Should California Chrome be champion and other thoughts

Profile Picture: Vance Hanson

November 30th, 2014

A few thoughts following this week’s stakes action:

*Don’t Tell Sophia perhaps might have garnered some additional votes in the Eclipse Award race for champion older female with a victory in Thursday’s Falls City Handicap at Churchill Downs, but that longshot bid likely ended when she was unable to catch 19-1 longshot Frivolous, who had never won a stakes nor won on dirt.

Don’t Tell Sophia did not run in as many big races as division leader Close Hatches early in the season. She won three of her first four starts, all in non-graded stakes, and finished third to Close Hatches in the Azeri at Oaklawn. However, Don’t Tell Sophia wound up finishing ahead of that rival by large margins in the Spinster and Breeders’ Cup Distaff, where she was the highest-placed older mare behind three-year-old Untapable.

Close Hatches finished the season horribly, but wins in the Apple Blossom, Ogden Phipps and Personal Ensign following the Azeri were always going to make her tough to depose from the top of the rankings.

*The older horses in Friday’s Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs had a combined one graded stakes win on the year going into the 1 1/8-mile race, so it wasn’t much of a surprise that progressive three-year-olds dominated the event.

Anyone who has followed racing in recent years understands how unforeseen attrition can deplete the depth of a division, and the older male ranks on dirt have taken a disproportionate hit of late as many star three-year-olds have not trained on at four and beyond. At least it appears 2015 will start with a deep pool of older runners, including this year’s top three-year-olds Bayern, California Chrome, Hoppertunity, Shared Belief, Tonalist, and Wicked Strong.

*Speaking of California Chrome, who was certainly impressive taking his turf debut in Saturday’s Hollywood Derby, there appears to be increasing support out there for him to be named champion three-year-old male and Horse of the Year based on that victory.

I can say, firmly, that I will not be among those backing his candidacy. While he enjoyed a strong season, California Chrome lost twice in three meetings to Bayern, who will likely be his main rival in the balloting for the divisional championship.  Also, California Chrome never won a non-restricted stakes, unlike Bayern and fellow sophomore Shared Belief (who won two).

Winning a stakes on grass was a rare achievement for a dual classic winner, but the Hollywood Derby, which is restricted to three-year-olds and attracted only one other graded stakes winner besides California Chrome, was never going to have any bearing on my choice for three-year-old champion. The Breeders’ Cup Classic may have been messy, but California Chrome did not have any excuse in the loss, and his connections chose not to run him in another non-restricted race afterwards.

If the quantity of Grade 1 wins, nominal or otherwise, should be the primary or only criteria in selecting champions, then there really doesn’t have to be any sort of electorate casting ballots. Some racing fans would probably like to see that happen, that is until an outcome under that system flies completely in the face of what their lying eyes have seen.