California Chrome, Songbird bring plenty of juice to upcoming weekend

Profile Picture: James Scully

July 19th, 2016

Numbers were up for Del Mar’s opening weekend and Saratoga kicks off its highly-anticipated meet Friday. Fans would be excited regardless of participants in this weekend’s stakes races, but the presence of California Chrome at Del Mar and Songbird at Saratoga will ramp up festivities to a higher level.

Stars move the needle in Thoroughbred racing and these are arguably the two biggest in North America.

A dual classic winner and Horse of the Year in 2014, California Chrome has taken his game to new heights at age 5, capturing his first two appearances in a gallop before romping in the Dubai World Cup (G1).

The career-best performance stamped California Chrome as the early favorite for the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) at Santa Anita and the Art Sherman-trained horse returns from a four-month layoff in Saturday’s San Diego (G2) at Del Mar.

Songbird also has the Breeders’ Cup in her backyard this fall but the unbeaten 3-year-old filly will first travel to New York for a couple of planned Saratoga starts, starting with Sunday’s Coaching Club American Oaks (G1).

The competition hasn’t come close to defeating Songbird in eight career outings.

The task appears easier for California Chrome, with main rival Dortmund having every reason to be a little short in his first start since late November. Regular rider Victor Espinoza will be up and California Chrome is using the San Diego as a springboard to the $1 million Pacific Classic on August 20.

Songbird will be a solid favorite as well for trainer Jerry Hollendorfer and jockey Mike Smith, but the speedy Medaglia d’Oro filly will have to hold off a quality rival in Carina Mia, who exits an excellent 1 ¼-length victory in the June 11 Acorn (G1). Kentucky Oaks (G1) romper Cathryn Sophia finished third in the Acorn and runner-up Off the Tracks came back to dominate the recent Mother Goose (G1).

Here are some thoughts surrounding recent events:

Cupid regained some lost luster in the Indiana Derby (G2), determinedly holding off The Player in the stretch, and is now a two-time Grade 2 winner at 1 1/16 miles. Trainer Bob Baffert has said the Tapit colt prefers two-turn distances and the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1) fits the bill this fall.

However, Cupid often doesn’t break well from the starting gate and his lack of tractability is disconcerting. The gray got away slowly in his previous start, the June 11 Easy Goer at Belmont, and wound up weakening to last after failing to make the early lead. After an awkward beginning in the Indiana Derby, Cupid took off for the lead while wide into the first bend, dueling with a 35-1 longshot through solid opening fractions. He was softened up late, lugging in dramatically while racing on the wrong lead, but had enough left to save the win.

It will be interesting to see where Baffert points him and I’d like to have the opportunity to play against Cupid at short odds next time.

The vibe surrounding The Player is more positive. He came up a little short despite a proper set-up, missing by three-quarters of length, but the Buff Bradley-trained colt was making his stakes and two-turn debut. A maiden winner two starts previously, The Player gained valuable seasoning finishing a clear second and can continue to build upon the encouraging performance.

I’m a Chatterbox didn’t beat stellar company and was controversially left up after stewards reviewed her actions at the start of the Saturday’s Delaware H. (G1), but she’s finally starting to live up to expectations this season. Runner-up for champion 3-year-old filly in 2015, the Larry Jones charge notched a career-best 105 BRIS Speed rating for the 2 ¼-length decision and could add significantly to the depth of the distaff division.

Chasing Aces and Runaway Lute are a couple of juvenile colts who distinguished themselves over the weekend.

Chasing Aces contested the pace before drawing off powerfully by 5 ¼ lengths at Del Mar, registering a whopping 105 BRIS Speed rating in the 5-furlong maiden special weight. The Flatter colt was making his second start for Peter Miller, posting a runner-up effort to Silver Assault the first-time out at Santa Anita in late June.

Runaway Lute dusted New York-bred foes in the Rockville Centre at Belmont, improving to 2-for-2 for Cary Contessa. He led wire to wire when taking his debut by 12 lengths over the same oval on May 29, but the Midnight Lute colt was forced to rate after stumbling out of the starting gate this time. The dark bay recovered with an eye-catching turn of foot on the far turn, rallying past a couple of well-regarded foes to open a sizable advantage by the top of the stretch, and Runway Lute continued to pour it on in an 8 ¾-length decision.

Weights assigned for the San Diego included Nyquist, who is headed to the July 31 Haskell (G1) at Monmouth Park on July 31. And with every mention of Nyquist at Del Mar, I ask myself the same question: Why isn’t the Pacific Classic held one week later to accommodate top-class 3-year-olds on the West Coast?

Especially after Del Mar lost all chance to feature American Pharoah when moving the Pacific Classic forward last year.

The Pacific Classic’s date has moved around the calendar since the race’s inception in 1991, but the 1 ¼-mile race seemed to have found a home in late August with five consecutive runnings, and seven of the previous eight, being held on the weekend before Labor Day through 2014.

The Haskell is a natural return spot for California-based Triple Crown stars like American Pharoah or Nyquist; connections get to run against 3-year-olds for a $1 million purse instead of remaining at Del Mar for the $200,000 San Diego against older horses. American Pharoah recorded a sensational victory when shipping to Monmouth Park for last year’s Haskell.

Ideally, the same 3-year-olds would come back four weeks later in the Pacific Classic. Sophomores such as General Challenge (1999), Came Home (2002), Dullahan (2012) and Shared Belief (2014) all stepped up to defeat elders in the Pacific Classic, but the current placement two weeks before Labor Day is not favorable.

The three-week gap takes Kentucky Derby-winning colts like American Pharoah and Nyquist out of consideration for the meet’s centerpiece event.

Photo of California Chrome readying for the San Diego courtesy of Cecilia Gustavsson/