Chrome's Classic performance increasingly rare in historically marquee division

Profile Picture: Vance Hanson

August 22nd, 2016

There is not much to add in the way of adjectives to describe California Chrome's performance in Saturday's Pacific Classic (G1), but there are few takeaways from the race.

The manner of his victory should not have come as a surprise. Even taking into account the possibility he might encounter issues breaking from an undesirable post position, what we were dealing with was a five-year-old at the peak of his racing powers. He was facing a three-time champion mare who, coming off an unexpected loss, was not generally perceived to be at the peak of her powers. His other main rival, who fought him tooth and nail in a 1 1/16-mile prep, had not once showed that 1 1/4 miles was his strong suit.

From a visual perspective, Chrome's Pacific Classic win was a sight to behold. His 112 BRIS Speed rating perhaps does not do the performance justice as he was hardly asked to extend himself, but by that one measure it was not one of the greatest performances ever. If you followed the reaction on social media immediately after the race, you might have come to a different conclusion.

I think a lot of that implied sentiment was a result of not having seen a performance like it from an older male on dirt, especially over 1 1/4 miles, in a long time. In an era of premature retirements of star three-year-olds, untimely injuries, and relative mediocrity in a division that saw five grass/synthetic horses in six years win year-end honors before rule changes limited eligibility to dirt performers, a malaise has settled in over the older male set for much of the past 10 years.

There have certainly been some individually incredible performances during that timeframe, but you really need to go back to, say, Blame's 2010 Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) victory (115 Speed) or Curlin's in the 2008 Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) (117 Speed) to find a performance by an actual named champion over 1 1/4 miles that was faster than Chrome's. In a division that used to be one of the marquee ones alongside the three-year-old males, those almost feel like ancient history. In a sense, we've kind of forgotten how good older males on dirt could be.

Chrome is not the actual named champion older dirt male (yet), but off that Pacific Classic it's hard to see how he should not be the odds-on favorite to win the Breeders' Cup Classic (G1), and thus the Horse of the Year title as well. As good as Frosted has looked in his last couple starts, California Chrome just seems to be on a whole other plane, especially when we're talking about a mile and a quarter race. Barring the unforeseen, I don't see circumstances changing dramatically over the next 2 1/2 months.

Does California Chrome have one more prep before the Breeders' Cup? He doesn't necessarily need one, but the Stronach Group has waved a carrot in front of co-owner Perry Martin, a man who makes no secret his fondness for cashing large checks. Should Chrome go on to take the $300,000 Awesome Again (G1) and the Breeders' Cup Classic (G1), it's another $1 million in the connections' pockets.

Martin et al obviously have their eyes on the prize, but a chance at another million (plus $180,000 for winning the Awesome Again), presumably for not much work, is a hard offer to turn down, no?

Zenyatta shaping up as important race for Beholder

Even in defeat, Beholder's runner-up effort in the Pacific Classic was one of the best performances of her career. Still, the loss means she has work to do to defend her older dirt female title.

Trainer Richard Mandella will reportedly aim Beholder toward the Zenyatta (G1), where she is likely to have a rematch with Stellar Wind. A win there would give her a 2-1 edge over that younger rival and perhaps give connections a reason to take a stab at the Breeders' Cup Classic, where she would have nothing to lose and another second-place finish to California Chrome would pay about as much as winning the Breeders' Cup Distaff (G1).

However, a loss in the Zenyatta almost ensures Beholder would target the Distaff, and the presence of Songbird there could complicate matters even more in the older female race should the brilliant three-year-old win.

As far as championship implications, the Zenyatta is shaping up as a very important race for Beholder

No encore necessary for Songbird in three-year-old division

Songbird was the other undisputed star of the weekend, winning the Alabama (G1) with ridiculous ease and pushing her career record to 10-for-10. While there is literally nothing more for Songbird to accomplish against her own peers, she is expected to make yet another encore against her own age group in next month's $1 million Cotillion (G1) at Parx.

Yes, the Cotillion is expected to attract Kentucky Oaks (G1) winner Cathryn Sophia, who might give Songbird a brief tussle going 1 1/16 miles, but really this divisional race is all but over. Given Songbird's abilities, I simply don't see the Oaks winner keeping up with her at any distance around two turns.

With the Alabama (G1) and Travers (G1) contested a week later than they used to be, and tracks like Parx offering $1 million purses for the Pennsylvania Derby (G2) and Cotillion (G1), inter-generational competition on the main track continues to be pushed back and delayed, generally until the Breeders' Cup. Horsemen love it, obviously, but it doesn't always make for stimulating fare and punching down is not without its own risks, as American Pharoah's loss in last year's Travers showed.

While I wouldn't expect Songbird to take on Beholder and Stellar Wind before the Breeders' Cup in the Zenyatta, or necessarily try the $400,000 Beldame (G1) around one turn, the $500,000 Spinster (G1) at Keeneland would be a much more interesting Breeders' Cup prep and over a track she's familiar with. The older female division is sufficiently deep enough that the talent will be spread out among all three of those races, and Songbird long ago earned the right to a hike in class.

Songbird will bring smiles to many with an open-lengths win in the Cotillion, but her presence there will miss the spirit of the game by a mile.

(California Chrome photo: Scott Shapiro)

(Songbird photo: Teresa Genaro)