By Jack Shinar
Dual classic winner California Chrome successfully debuted over turf in the $300,000 Hollywood Derby (gr. IT) Nov. 29 at Del Mar when he defeated Queen’s Plate winner Lexie Lou by about two lengths.
Victor Espinoza was once again aboard California Chrome for trainer Art Sherman and owner/breeders Perry Martin and Steve Coburn. California Chrome completed the 1 1/8-mile distance in 1:47.88 over firm ground to win the Hollywood Derby, which was contested for the first time at Del Mar.
After leading into the first turn, California Chrome settled into second behind Sawyer’s Hill before overtaking that rival leaving the final turn. He opened up a three-length advantage in the lane and came home impressively under steady handling from Espinoza.
A California-bred son of Lucky Pulpit, California Chrome paid $3.40 to win as the 3-5 favorite in the field of six. Lexie Lou ran on late for second, with Talco third and Sawyer’s Hill fourth.
It was the fourth grade I win of the year for California Chrome, who is a leading contender for Horse of the Year and 3-year-old Eclipse Award honors. He previously won the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I), Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), and Preakness Stakes (gr. I). The good-looking chestnut colt was coming off a close third-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I)
California Chrome paid $3.40, $2.60, and $2.10 across the board, keying a chalky $9.80 exacta with 5-2 second choice Lexie Lou, who returned $3 and $2.60. The French-bred Talco paid $3.60 to show at 11-1 odds, completing a $42, trifecta.
The Hollywood Derby was shortened a furlong from 1 1/4 miles due to the configuration of the Del Mar course. The Hollywood Derby was contested for the first time at Del Mar after 72 renewals at Hollywood Park.
California Chrome, who ended a three-race losing streak since his 1 1/2-length Preakness triumph May 17, became the seventh Kentucky Derby winner to subsequently race at Del Mar, and the first since Giacomo in 2006.
Asked afterward if California Chrome should be Horse of the Year, the soft-spoken Sherman responded, “In my eyes, but I might be a little biased. No other horses did what he did this year.”
Breaking from post 5, California Chrome shot to the lead in the short run to the clubhouse turn, and remained composed as Sawyer’s Hill and Rafael Bejarano swept by on his outside. In a strung-out field up the backstretch, Sawyer’s Hill sped through quarter-mile fractions of :23.56 and :46.95 while opening up by about three lengths on a stalking California Chrome.
“He came out of there like a rocket,” a happy Espinoza told TVG immediately after the race. “I just let him settle down, and he went on from there.”
“I got away a little slow, but (Sawyer’s Hill) really wanted to go,” Bejarano said. “I was surprised that California Chrome broke so fast and went away from there so quickly. I let my horse go by him hoping it would let him relax after we were in front, but he just wanted to go. No excuses, though. The winner was best.”
Sawyer’s Hill began to come back to the pack as they entered the final turn, still leading after completing six furlongs in 1:11.48. But California Chrome was drawing closer with every stride as Espinoza turned him loose, getting control as they left the bend and opening daylight under some right-handed urging in upper stretch.
“When I asked him he opened up three or four lengths in no time,” Espinoza noted. “He’s back.”
Lexie Lou, who saved ground while racing midpack into the far turn, rallied belatedly into second at the furlong mark after angling out for the drive. She was gaining ground willingly through deep stretch to finish second over the stalking Talco, who gained the show spot by 1 3/4 lengths over the weakening Sawyer’s Hill. Cabral and Flamboyant trailed.
“She ran great. She beat them all but one,” Nakatani said of Lexie Lou. “You’ve got to tip your cap to the winner. He’s a heckuva horse. But my filly is a real runner. She fired it up today.”
California Chrome’s connections had been wanting to try him on the turf, hoping that a good effort will open up a wealth of options for the colt heading into his 4-year-old season. The impressive way in which he accomplished his first grass victory could also sway some opinions in the Horse of the Year voting as well. California Chrome came up a neck short while stuck wide throughout in the Breeder’s Cup Classic Nov. 1 at Santa Anita Park.
Won in controversy by Bayern, the Classic may not be the championship decider it often is.
California Chrome, out of the Not For Love mare Love The Chase, posted his sixth victory from nine starts this year while surpassing the $4 million mark in earnings this year. His overall mark stands at 9-1-1 in 16 lifetime races, and he has amassed $4,222,650 in purses.
“We’ve got a lot of options,” Sherman said. “Royal Ascot wants us to come over to England. They said ‘We’ll treat you royally.’ And we’ve got Dubai (World Cup) in March. That’s another option. We’re going to definitely run him another year. And he’s a good shipper. He gets on an airplane like he’s a frequent flier.”
Of the Hollywood Derby, Sherman said: “I knew he was going to be sharp leaving the gate and I told Victor not to be too far out of it. When he broke really sharp, I said ‘Oh, wow.’ But Victor knew what to do when Sawyer’s Hill wanted the lead.
“There was never any point where I was really anxious. I was confident. We’re here on our home ground, he’s got all the people here and he’s such a favorite with everybody. It makes me feel good to know I can run him on the grass. Just another option.”
The gregarious Coburn, seen shaking hands with the fans in the paddock before the horses arrived for saddling, was effusive afterward. “Art said he had a real strong gut feeling that this horse would run on the grass. We said, ‘OK Art, if you really feel that strong, let’s find a race for him.’ This was it. This is for the fans.”