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California Chrome wins the San Diego Handicap on a day of tragedy

5-year-old earns victory over Dortmund

It was a day designed to celebrate the greatness of California Chrome, the most popular horse in the world. But amid the euphoria of his stirring stretch duel with Dortmund was the underlying sadness of a sport whose harsh realities have been on display since the opening of the Del Mar meeting a week ago Friday.

Chrome delighted the crowd with his half-length victory in the $200,000 San Diego Handicap on  Saturday. It was the first race for the 5-year-old Cal-bred since winning the $10 million Dubai World Cup, which made him the all-time winningest horse in North America. Dortmund gave Chrome everything he could handle over the 1 1/16-mile race, but in the end, when Chrome need a couple late jumps to beat his rival, he answered.

Still, the backstretch talk revolved around the death of two horses Saturday, bringing the total to four since the track opened this summer. Three horses broke down during training Saturday morning and Whisky And Wine was euthanized. The other two are likely to survive. In the second race, Dutchessa was being smartly eased by jockey Joe Talamo when the horse collapsed 40 yards past the finish line. She had broken both sesamoids in her front leg. The green tarp and the white van followed to spare the crowd the sight of a horse being put to death.

This followed the opening day death of a horse during a race and one Sunday during training.

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The track, having survived a high volume of breakdowns two years ago on its turf course, explored every option for an answer but found none. Among the trainers who canceled workouts after the breakdowns were  Richard Mandella, who was supposed to work his highly respected mare Beholder, Doug O’Neill and Phil D’Amato. 

“When something like that happens and you have a mare like Beholder, I can work tomorrow,” Mandella said. “Imagine how stupid I’d feel if I worked her and something happened.”

Mandella cited Karma for his decision to cancel workouts. O’Neill used the word superstition and leading trainer D’Amato said he “wanted to err on the side of caution.” All of the trainers said they have heard nothing but good things about the track and have no complaints with the surface or Del Mar.

“It’s our everyday nightmare,” said Joe Harper, president and chief executive at Del Mar. “We’re all in this business because we love horses and it affects us. Our track superintendent this morning, Stevie Wood, was crying, blaming himself even though he shouldn’t have been. I spent the morning telling him how good he was and how much confidence we have in him. These kind of things get to all of us.”

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Harper offered the makings of an explanation that is partially tied to the track’s popularity.

“The problem, in my opinion, is that everybody wants to be at Del Mar,” Harper said. “We’ve got more horses on the backstretch than anywhere in the country, 2,000 head of horses. They come into Del Mar and they want to run. It’s the big show out here. It’s the big show everywhere. I think we’ve always kind of worried at the beginning of the meet that horses that come from other racetracks, different surfaces … we just try and put together a racing surface that is forgiving.”

Perry Martin, California Chrome’s principal owner, also did not want to make a bad decision about running his star colt.

“I called Art and told him if he felt we had to scratch, then to scratch him,” Martin said of trainer Art Sherman. “But Art said he thought the track was in fine shape. Horses break down, statistically once in a while you’re going to get a group. But we thought the track was in fine shape.”

By the time the featured ninth race rolled around shortly after 6 p.m., the silence of the second race was replaced by the sounds of a rock star entering the building. The mere mention of California Chrome’s name by track announcer Trevor Denman brought loud and long cheers from the crowd of 21,336.

Chrome broke sharply in the five-horse field and was comfortable setting off the pace in second behind Dortmund. The two circled the track in that order until just entering the stretch. California Chrome poked his head in front and the crowd let out simultaneous cheers. It appeared as if Dortmund was ready to come back on Chrome, but the 2014 horse of the year would have no part of it.

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California Chrome paid $3.60, $2.20 and $2.10. Dortmund returned $2.40 and $2.10 and Win The Space paid $2.20 to show.

“I saved something for the end,” said winning jockey Victor Espinoza. “I have a lot of respect for Dortmund and he made me run hard. … When we came down the stretch I was concerned. This horse was carrying a lot of weight. But he was a runner all the way today.”

California Chrome was carrying a high weight of 126 pounds, Dortmund had 121.

“They both ran terrific,” Sherman said, wedging his way out of a winner’s circle that must have had at least 50 people in it. “Dortmund made him work for it. It’s going to be an interesting few races coming up. … [Dortmund] is a really game horse.  I think both horses needed a race and you’ll see two stronger horses coming back in the Pacific Classic.”

The Pacific Classic, on Aug. 20 at Del Mar, will be the rematch of these two plus the addition of Beholder. It will be a preview of the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Del Mar is certainly hoping that this week has been a statistical anomaly and that all the concerns of the first week will be forgotten by the time its signature race is run. After all, triumph is a much easier sell than tragedy.

john.cherwa@latimes.com

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