California Chrome made it a rare November to remember in horse racing Saturday. It takes a real star to do that.
Running on a surface on which he had never raced before, at a made-for-summer seaside track that never before ran a race this late in the year, and facing the devastating prospect for a Kentucky Derby and Preakness champion of four losses in a row in the same calendar year, Chrome cruised to victory.
He won by 2 1/2 lengths in the $300,000 Grade I Hollywood Derby, over 1 1/8 miles, at Del Mar.
That's the place we hear of in late summer, over and over again, about turf meeting surf. It's where opening day annually attracts 40,000-plus and many of the women turn a daytime sporting event into a show of evening cocktail dresses. It's where almost that many fans show up late in the meeting for the prestigious Pacific Classic.
But with Hollywood Park closing for good last December, apparently so that fences could be put up to guard the dandelions, Southern California racing needed a late fall venue.
Presto! Del Mar took on a second meeting, 15 days' worth, ending Sunday.
Presto! California Chrome was looking for another race, partly to try out his skills on turf for the first time. Also, partly because his connections, after a fourth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Classic that muddied the picture, wanted another showcase of their horse before voting for the Eclipse Awards' horse of the year.
And Presto! At the height of college football season, racing had a day of buzz.
"This is good for the sport," said trainer Art Sherman, a small, white-haired man and former jockey, who has become almost as popular as the horse he trains. "We need stars. It helps grow our game."
As it turns out, Sherman wasn't just talking about Saturday's successful day for California Chrome. He said he had talked a week ago to one of Chrome's owners, Perry Martin, and it was made clear to him that this year's Triple Crown star would run as a 4-year-old.
That had not been a given. Before the Nov. 1 Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita, Martin had been quoted as saying that if Chrome tossed in a stinker of a race, he might be sent off to the breeding barn. His late run to third place, by a neck, in the Classic, left questions.
"We've got a lot of options," Sherman said after the race. "Royal Ascot [June racing] wants us to come over. They said, 'We'll treat you royally.' And we've got the [$10-million] Dubai [World Cup] in March. That's another option.
"We're definitely going to run him another year. And he's a good shipper. He gets on an airplane like he's a frequent flier."
California Chrome's turf-flying Saturday included a 23.56-second quarter mile and a 46.95-second half, setting him up perfectly for an impressive power dash down the home stretch and a 1:47.88 finish. California Chrome paid $3.40, $2.60 and $2.10.
More important, he played a large role in drawing a crowd of 21,889 — about a week's worth in the later years at Hollywood Park — which sounded like twice that many when Chrome dashed for home. Del Mar also drew 19,704 on Nov. 15 and averaged about 9,000 a day.
Jockey Victor Espinoza sent Chrome immediately to the front out of the gate, then let Rafael Bejarano and Sawyer's Hill take the lead just before the first turn. Espinoza sat and sat, on Sawyer Hill's shoulder, and then turned his horse loose on the turn for home. By the time they had all straightened out for the final dash, the race was over. Mark Casse's fine filly, Lexie Lou, beat Talco for second.
"I let the other horse go by in the first turn, and I was happy right where I was," said Espinoza. "Then when we got to the far turn, he was ready to roll. Oh, was he ready to roll. He just turned it on."
There were two other major races on a big day at Del Mar. Trainer Peter Miller's Big Cazanova won the Grade III Native Diver Stakes and Joe Talamo turned in a near-perfect ride aboard longshot Ol' Fashion Gal in the Grade III Jimmy Durant, formerly the Miesque Stakes. Ol' Fashion Gal paid $45.60, $15.40 and $8.
But the day was all about California Chrome. He was cheered loudly at every public address mention, even in the post parade. And when he won, people were hanging over the balconies and dancing around excitedly.
Interestingly, jockey Kent Desormeaux, who finished fifth in the six-horse race on Cabral, summed it up best.
"I'm happy for all these fans," he said. "They got what they came here to see."