When California Chrome enters the starting gate for the Grade 1 $300,000 Hollywood Gold Cup on Saturday at Del Mar, most eyes in the horse racing world will be watching.
The intensity won’t be as strong as when California Chrome won the Kentucky Derby in May, but a lot more will be at stake.
In an era when stakes quality horses are used as often as your finest china, California Chrome will be making his ninth start this year. It will be his most important, because a win could clinch the Horse of the Year title.
Credit the connections of California Chrome — trainer Art Sherman and co-owners Steve Coburn and Perry Martin — for picking up the dice at this craps table called horse racing. A winning roll and California Chrome could sway undecided Eclipse Award voters his way.
It has been an unusual racing season in the fact that even narrowing down the Horse of the Year candidates to three for Eclipse Award night will be a hard task.
There are supporters for Bayern, Main Sequence, Palace Malice, Shared Belief, Untapable and Wise Dan. And I might have left out a few.
California Chrome’s connections are hoping to add one more Grade 1 win to the colt’s resume while showing versatility with a Grade 1 stakes victory on grass. Squeezing one more start into this calendar year allows the horse to do hia talking.
Most colts with the resume of California Chrome — with wins in the San Felipe, Santa Anita Derby, Kentucky Derby and Preakness — would not be in this position: a fight for champion 3-year-old and Horse of the Year. But he has lost his past three starts.
If Shared Belief had won the Breeders’ Cup Classic, this conversation would be moot. He would have remained undefeated while beating older horses in three Grade 1 stakes.
Instead, Shared Belief got blindsided by Bayern at the start and lost all chance in a nonthreatening fourth. To add insult to injury, Bayern won the Classic wire to wire, thus catapulting himself into the Horse of the Year scrum.
Last week, I was on “At the Races With Steve Byk” on Sirius satellite radio. We spoke about Bayern and his Horse of the Year chances. Byk focused on the colt’s strong resume in winning the Classic, Pennsylvania Derby, Haskell and Woody Stephens while setting multiple track records. He asked me why the horse wasn’t getting more support.
My answer: Bob Baffert.
Baffert trains Bayern. For as much success as this Hall of Fame trainer has enjoyed, he has more than his share of critics. My view is that many voters like Bayern but won’t back Baffert.
If so, it’s petty, to say the least.
Also, the circumstances of the Classic bumper car start and eventual result left a bad taste with many racing fans. Rewarding Bayern, who caused most the trouble at the start, with an Eclipse Award or two doesn’t seem fair.
So it’s easy to see why we will be watching California Chrome with great interest. A win over a nice filly such as Lexie Lou could seal the deal for the Kentucky Derby champion.
Richard Eng’s horse racing column is published Friday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @richeng4propick.