There are just six horses entered Saturday in the $300,000 Hollywood Derby at Del Mar, but the presence of Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner California Chrome means the horse racing world will be watching closely.
Trainer Art Sherman is taking a gamble in a final opportunity to impress voters for Horse of the Year. The race is 1 1/8 miles on turf. California Chrome has never raced over grass, and his workouts don't indicate he has taken to the surface.
"I'm excited to see him run on the grass. It's a different scenario for me," Sherman said. "We should have a few Chromies" — California Chrome fans — "out here for it."
A win by California Chrome might provide the final push he needs to be recognized as the top horse in 2014. A loss and it could further confuse voters choosing among California Chrome, Bayern and Shared Belief, the top contenders for horse of the year.
Bayern ended his racing campaign with a win in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita. California Chrome finished third.
California Chrome has a strong fan following. At the Breeders' Cup, fans were cheering in the paddock area when California Chrome was walked in. His primary challenger on Saturday could be a filly, Lexie Lou, who won the Queen's Plate at Woodbine in July and is well-tested on the grass.
Regular rider Victor Espinoza will be aboard California Chrome. Sherman is planning to run California Chrome as a 4-year-old, and a strong performance on turf would give him additional options in 2015.
"I've always thought he could be good on grass," Sherman told Del Mar officials. "He's so efficient; he doesn't have any wasted motion. So far, he floats over it. It's also an opportune time. It's against 3-year-olds, and next year we'll be wide open. If he can lay close on the grass, with his kick coming home, that means a lot."
The Hollywood Derby will be run as the eighth of nine races. First post is 12:30 p.m. Del Mar's 15-day meeting ends Sunday.