Why the Hollywood Derby isn't the clincher for Chrome

Profile Picture: Kellie Reilly

December 1st, 2014

At the risk of being sent to the guillotine by a mob of Chromies, I must confess my unpopular opinion: while California Chrome added a feather to his cap by taking Saturday's Hollywood Derby, and expanded his portfolio to include turf, that doesn't enhance his candidacy for Horse of the Year.

Four Grade 1 victories make for a fantastic season, especially when two of them are jewels of the Triple Crown -- the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

But Horse of the Year is about the overall best horse in the United States, and by any objective measure, that's not Chrome. It's turf star Main Sequence, who capped an undefeated campaign (four-for-four, all in Grade 1s) by toppling a robust international cast in the Breeders' Cup Turf. That's the highest standard set by any U.S. runner in 2014.

(I wrote my first draft of this before Mary Simon's Chrome-for-HOTY piece appeared on the Paulick Report Monday. While I have great respect for her as a racing historian, I think she's off base here. Suffice to say that her arbitrary refusal to grapple with the claims of Main Sequence is not only a glaring hole in her argument, but a fatal flaw. She subsequently tried to address it in the comments section.)

Horse of the Year is not a popularity contest, or a vote on how we feel about the horse as an individual. If we don't support Chrome, it doesn't mean we dislike him or are oblivious to his fans. It's not an ostracism; we're not voting to banish Chrome from the city or send him into an unloved exile. Some of us just don't think he was best on merit.

And now I'll plunge into the really hot water: in my view, Chrome isn't an unambiguous choice in his own division either. As much as Chrome owned the first half of the season, his supremacy was eroded in the second half of the season, thanks to the exploits of a healthy Shared Belief, a late-developing Tonalist, and a peaking Bayern, who drubbed the ring-rusty Chrome in the Penn Derby.

For that reason, the Breeders' Cup Classic served as the moment of decision. Chrome could have regained his position and sewn up the Eclipse right then and there. And to be fair, he did square accounts with Tonalist, who'd beaten him in the Belmont, and he did finish ahead of the mauled Shared Belief.

Yet although the fighting-fit Chrome came much closer to Bayern, he still could not beat him; perhaps more tellingly, he couldn't quite get past Toast of New York either -- the same English shipper whom Shared Belief had handled readily in the Pacific Classic.

It was a magnificent stretch battle, but Chrome came up short, not versus his elders, but against two fellow sophomores. And lest anyone claim that he didn't run up to his best, note that he earned his highest BRIS Speed rating, a 110, in that gallant defeat. The Classic, not a moderately-run Derby, was arguably his finest hour, and he still lost.

To me, the evidence suggests that Chrome's first-half heroics have a slightly opportunistic look. He was unquestionably the best of those who stayed sound and healthy through that point. The picture changed, however, once his most talented rivals recovered from their various setbacks and got into the game.

The Hollywood Derby didn't alter that impression. Indeed, Chrome didn't even have to face any of this year's most accomplished turf three-year-olds, making it a "Grade 1" devoid of depth.

Let me emphasize that this is not to disparage Chrome's terrific year. He will go down in history as a deserving Derby and Preakness winner, and no one can ever take that away.

And I appreciate that there's a very reasonable case to be made for Chrome as a divisional champion, even if I can't turn a blind eye to the way the season developed, or his subsequent losses.

There's simply no hiding from the fact that Bayern bested Chrome in two of three meetings, most significantly the last two. Moreover, as a May foal who didn't even make the races until January, and then lost valuable time with foot problems in the spring, Bayern was playing catch-up for a good part of the year. For that reason, I can forgive his Preakness flop (the Travers, on the other hand, is a lot uglier).

Of course, last year's unbeaten champion Shared Belief was also playing catch-up, and his early-season absence may well have cleared the path for Chrome. Had Shared Belief not been wiped out by Bayern at the start of the Classic, their respective rankings would have been a lot more straightforward.

To sum up, the three-year-old male division got murkier, not clearer, as the year progressed. And that very fact itself undercuts Chrome's argument for Horse of the Year.

Now, I'm ready to climb into the tumbrel.