02/15/2015 10:56AM

Watchmaker: California Chrome's 2014 record speaks for itself


One thing I noticed in the aftermath of last week’s decisive score by Shared Belief over California Chrome in the San Antonio is there is a segment of the racing public that took the outcome of the San Antonio as proof that the Eclipse Award electorate got it wrong last December and that Shared Belief should have been Horse of the Year of 2014, not California Chrome.

Well, I can’t, and won’t, speak for the Eclipse Award electorate. But as one who has stated for the record since he dominated the Pacific Classic last August that Shared Belief is the best horse in America and yet openly voted for California Chrome for champion 3-year-old male and Horse of the Year of 2014, I feel it might be worthwhile for me to point out how the two are distinctly different things.

For me, a successful Eclipse Award candidate satisfies a blend of accomplishment, divisional superiority, and talent, with a strong emphasis on accomplishment. It also should go without saying, but it apparently does require mention, that this all has to happen in the calendar year in question. What happens from Jan. 1 on has absolutely no bearing whatsoever on Eclipse Award considerations specific to the previous year. Even if the San Antonio occurred before the deadline for 2014 Eclipse Award voting, it should not factor into the awards process in any way.

Getting back to accomplishment, in 2014, California Chrome earned Grade 1 victories in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness (two-thirds of the Triple Crown, a hardly insignificant point), and Santa Anita Derby on dirt and the Hollywood Derby on turf. He also won the Grade 2 San Felipe. Shared Belief last year recorded Grade 1 victories in the aforementioned Pacific Classic on Polytrack and in the Awesome Again and Malibu on dirt. He also won the Grade 2 Los Alamitos Derby.

Shared Belief might have taken your breath away in some of his 2014 performances in ways California Chrome never did. However, in terms of accomplishment, what California Chrome did last year dwarfed what Shared Belief accomplished. Shared Belief might be the clearly better racehorse – I think he is – but he didn’t do nearly as much as California Chrome did in 2014.

Of course, what confused the issue, and in a substantial way, was the Breeders’ Cup Classic. I’m not going to go over all of that again. I addressed it last week in this space yet again, and the subject really has been beaten to death. All I want to say in regard to the Classic at this point is there are some folks in the general racing public who feel Shared Belief would have won it with a clean trip, and if he did win the Classic, he would have been Horse of the Year. Hey, I agree. I feel the same way.

However, you cannot vote for champions on the basis of “would haves” because as convinced as we might be that Shared Belief would have won the Classic with a clean trip, we simply do not know for certain. At the same time, so much was compromised at the start of the Classic (not only the chances of some horses, but the pace scenario, a seriously overlooked aspect to what happened) that I, for one, could not take the outcome at face value. So I classified the result of the Classic as inconclusive. For me, the Classic had almost no bearing on my Eclipse Award voting. And that left California Chrome with the superior Horse of the Year résumé, even if Shared Belief is the superior horse.

A couple of Saturday notes

I had a brief but interesting Twitter discussion the other day with a fellow who disagreed with my position that closing sprinters are severely compromised when they draw the rail because they either have to be used early to secure position at the detriment of their closing kick or get shuffled back to oblivion. I actually feel this way about closers in most situations, not just sprints.

Anyway, this fellow felt an inside draw was ideal for closing sprinters because they can save crucial ground before moving out to make their runs. I do think ground loss is a critical race factor in fair conditions. But for closers, I think it is preferable to sacrifice some ground loss for a clean, unobstructed trip. There is no guarantee closers down inside will ever get through or out to make an unobstructed run, and all that ground saved might get you nowhere.

I think this came into play in two of Saturday’s bigger stakes. Taking nothing away from Lady Sabelia, the front-running winner of the Barbara Fritchie, but the runner-up Princess Violet was a more forward early factor after breaking from the rail than she otherwise might have been, and I suspect that compromised her stretch punch.

In the Santa Maria, Warren’s Veneda and Thegirlinthatsong were the two main closers in a race otherwise full of frontrunners. Thegirlinthatsong took an inside trip from post 2 and had traffic trouble inside in upper stretch before finally getting a clear rail run late. Now, let me stress that I don’t think Thegirlinthatsong was beating Warren’s Veneda under any circumstances. But Warren’s Veneda traded a four-wide trip throughout for a clear run into an ideal pace set up, and that didn’t stop her from winning decisively and going away.

What was up with last month’s Hal’s Hope at Gulfstream? Lea and Confrontation both ran extremely well, finishing one-two in that race, and yet both came back and lost in races they were perfectly capable of winning.

Conversely, Valid was awful in the Hal’s Hope, fading to finish fourth and next to last after volleying on a slow pace, and he came back to win the Fred Hooper. And on Saturday, Golden Lad, who was a poor fifth and last in the Hal’s Hope, even if he was coming off an eight-month layoff, came back to take the Essex Handicap decisively.