California Chrome returns to Santa Anita on Saturday

On a day-to-day basis, the sport of horse racing can be a grind. For example, the only two calendar days without racing are Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

But where the spikes in interest really occur are on big race days and big horse days. On Saturday, we will have a big horse day. Very big. California Chrome, the 2014 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, returns to action in the San Pasqual at Santa Anita Park.

California Chrome last ran 287 days ago in the $10 million Dubai World Cup. He ran a strong second to Prince Bishop. Trainer Art Sherman is again pointing him for the world’s richest horse race on March 26.

Rain is predicted for Southern California this week. Sherman plans to run the horse rain or shine, off track or not.

Last year was mostly a disaster for this popular 5-year-old horse. After Dubai, co-owner Perry Martin pointed him for the Royal Ascot meet. Between a foot abscess and a bruised cannon bone, California Chrome did not race in England. In fact, photos of the horse showed an obvious weight loss, so he was returned to the U.S.

No one was happier than Sherman. He had taken this modestly bred horse to the pinnacle of the sport in winning the first two legs of the Triple Crown. A fourth-place finish in the Belmont Stakes did little to diminish his fan base.

In fact, Taylor Made Stallions, where California Chrome will go upon retirement, built a website thechampisback.com for fans to get regular updates.

In a lot of ways, college basketball and horse racing stars are on a parallel. The “one and done” in college basketball means a top star will play his freshman year and then declare for the NBA Draft. In horse racing, a star such as American Pharoah will be off to the breeding shed after one spectacular season on the racetrack.

California Chrome is the antithesis of that. This will be his fourth year in training, which is like a college star playing through his senior season. It just doesn’t happen often.

The San Pasqual looks like a two-horse race. Hoppertunity is developing bridesmaid tendencies but remains a fast animal. I see an exacta box between him and California Chrome.

• HORSE BETTING UP IN 2015 – The Equibase Company released an end of the year report that shows pari-mutuel horse race betting was up 1.18 percent in 2015, despite 2,334 fewer races run. With fewer races and more handle, these positives occurred: per race betting was up 7.25 percent, purses per race was up 4.27 percent and starters per race grew 1.8 percent.

WALT WILCZEWSKI DIES – Walt Wilczewski, a former race and sports book manager at the Plaza and El Cortez, died Saturday. He was 62. Wilczewski was one of the first race book managers I met when I came to Las Vegas 18 years ago. He was always great to me and old-school popular in the fair way he treated customers.

After working for the late Jackie Gaughan at the Plaza, the Omaha, Neb., native worked for John Gaughan at Las Vegas Dissemination Company for the past decade. Family and friends are invited to a gathering to remember Wilczewski at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the South Point in the Monterey Bay Room.

Richard Eng’s horse racing column is published Friday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He can be reached at rich_eng@hotmail.com. Follow him on Twitter: @richeng4propick

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