Can California Chrome handle turf?
A win in the prestigious race would mark California Chrome’s fourth Grade 1 win of the year and could tip the scales in his favor if not for Horse of the Year then certain champion three-year-old male.
California Chrome entered the Kentucky Derby as the leading qualifying point-getter with 150 points, the leader in non-restricted stakes earnings with $782,250, and he was the clear post time favorite. In other words, California Chrome was unarguably the most outstanding three-year-old throughout the always hyped up series of Kentucky Derby preps.
Most of the time, the division leader going into the Triple Crown series fails to maintain any claim to that status coming out of it. However, to the credit of California Chrome, he delivered decisive victories in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, and he ran a respectable race in the Belmont after being roughed up at the start.
In fact, two of his main division rivals—Bayern and Shared Belief—both have instances in which they were victimized by gate fouls this year. In Bayern's case, it was the Preakness. In Shared Belief's case, it was the Breeders' Cup Classic. Neither one was able to overcome it and manage a placing.
The Triple Crown series can be a meat-grinder, and Chrome was understandably rushed back from it with a goal of making the Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita. A pair of defeats by a loose on the lead Bayern in both the Pennsylvania Derby and Breeders' Cup Classic is responsible for putting his connections into the position of wanting to take a shot at another Grade 1 race to land an Eclipse. Waiting for the seven-furlong Malibu on December 26th might not make an impact on the voting as ballots are often returned before that time, and after a grueling 2014 campaign by modern standards, shipping to a race like the Cigar Mile or Clark Handicap isn't the most ideal long-term move. These are the circumstances that have brought California Chrome to the lawn.
So, how will California Chrome handle turf? You have to start by looking at his pedigree—as you would for any other horse who is about to attempt grass for the first time.
California Chrome is sired by Lucky Pulpit, a horse who was primarily a turf sprinter during his racing career. Lucky Pulpit is out of a Cozzene mare. Cozzene was a brilliant winner of the 1985 Breeders' Cup Mile and that year’s champion turf male. While those seem like hopeful indications, the raw stats suggest Lucky Pulpit offspring are a bit better on the main track.
All progeny of Lucky Pulpit have a fairly average career Turf record of 149-18-16-16 (12% wins, 34% in-the-money) Meanwhile on all other surfaces, progeny of Lucky Pulpit are 940-158-150-125 (17% wins, 46% in-the-money)
As for the female side of California Chrome's pedigree, both his dam Love the Chase, and his 2nd dam Chase It Down, were very cheap horses.
Love the Chase never competed on the grass, but Chase It Down did make one attempt on the lawn, and she literally stopped to a walk and was eased in a maiden race at Pimlico over it. There is some hope in the female family, however, as Chase It Down's half sibling Amourette was a very nice stakes winning turf router that Gregg McCarron trained.
There's nothing in California Chrome's pedigree that strongly suggests a particular surface preference. From a betting standpoint, that's generally not something you want to see when evaluating the pedigree of a first-time turf horse. However, Chrome has handled all previous surfaces that he's competed on, and that sure is a bit of a plus.
Twenty years ago, Tabasco Cat was a dual classic winner having won both the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. He also finished a good second beaten just a neck in the 1994 Breeders’ Cup Classic as the lukewarm 7-to-2 favorite. After his valiant performance in the Breeders' Cup Classic, Tabasco Cat was entered in this very same race, the Grade 1 Hollywood Derby at the now-defunct Hollywood Park. The son of Storm Cat had a decent grass pedigree, but no prior turf experience. Tabasco Cat finished a soundly beaten eighth as the favorite. In my lifetime, this was a rare example of a dual classic winner, with no prior grass experience, making his turf debut in a Grade 1 stakes race...and it didn't work out well at all.
The bottom line is that California Chrome's entry in the Hollywood Derby is an exciting thing for racing, as it has year-end implications and will be fun to watch. However, from a betting standpoint, he figures to be a play against.