When the field for Saturday’s $200,000 San Diego Handicap (GII) at Del Mar was drawn on Wednesday, not too many people were surprised that only six will line up to face 2014 Horse of the Year California Chrome. It will be the Art Sherman-trained colt’s first start since winning the March 26 Dubai World Cup (GI), in which he became North America’s richest racehorse of all time. And though the 5-year-old will justifiably be the overwhelming favorite, the old adage “they need to run the race before crowning a winner” always applies.
The weather in Solana Beach is expected to be patently beautiful, with afternoon highs in the upper 70s and the gentle sea breeze helping, as always, to keep conditions cool.
A “fast” main track and “firm” turf course can be counted on.
The San Diego Handicap has become the major local prep race for Del Mar’s signature event, the $1 million Pacific Classic (GI) on Aug. 20, but long before the inaugural Pacific Classic, the San Diego was featuring some of the West Coast’s best handicap horses.
Named for California’s premiere southern city, the San Diego was first run in the track’s inaugural season in 1937 and has grown in prominence and stature on the national racing scene in recent years.
The great California-bred gelding Native Diver was the first to put the race on the national map, winning it three times from 1964 to 1966. The future Hall of Famer’s story is not all that different from California Chrome’s in that both Cal-breds were out of inexpensive mares that were bred to young and unproven stallions. Both ran well beyond their pedigree expectations and both represent somewhat humble California connections.
Bates Motel, the champion older horse of 1983, Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI) winner Skywalker, millionaire Skimming in 2000 and 2001 (en route to his back-to-back wins in the Pacific Classic), Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo in 2006, and fellow Dubai World Cup winner Well Armed are just a few of the names to have won the San Diego in years past.
After spending more than two months in the Dubai desert and winning two races, including the world’s richest in the Dubai World Cup, California Chrome returned to his future home in Kentucky in the spring and spent about a month relaxing and recuperating at Taylor Made Farm before being sent back to Sherman’s Los Alamitos base on May 1 to prep for a very ambitious second half of 2016. Since then he’s not missed a beat, galloping strongly and working impressively and steadily since May 21 for an ambitious campaign that includes the Pacific Classic, Awesome Again Stakes (GI), Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI) and the $12 million Pegasus World Cup on Jan. 28 of next year.
Hard to imagine it’s been four months since we all witnessed his amazing performance in the desert and the “saddle slip heard ‘round the world,” but if he picks up where he left off he’ll be tough to beat in any race, let alone this prep. Though he totes top weight of 126 pounds, which includes regular jockey Victor Espinoza, he’s not giving up much to his better rivals and he drew post position number six in the short field, which is a good spot for him with most of the field to his inside likely scrambling for early position, which will allow him to be guided into a preferred spot either up on the speed or sitting just behind it depending on how the pace sets up. He’ll be heavily bet, so maybe this race is a good one to wait on, saving money for when he faces champion mare Beholder in the Pacific Classic in a month’s time.
Early in his career, Kaleem Shah’s Dortmund was a force to be reckoned with, winning his first six races, which included four graded stakes and the Santa Anita Derby (GI) before heading to Kentucky as one of the horses to beat in the Run for the Roses. The large chestnut son of Big Brown was third that day to stable mate and Triple Crown winner American Pharoah and a follow-up fourth in the Preakness sent him to the sidelines for a break last summer.
He returned to action in late fall with back-to-back victories in a non-graded stakes and the Native Diver Handicap (GIII) over this track, but foot issues kept him starting and stopping most of this year until he was healthy enough to resume serious training a couple months ago. Now back in top form, trainer Bob Baffert is hoping the colt will be fit and ready enough to successfully take on the division’s top star and move on to the Pacific Classic.
Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens will be aboard Dortmund and there’s little doubt he’ll either be setting the pace or sitting right behind it, so a clean break from post position two is essential for optimum early position.
Hard Aces hasn’t won in 13 months and has sometimes struggled to put in a really solid effort, but his last two, in which he was second in the Californian Stakes (GII) and third in the Gold Cup at Santa Anita (GI), may give him a shot at a check here. Hot jockey Santiago Gonzalez rides for John Sadler and the pair will break from the rail.
Win the Space ran his eyeballs out to finish second to Melatonin in the Gold Cup at Santa Anita last out at long odds and, while that was an impressive effort leading us to believe he belongs in stakes company and is improving, he’s a long way from being at the level of California Chrome and Dortmund. Mike Smith picks up the mount aboard the well-bred son of Tapit for trainer George Papaprodromou.
Soi Phet doesn’t win very often and, in fact, hadn’t won a race before taking the McCann’s Mojave Stakes at Santa Anita last out, but he never really puts in a bad effort. He’s in tough but his best can earn him a check.
Crittenden has spent most of his career on the turf and, though he’s another who doesn’t win too often, he did produce a nice second in a non-graded stakes over the dirt at Oak Tree at Pleasanton last time out. An ambitious spot for sure, but the well-bred Darley color-bearer is in good hands with trainer Eoin Harty.
Follow Me Crev gets the acid test in here after a successful career so far mostly in the allowance and optional claiming ranks. He’s undefeated in two starts at the distance but makes his Del Mar debut.