Powell's take on stirring victories by Songbird, California Chrome

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TwinSpires Staff

July 28th, 2016


Saratoga has a reputation for being “The Graveyard of Champions” and its list of champions that met their demise at the Spa was added to last year when Triple Crown winner AMERICAN PHAROAH (Pioneerof the Nile) was beaten by KEEN ICE (Curlin) in the 146th running of the Travers Stakes (G1).

MAN O’WAR (Fair Play), GALLANT FOX (*Sir Gallahad III) and SECRETARIAT (Bold Ruler) all met defeat at the Spa and for a brief moment, it looked like the undefeated SONGBIRD (Medaglia d’Oro) might join the list in Sunday’s Coaching Club American Oaks (G1).

First, the main track races on Friday and Saturday tended to favor wide closers and the track seemed to be up against inside speed. Second, shipping in from Del Mar, Songbird was now entering the heat and humidity of the Northeast and many horses have left their races in their stalls dealing with the heavy air. And, third, she had a Grade 1 stakes winner to her outside in CARINA MIA (Malibu Moon) and the Billy Mott trainee figured to pressure her right from the start.

Mike Smith had no choice but to send Songbird to the front from post 1. Julien Leparoux set up shop off her right flank and the two fillies cruised through a first half-mile in :23.86 and the half in :47.52. Leparoux tried to turn the pressure up but Smith deftly gave his filly more rein and Songbird still had a length lead midway around the far turn in 1:11.63.

From the three-furlong pole to past the quarter pole, the race was on and it looked like Songbird was in trouble. Mike Smith was the first to ask his mount for run so at that point it was “advantage Carina Mia.”

But as quickly as it looked like the upset was more than brewing, Songbird responded to Smith’s left-handed urging and began to pull away with authority. In all eight of Songbird’s wins, there was little drama as she is just so dominant but here she was being asked to dig down and fight and the response was breath-taking.

Saratoga track announcer Larry Collmus said she “has whistled past the graveyard of champions” in the stretch but it sure looked like she might be paying it a visit 200 yards earlier. Now nine for nine, we will be lucky enough to see her again in the historic Alabama Stakes (G1) on August 20. Don’t know who will race against her; don’t really care as long as we get to see her again.

Another champion that snatched victory from the jaws of defeat was CALIFORNIA CHROME (Lucky Pulpit) who was the gamest of winners in Saturday’s San Diego Handicap (G2) at Del Mar.

Coming off a win in the Dubai World Cup (G1), California Chrome was a lukewarm 4-5 favorite as the bettors wisely thought that DORTMUND (Big Brown), even coming off a 238-day layoff for Bob Baffert, would give him a big race and sent him off as the 6-5 second choice.

So, the bettors made it a two-horse race and boy, were they right! Dortmund won his first six starts of his career culminating with a win in the Santa Anita Derby (G1). He was beaten by stablemate American Pharoah in the Kentucky Derby (G1) then hated the sloppy track in the Preakness (G1). Off for five months, he returned at the end of 2015 with two stakes wins including a 4-length win in the Native Diver Stakes (G3) here going nine furlongs.

Unfortunately, he has missed the entire first half of 2016 but he was training like a monster and looked like he would be tough to catch from the rail. California Chrome was coming off the trip to Dubai and while the “Dubai bounce” has little statistical validity, you never know how he was going to come back.

Both horses were training well and just like the CCA Oaks looked like a two-horse race, the San Diego Handicap was a two-horse race with California Chrome spotting Dortmund five pounds.

At the start, Gary Stevens sent Dortmund to the front despite being outbroke at the start by the very fresh California Chrome. They ran the first quarter mile in 23.47 seconds and Victor Espinoza decided go up and put the pressure on going down the backside. The half-mile was run in :47.02 and Stevens looked like he had a ton of horse underneath him.

Espinoza got into California Chrome and took the lead inside the quarter pole. He had momentum and might have been an easy winner but Dortmund was sensational down on the inside and battled back through the lane while California Chrome was drifting towards the outside. California Chrome won it and did just enough to set him up for an epic Pacific Classic (G1) where the top finishers of the San Diego might meet last year’s winner, BEHOLDER (Henny Hughes).