

(4) Tonalist: The Tapit colt, who like Bayern and Shared Belief was compromised by injury during the Triple Crown series, earns the No. 4 ranking because of his victory in the Belmont. That trumps Wicked Strong’s wins in the Wood Memorial and last weekend’s Grade II Jim Dandy Stakes.

(5) Wicked Strong: Another late-developing colt who seems to be improving the more he runs. He was competitive in the Derby and Belmont. If Wicked Strong, Bayern and Tonalist all go in the Travers, it’s going to be one of the most anticipated editions of that stake in a long while.

Untapable, the Kentucky Oaks winner, would have made our Top Five before her fifth-place showing in the Haskell. She didn’t disgrace herself in the $1 million race, but she needs to beat the boys before she can be regarded as a great filly.

Trainer Steve Asmussen’s comments after the race, when he noted Untapable broke poorly and her chances were compromised by a speed-favoring track, only underscore how truly great Zenyatta was.

In 20 starts, a career in which she raced at five race tracks, she lost only once and her connections never had to offer alibis about this or that. They never had to say she didn’t like the track, the pace was too slow or she had a bad trip. Her only loss, by a head to Blame in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs, was because she just ran out of real estate.


Is Racing Capable of Capitalizing On A Star Like California Chrome???

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Eric Crawford of…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

If Chrome wins Triple Crown, can racing capitalize?

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — In four days, we’ll know. We’ll wake up next Sunday morning and have our first Triple Crown winner in 36 years, or we’ll feel that old familiar frustration.

Let’s do a little positive visualization. Imagine California Chrome wins the Belmont Stakes. Imagine the chestnut colt rounds the sweeping turn for home, gathers himself through that heartbreaking stretch and gives horse racing the moment it has lusted after since the newness wore off of Affirmed’s Triple Crown in 1978.

We’ve heard about how the sport needs a Triple Crown winner. Fans want it. Even the media want to see it. They’re so eager to see it happen in New York that Belmont Park officials have scrapped Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” in favor of the old “Sidewalks of New York” number that was played before the race for decades. Anything to shake the bad luck.

But for all of its luster and historic difficulty, what would a Triple Crown do for the sport? Or, more to the point, is horse racing in any position to take advantage of the marketing potential of a Triple Crown winner?

It’s fair to say that thoroughbred racing as an enterprise has never been in greater need of the kind of positive news that California Chrome could offer with a win. The debate over performance enhancing drugs and treatment of the animals has grown louder in recent years. Just this spring, trainer Steve Asmussen was implicated in a video obtained by an undercover worker in his barn who turned out to be an operative for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

The sport has steadily slid from the American sports consciousness after holding a central place there through the middle of the last century. These days, it’s just as likely to move the needle for bad news as for good. Barbaro was a bigger story even than Big Brown’s Triple Crown quest.

In California Chrome, racing could well have its super horse. They’re going to say he beat a bad Preakness field. They’re right. He also, if he wins on Saturday, will have beaten more rivals over the three-race Triple Crown series than any other colt to accomplish the feat. Saturday’s field is stocked with fresh horses. It’s a quality field.

Horse racing, as a sport, generally finds a way to muck up these moments. One problem is that the sport has no central authority. There’s no commissioner of the sport to set policy nationally and look out for the sport’s well-being.

Nor does horse racing have any central authority for marketing or promotion. If California Chrome wins Saturday, his connections will do whatever TV appearances are able to prevail upon them. They will try to do as many as they can. Owner, trainer, jockey will fan out over as many national shows as they can get to.

In some ways, it’s a refreshing departure from the way sports — and marketing — are done these days. But in another, it depicts a problem for the industry.

Everybody is a free agent. The Triple Crown is run in three states, all of whom have their own racing commissions, which even worse than being independent of each other, are largely governmental bodies, which ups the dysfunction exponentially.

California Chrome’s owners, though they seem to be making a good-faith effort to do everything the right way for the sport, also are going to be doing their own thing. They signed a deal with Sketchers shoes this week to wear the brand’s logos on their hats and in other places, while having it represented somewhere on the horse.

If California Chrome wins, everybody will want a piece of him. And how will that be handled? And what is the best way to handle it?

When an NBA or NFL, even NCAA team, wins a big national competition, the T-shirts and hats go online before the telecast is off the air, and players are already wearing the merchandise on national TV. Crass? Maybe. But people want to be a part of the event. And buying something like that is part of how they do it. It’s a powerful marketing tool.

If California Chrome wins the Belmont, how will casual sports fans at home get a piece of it? Sports Illustrated may have a commemorative issue ready to go. Maybe fans will buy and keep newspapers. But by and large, there’s no large scale mechanism to put a part of California Chrome and his story — a T-shirt, a hat, anything — into peoples’ hands.

And then there’s the question of the horse himself. If he wins a Triple Crown, does he become too valuable to race? The best thing for racing would be for him to finish out this racing season — culminating in a run in the Breeders Cup Classic, and then perhaps to run a full season as a 4-year-old.

But few think that will happen. He’ll bring $30 million or more as a stallion if he wins, and it’s likely we’ll have seen him run his last race — even as a great many Americans are meeting him for the first time.

Maybe the marketing of it doesn’t matter. I’d like to think it doesn’t. I’d like to believe that the absence of such blatant commercialism is one of the charms of horse racing. But I can’t. Racing doesn’t just need a Triple Crown, it needs to find a way to take advantage of the series. Otherwise, California Chrome wins, is a big story for a few days, then fades away, and the Triple Crown series is even less of a novelty.

Racing’s magic moment could be coming. But will anyone be surprised if the sport can’t capitalize?


What Could Derail California Chrome’s Triple Crown Attempt???

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Steve Davidowitz of…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

Can it happen to California Chrome?

Not many people would argue that California Chrome is a deserving odds-on favorite to win the Belmont Stakes and complete the rare sweep of the American Triple Crown.

Yet the same was true for many of the 12 winners of the Derby and Preakness since 1978 who failed to win the 1½-mile Belmont.

In his latest column for ESPN, Bill Finley described what happened to those 12 horses in sufficient detail to underscore how difficult it is to win the Belmont after winning the first two jewels in the crown.

In these next paragraphs, I’d like to focus on three of those failed bids from a slightly different perspective. Specifically, the race that Alysheba lost in 1987; the one that Real Quiet literally blew in ’98 as well as Smarty Jones’ failed bid in 2004.

Two of the “upsets” are worth close inspection to appreciate the extreme pressure California Chrome’s veteran trainer Art Sherman is under. The other illustrates a lesson that California Chrome’s jockey should heed.

First, let us acknowledge that any horse that sweeps this difficult three-race series at three different distances on three different racing surfaces in three different states during a compressed five-week period automatically deserves to be considered among the great horses in American racing history. That does not mean we have to rank any Triple Crown winner as the equal of Secretariat or Citation. But we should give more than a passing nod to the high level of talent it took to win the three classics when so many others have failed.

Forget speed figures, pace numbers, competition rankings and/or other measuring sticks. If California Chrome can complete a sweep of the 2014 Triple Crown, he will be an automatic Horse of the Year winner as well as a bona fide first-ballot Hall of Fame member when he becomes eligible down the road.

Beyond that, here are the stories behind three Derby and Preakness winners who did not complete the sweep.

In 1987, I was clocking horses privately for Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg, at his request. Going into the Belmont Stakes, Alysheba had defeated Bet Twice in the Derby and Preakness. He certainly was bred to handle any distance and had not reached his physical potential. Alysheba’s 1988 Horse of the Year campaign would confirm that.

But I gasped when I saw Alysheba work a mile a week after the Preakness, then officially work again, a week before the Belmont, a work that was posted by the New York Racing Association clockers as a mile in 1:44. The simple fact, however, was that Alysheba did not work a second consecutive mile; he worked the full 1½-mile Belmont Stakes distance that day, stopping my watch in 2:35.

I asked Jack if he went too far or too fast, and he said: “No, the horse is a bull. He needs to work hard to keep him in top shape.”

In the Belmont Stakes, racing without Lasix, Alysheba finished a tired fourth, caught at the wire for third by Gulch, one of the best sprinter-milers of the past 50 years, but a horse who was not built for nor trained to go 12 furlongs.

Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron took a lot of blame for Alysheba’s defeat — for taking him under restraint heading into the first turn. With considerable grace, McCarron accepted the blame. But as I witnessed it, Alysheba was somewhat overtrained for the grueling climax to the Triple Crown, and the evidence was on my stopwatch and in his final furlong on race day.

In 2004, the opposite occurred with Smarty Jones. While I was not clocking for trainer John Service, I was fascinated by the enormous public support the horse was gaining day by day as he approached his Belmont Stakes.

I was in Philadelphia when several thousand people showed up at Philadelphia Park for his key final workout for the Belmont, clocked officially in 1:29 ⅕ for seven furlongs.

I got him going five furlongs in a leisurely 1:02 flat, galloping out seven furlongs in 1:29 ⅖, while hardly acting as if he had worked at all.

“No matter,” I thought, “he lays over the Belmont field.”

Well, not quite. As the race was run, Smarty Jones was unusually rank, hard to control, hard for jockey Stewart Elliot to keep him out of a surprising speed duel with Purge and Rock Hard Ten, who went six furlongs in 1:11.76 and a mile in a blistering 1:35.44. The fast pace for the 12-furlong distance took its toll on Smarty Jones as long shot Birdstone began to close ground coming out of the final turn and nailed the exhausted 3-10 shot approaching the wire.

Upon further examination, two things stood out:

Smarty Jones was “too fresh” for the Belmont, and Birdstone was a vastly underrated colt who had shown signs of class as a 2-year-old in 2003. He not only won the Grade 1 Champagne Stakes the previous fall, but two months after the Belmont, he won the prestigious Travers Stakes at Saratoga.

When I wrote this all up after the Belmont for a monthly magazine, I received an intriguing letter in the mail from the great trainer Michael Dickinson, who said: “You were 100 percent right about the lack of serious training that horse had for the Belmont. I thought the same exact thing.”

Dickinson’s letter did not prove me correct, but forgive me for taking it as an endorsement for my line or reasoning.

Using just these two examples, there is this much to conclude and keep in mind regarding California Chrome:

As good as he has been, trainer Art Sherman must train his horse perfectly to keep him in top shape for the task at hand. So far, Art and his son Alan have made no mistakes. Yet, I cannot remember any horse going into the Belmont who has been trained more sparingly than California Chrome.

Since the Santa Anita Derby on April 5, “CC” has had only four workouts, each at the relatively short four-furlong distance, all at Chrome’s home track of Los Alamitos. This Saturday he is scheduled to have his only workout since the Kentucky Derby four weeks ago — a four- or five-furlong drill at Belmont Park. The Shermans both say he won’t be asked to show much speed.

Speed is not the issue, and his daily gallops might be all he needs. But we should pay attention to what he does and how he does it. We should check out his daily moves on the NYRA website and via YouTube. If he goes into the Belmont with too much energy, even the usually calm California Chrome could get caught in a speed trap, just like Smarty Jones.

Going back to 1998, jockey Victor Espinoza might also learn an important lesson.

In that Triple Crown season, Real Quiet defeated Victory Gallop in the Derby and Preakness. But in the Belmont, as Finley pointed out in his column, jockey Kent Desormeaux moved sooner than needed to open up at least four lengths approaching the final furlong. Fact is, Real Quiet had hit the wall.

He was game but staggered to the finish line and was caught right on the wire by his chief rival, Victory Gallop, a talented colt who won the Stephen Foster and Whitney Handicaps the following season.

The lesson here for jockey Espinoza is straightforward: Remember that the Belmont main track is 1½ miles. While most victory moves begin entering the far turn on one mile and 1⅛-mile tracks, that spot on the oversized Belmont racetrack is nearly five furlongs from home. Too many jockeys have moved too soon at Belmont Park regardless of distance. In the 12-furlong Belmont Stakes, that can be a costly error.


Derby Provides Many Things, Including a Level Playing Field for Connections

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Eric Crawford of…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

In The Derby, Royalty and Regulars Race on Even Playing Field

I know that horse racing has problems. They will run the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, and most sports fans in America won’t pay much more attention to the sport until this time next year, unless the Triple Crown becomes a possibility, or there’s an unfortunate tragedy.

This week we’ve heard renewed concerns about the well-being of racehorses. They’re legitimate. We’ve heard complaints about the way Churchill Downs is treating horsemen and other longtime racing fixtures. Those too, completely legitimate.

One walk through the Kentucky Derby Museum (which you should absolutely make, by the way) is enough to remind you that the sport isn’t what it used to be. I’ll go one better. The horses aren’t what they used to be. The breed is not as stable, the horses not as durable or, really, even as fast, despite all the breeding for speed. It’s a sport and a breed in decline.

I know all the problems. But this is why you should care about the Kentucky Derby. This is what this one horse race has over every other major sporting event in the nation, and perhaps the world.

There is no more democratic event in sports. They used to call it the sport of kings. These days, you also could call it the sport of kings for a day.

Consider the millions of dollars Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum has spent trying to win this race. (And, by the way, I’m grateful for his presence in the sport, and hope one day he is successful.) But he isn’t here in the Derby this year, and has need won it.

Daniel and Lori Dougherty are here. The Louisville residents who used to own a furniture store paid the bargain basement price of $25,000 for the son of Curlin, and got the deal on him because he had a turned-in foot. His trainer, “Bronco” Billy Gowan was down to one horse not too long ago, because of injuries. That one horse was this one, who Calvin Borel will ride in the Derby.

It’s not the only story. Each year brings new ones.

You can watch the Super Bowl, where billionaire owners whose teams play in publicly financed stadiums clash in battles of blue-bloods.

In the Kentucky Derby, the blue bloods are trying to get in. The Doughertys have been offered more than a million for their colt. No way.

The owners of California Chrome have been offered six times that. Steve Coburn and Perry Martin call their operation “Dumb-Ass Partners,” and some would say it’s exactly that to turn down a $6 million offer. Coburn didn’t like the idea of some big-shot coming in and buying the Kentucky Derby. “The offer came from somebody who never put on a pair of boots to go to work in the morning,” he said.

No sale.

I’m not saying horse racing isn’t a rich person’s game. It is. It always has been. But you can spend a ton of money and never make it to the Kentucky Derby. You can breed and wheel and deal and never feel the excitement of your horse on the track when “My Old Kentucky Home” is played.

The most expensive colt ever bought at auction — for $16 million — raced three times, never won, and was retired. A colt that was bred for a $2,500 stud fee is the favorite for this year’s Derby.

Name me another sport in which people with regular jobs walk onto a level playing field with royalty.

In this year’s Derby, there are syndicates and causes, Wounded Warrior project benefactors and wine distributors. Wildcat Red is owned by Salvatore Delfino and his wife Josie Martino Delfino, wine importer/exporters from Venezuela.

Art Sherman, trainer of California Chrome, has been trying to train a Kentucky Derby starter his whole life. Others get here quickly.

Wicked Strong runs in memory of the Boston Marathon bombing victims. Samraat is owned by the the chairman of Barnes & Noble, Leonard Riggio, who built the bookstore giant out of one college bookstore he opened in 1965.

The Dale Romans-trained Medal Count is owned by historic Spendthrift Farm. Commanding Curve is owned by West Point Thoroughbreds, a syndicate founded by Terry Finley, a former artillery officer.

They come from all over. The super wealthy, the moderately well-to-do, and the ones who have poured everything into this opportunity hoping it will lead to more.

The special thing about the first Saturday in May is that no matter how many resources they have, when the horses go into the paddock, it’s saddle, and rider, and talent and luck that will determine who fades, and who goes down in history. And there’s not a bank account on the track that can change that.

Sure, you can buy the Kentucky Derby. But you can also spend hundreds of millions and not buy it. Of the 49 most expensive yearlings purchased at the Keeneland September Yearling Sale in 2012, none will start in the Kentucky Derby. You have to get to Intense Holiday, the 50th most expensive, to find a starter.

In a world where, increasingly, money rules all, the Derby has a way of breaking wealthy hearts as easily as anyone else’s.

Horse racing has problems, yes. I’m not even suggesting that anyone forget about them.

But for two minutes on the first Saturday in May, it doesn’t matter how much money you have. It matters how much horse you have. It doesn’t matter if you got to Churchill Downs in a private jet flown halfway around the world or a horse trailer from New Mexico. For two minutes in May, money doesn’t matter.

It’s not often in sports you can say that anymore.