I got to watch a superb equine athlete perform at the top of his game last Saturday, when California Chrome won the Hollywood Derby at Del Mar Race Track near San Diego.
When I saw on Friday, while watching TVG, that California Chrome was going to be racing the next afternoon, I made sure that I’d be in the house and able to watch the race. Why? Because I’ve felt, ever since he first saw him run last March, that this horse truly has a mystical, almost magical, quality about him. And as a horseman whose niche has been training young horses, it’s been fascinating to watch his physical and mental development over the course of the year.
Over my 40-plus years of watching racehorses, I’ve seen many fabulous horses run. Affirmed, Alydar, Seattle Slew, Riva Ridge, John Henry, Forego, Zenyatta, Flatterer and Lonesome Glory all come to my mind immediately. All were exceptional athletes with an exceptional will to win, horses that walked around exuding class, strength and a sublime inner confidence.
But in my mind there have been only two I would call freakishly extraordinary—Secretariat and Ruffian. Just walking in the paddock or cantering to the post, they radiated an incredible strength, an awe-inspiring athleticism, and extraordinary equine intelligence. Now I’m willing to put California Chrome in a class with these two god-like horses.
He is, simply, an extraordinary physical specimen. The highly developed muscles on his nearly perfect frame simply ripple with strength, as his chestnut coat glistens with health. It must be a daily treat for those around him to see him in the barn or on the track. I’ve always considered Secretariat to be the perfect physical expression of the horse, a 10. I’d rate California Chrome a 9.75.
California Chrome has always shown an extraordinary ability to use tactical speed. He’s able to accelerate and decelerate at nearly any point in the race, an ability that’s often what separates the very good racehorse from the exceptional racehorse. Most racehorses can accelerate only once (some can’t at all!), and it’s the ability to turn the speed on and off that often makes the best ones.
But he showed a new wrinkle to his tactical arsenal on Saturday, when he broke from the gate as if shot from a cannon to immediately grab the lead, before rating back to second and then surging to the front midway through the final turn and then turning it up two or three more notches to seal the score.
That was huge, because the knock against him last spring was how tardy he was leaving the gate. Breaking quickly from the gate showed his mental development, how he’s learning to play the game even better, which fascinates me as a horseman.
Plus, the Hollywood Derby was his first grass race. And, again, that’s comparable to Secretariat, who concluded his 3-year-old campaign (and his career) by winning two 1 ½-mile races on the grass. Victory on the grass means that California Chrome has now won over all three racing surfaces—dirt, synthetic and grass, another highly unusual achievement among racehorses, who generally prefer one surface or another.
I certainly look forward to seeing California Chrome run as a 4-year-old, and I salute his owners for continuing to race him, for letting us racing fans see him run more, instead of shipping him off to the breeding shed, where he’ll be worth a lottery’s worth of millions of dollars.