Saturday’s $200,000 San Diego Handicap (GII) at Del Mar marked the return of two fan favorites — 2014 Horse of the Year California Chrome, making his first start in four months; and multiple Grade 1 winner Dortmund, returning to action for the first time since late last November after battling foot trouble. And the energized crowd of 21,336 that showed up to witness the matchup were rewarded with two amazing performances, California Chrome squeezing out the narrowest victory of his career by a half-length over Dortmund at the wire.
Under regular jockey Victor Espinoza, California Chrome broke alertly from the gate in the 1 1/16-mile main track test and, at first, appeared to be headed to the lead. But, after a few yards, Espinoza was content to give up the pacesetting duties to Dortmund, who always seems to do his best running on the lead anyway.
After that, it was clear the duration of the race would amount to little more than a match race between the top two, as Dortmund and jockey Gary Stevens sped through moderate splits of :23.47 :47.02 and 1:10.51 for the first three-quarters of a mile, with California Chrome glued to their outside and never letting up on the pressure around the clubhouse turn and all the way up the backstretch.
As Dortmund led the field around the far bend and Trevor Denman’s voice crackled with excitement in anticipation of the impending stretch duel, the crowd went berserk and erupted into cheers and applause, easily drowning out the veteran race caller just as California Chrome stuck his head in front. The flashy chestnut never gave up the lead after that, passing the mile in 1:34.49 and continuing on to hold a determined Dortmund, who was racing just to his inside, safe by a half-length, completing the 1 1/16-mile distance in 1:40.84.
Win the Space, Follow Me Crev and Crittenden followed the top two under the wire to complete the order of finish after Hard Aces and Soi Phet were withdrawn.
“I have a lot of respect for Dortmund and he made me run hard,” Espinoza said. “I could see he was running so hard. When we came down the stretch I was concerned. This horse was carrying a lot of weight, that was the challenge. But he was a runner all the way today. What a terrific comeback race for him. He’s back. He’s such a special horse (and) this was an exciting, exciting race. He showed everyone today just how special he is. Now, maybe he and Dortmund and Beholder [will face each other in the August 20, $1 million Pacific Classic (GI)].”
California Chrome paid $3.60, $2.10 and $2.10 as the 4-5 top betting choice. Dortmund capped off the $2.70 exacta and was good for $2.40 and $2.10 at odds of just more than 6-5. The $1 trifecta returned $4.10 when near-6-1 chance Win the Space finished in third, another 7 1/4 lengths behind the top two.
California Chrome, a son of Lucky Pulpit and the Not For Love mare Love the Chase, was bred in California by the partnership of Perry Martin and Steve Coburn and is currently owned by the partnership called California Chrome LLC, which is a partnership that includes Taylor Made Farm in Kentucky and Martin. California Chrome will take up stud duty at Taylor Made upon the completion of his racing career.
California Chrome picked up his 13th career win and the San Diego was his 22nd lifetime start. He also owns three seconds and a third and, with the $120,000 winner’s share from his most recent victory, boosted his already enormous back account to $12,552,650, which pads his status as North America’s richest racehorse of all time.
The next stop for California Chrome, trainer Art Sherman, said will be the Pacific Classic and a matchup with last year’s winner, the mare Beholder, as well as Dortmund, who impressed everyone in defeat after eight months on the shelf.
“They both ran terrific,” Sherman said of his charge and the runner-up. “I tell you, Dortmund made him work for it. It’s going to be an interesting few races coming up. I think both horses need a race and you’ll see two stronger horses coming back in the Pacific Classic. [California Chrome] is that kind of horse, he loves to grind it out and he shows a lot of determination. What can I say? He’s just ‘Chrome,’ a wonderful horse to be around.”
The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily state or reflect those of US Racing.