California Chrome made his return to racing when he entered the gate for the Grade 2 $1 million Pennsylvania Derby. Even before the race, the connections of the colt were paid $200,000; $100,000 to the owners and another $100,000 to trainer Art Sherman, so for anybody questioning why the colt shipped east, there is your answer.
It’s always tough to gauge how good a horse is after being off for 105 days. Most of the time, it’s tough to expect a great performance, because there is no substitute for racing, something that has been lost on those who train horses in these modern times. And, despite Chrome winning both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in impressive fashion, he showed plenty of vulnerability in his lackluster fourth place finish in the Belmont Stakes.
There are those who thought that Chrome was simply worn out by Belmont time, and there are others who thought jockey Victor Espinoza rode the colt too conservatively and by not allowing him to properly stalk the leaders, wasted too much energy being rated. In those two Triple Crown wins, the colt rode the jockey, stalking and rating nicely before powerfully surging in the stretch to win. That didn’t happen in the Belmont.
It also didn’t happen at the Pennsylvania Derby either. The track was fast, perhaps too fast and there was a bias (a good bias) for being on the rail, which Chrome, in the one hole was. Most of the 16,000 plus in attendance at Parx knew that Bayern, the winner of the Haskell was going to the lead and that’s what he did. The rest of the horse, including Chrome, let Bayern cut easy fractions of 24, 47.4, and Chrome was far back and not stalking like he should have been. When Bayern hit six furlongs in 1:10.1, he did it easily and when they turned for home, Bayern turned for home and finished the 1 1/8 miles in a track record 1:46.96 seconds. Chrome faded and knowing that, Espinoza smartly didn’t race him in the last quarter, conserving him for another day.
Though he didn’t come right and say it, Sherman wasn’t happy with Espinoza’s ride and that will create an interesting dilemma going forward. For some reason, the jockey appeared to be too tentative in the race; for some reason, he let Bayern go to the lead and then thought that Chrome would make the one big run and take off.
Chrome is not a closer; he doesn’t have that one big run in him like some colts. What he does well is stalk and rate and then when others tire, he’s there to pick them up and race to victory. Espinoza ran scared at Belmont by respecting the 1 1/2 mile distance too much. He’s not the first jockey to do that in the Belmont Stakes, but to see him do it again at Parx had to rankle Sherman. I don’t think Chorme had to win the PA Derby to re-establish himself, but he had to run a representative and competitive race of which he did neither.
The good news is Chrome will run again, presumably in the Breeder’s Cup Classic and if you really follow the sport and analyze it, you have to wonder if Sherman is seriously considering changing jockeys going forward. Espinoza is very good, but he’s not in the top tier of the current colony. That certainly doesn’t mean that he can’t win big races—he has—but the last two rides with Chorme have been head scratchers and now Sherman has to at least ponder what he should do.
In the end, Espinoza likely keeps the mount, unless the owners think a change is warranted. Deep down, Sherman probably wants to pull the trigger, but it’s been a good story and sometimes that story prevents making a change. But, if the goal is to win the $5 million Breeder’s Cup Classic—against older and more seasoned horses—it might be time to make the change.
Am I being too harsh on Espinoza? Perhaps. Maybe, just maybe, California Chrome is not that great of a horse, not a super horse like we had hoped. Most of the horses that he beat in the Derby and the Preakness were ordinary, and in the Classic, he will be facing the best of the best and older ones for the first time.
Sherman has some thinking to do. This is the best horse he’s ever trained and the spotlight doesn’t shine on you forever.
I wish him luck.