The prospect of competing in a race with a $6 million purse can bring out the jitters in a trainer.
But Art Sherman has the perfect antidote for erasing any fears he might have about the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
It’s called California Chrome.
While a collection of the world’s best horses will tangle over a grueling mile and a quarter distance in the $6 million BC Classic, Sherman knows who’s at the top of everyone’s list of the leading contenders for the Nov. 5 showdown at Santa Anita Park.
It’s the 2014 Horse of the Year. The winner of this year’s $10 million Dubai World Cup and $1 million Pacific Classic. The California-bred with a North American-record $13.4 million in earnings.
The very same horse with a perfect 6-for-6 record this year that allows Sherman to have a rather carefree attitude about the make-up of the field in the world championships’ richest race.
“I’m not worried about anyone,” the 79-year-old trainer said. “The field has to worry about me to be honest with you. I can’t see anybody I’m worried about.”
Just a quick glance at California Chrome’s 2016 efforts is enough to explain Sherman’s confidence. In those six starts, races which were worth more than $7 million to majority owner Perry Martin and California Chrome Ltd., the 5-year-old horse was at his best in his most important tests.
In the Dubai World Cup, California Chrome atoned for a runner-up finish in the 2015 edition of the world’s richest race by registering a four-length victory over Mubtaahij.
Five months later, in a highly anticipated tussle with Dortmund and the three-time champion mare Beholder in the Grade1 $1 million Pacific Classic, California Chrome carried jockey Victor Espinoza to a decisive five-length victory.
Most recently, he posted a measured 2 ¼-length victory over Dortmund in the Grade 1 Awesome Again at Santa Anita in his final prep for the BC Classic and has been training sharply for next month’s 10-furlong test.
“I’m so happy with the way he’s going,” Sherman said. “He seemed to pull up really well. He’s acting very good right now.”
For Sherman, a victory in the Breeders’ Cup would place an exclamation point on a career that has seen California Chrome age like a fine wine.
“I would like to see a Breeders’ Cup Classic win on his resume. He’s won so many big races, but the Breeders’ Cup would be the coup de grace for me and it would be a big feather in his hat as well,” Sherman said.
Helping matters is that California Chrome is quite experienced at Santa Anita. He won the Awesome Again and San Pasqual at “The Great Race Place” this year — two of his four graded stakes wins at the Aracadia, California, track — and was a close third in the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita.
“He’s won a lot of races at Santa Anita and he has a little bit of an edge there,” Sherman said. “He seems to handle the track really well. Everything has fallen into place well.”
The most intriguing challenger for California Chrome would have to be Juddmonte Farms’ Arrogate. In just his fifth career start, he didn’t just win the Travers Stakes, he ran away and hid from a collection of the nation’s best 3-year-olds, winning by 13 ½ lengths in 1:59.36, breaking a 37-year-old track record.
Arrogate has not raced since the Aug. 27 Travers, but that does not necessarily faze Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert. For those with short memories, a year ago Baffert trained American Pharoah up to the BC Classic following the Triple Crown winner’s runner-up finish in the Travers. The results were a 6 ½-length victory procession in one of American Pharoah’s most impressive wins.
This time, Baffert faces a bigger challenge, but he says he’s “excited” by the potential he sees in a lightly raced colt who made a highly auspicious stakes debut in the Travers.
“Arrogate came in under the radar,” Baffert said about the Travers. “I could have talked him up and made him heavy duty but I wanted to come in quiet in case things didn’t work out. I knew he’d run well but didn’t think he’d put on a show like that. We had never let him run in the afternoon before.
“Now we have a horse who could be a superstar but a different kind of superstar than American Pharoah. Arrogate missed the window of the Triple Crown. It would have been fun to have him ready for that but he was late to the party. He’s the only horse out there with a shot to beat California Chrome.”
Other possible candidates include Effinex, the runner-up to American Pharoah in last year’s BC Classic and second earlier this month in the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup; Melatonin, winner of the Gold Cup at Santa Anita and the Santa Anita Handicap; Baffert’s Jockey Club Gold winner Hoppertunity; Whitney and Metropolitan Handicap victor Frosted; Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist; Shaman Ghost, who captured the Grade 1 Woodward; Bradester, who prevailed in the Grade 1 Stephen Foster; Gun Runner and Win the Space.
Each of them faces the prospect of needing a career-best effort to slow what is taking shape as a ritzy farewell tour for California Chrome.
“Unless something spectacular happens and the owners want to try one more year, I have a feeling the Breeders’ Cup Classic and the Pegasus (Jan. 28 at Gulfstream Park) will be his last races before he goes to stud.
“I’ll sure miss him. It’s been a helluva ride. He’s a once-in-a-lifetime horse. It’s hard to describe my feelings. He’s done so much for the barn and the people involved with him. We will sure miss him, but, hey, life goes on, and to have some of his babies running for us would be great.”