Chrome at Royal Ascot: California Dreamin

Profile Picture: Vance Hanson

March 30th, 2015

The Royal meeting at Ascot in June will generate more interest than usual from American racing fans if reigning Horse of the Year California Chrome makes his intended start in the Prince of Wales's Stakes on the second day (Wednesday) of the five-day fixture.

I like international competition as much as the next guy, but the decision to pursue such an action should be based on unequivocally-affirmative responses to at least two questions: Does the horse's placement make a modicum of sense? Is this pursuit doing what's best for the horse?

The Prince of Wales's makes sense in one respect -- it's the one race on the Royal Ascot program that on paper arguably fits California Chrome best. Being a Group 1 event he will not incur a weight penalty, and the 1 1/4-mile distance is a trip he's proven capable over.

The pursuit of the Prince of Wales's doesn't make as much sense when you take into account other factors. The race is conducted on a right-handed surface, which California Chrome has not encountered. Ascot's 1 1/4-mile course is far stiffer than any California Chrome has encountered in the U.S. or Dubai, involving a steady uphill climb through the long stretch.

We also can't disregard the level of competition California Chrome would face. The Prince of Wales's has been won this century by such standouts as Dubai Millennium, Fantastic Light, Ouija Board, Duke of Marmalade, So You Think, and The Fugue. That's not to say a horse of that caliber is going to line up against him, but merely suggests the race often draws competition far superior to what California Chrome has faced in his career.

What has California Chrome done to convince majority owner Perry Martin that his colt can be competitive against some of Europe's best? One factor was surely the ease with which he captured his only grass start, the Hollywood Derby at Del Mar, last November. The performance undoubtedly convinced a majority of Eclipse Award voters that he was the best three-year-old male and Horse of the Year because of it, but more skeptical observers recognize there was nothing "Grade 1" about it aside from the winner.

Is this pursuit doing what's best for the horse? There are conflicting opinions about this within the California Chrome camp. In Ascot's press release Sunday, Martin said: "We are grateful for the opportunity to race at Royal Ascot and hopeful that California Chrome can put up a good show. We are looking forward to the experience."

Win or lose, it's unlikely Martin will have a bad experience at Royal Ascot.

Trainer Art Sherman was not as excited at the prospect of California Chrome staying overseas, telling radio host Roger Stein on Sunday: "It's going to be rough on him, I think. I would have never done it myself. I would have gave the horse more time to kind of unwind. He's going to be a tired horse after this trip [to Dubai]."

There are probably numerous examples of owners overruling trainers with the outcome being unexpected success (you can tweet, e-mail or leave a comment below to refresh my memory). Better remembered, though, are the times when it didn't turn out so well. Think Frank McMahon insisting Majestic Prince attempt his Triple Crown sweep in the 1969 Belmont, against the wishes of trainer Johnny Longden. That remarkable colt never ran again. Or think Princess of Sylmar, who had the 2013 three-year-old filly title in the bag before an unnecessary trip to the Breeders' Cup Distaff cost her the championship. She never won another race of consequence.

The decision to test California Chrome in the Royal Ascot waters might appear sporting to some, but doesn't make much sense or seem to be in the best interest of the horse upon closer examination.

(California Chrome photo: Benoit Photos)