03/29/2015 11:11AM

Watchmaker: California Chrome's move to England admirable but strange


So much happened on Saturday that’s it’s difficult to know where to start. But let’s start with the news Sunday morning that California Chrome, our Horse of the Year of 2014 and a fine second Saturday in the Dubai World Cup, will not come home, at least not right away. California Chrome will instead go to England, train at Newmarket, and point to a race at Royal Ascot, with the likely suspect being the Prince of Wales’s Stakes on June 17.

On one hand, you have to admire this out-of-the-box approach with California Chrome. So often, we all have been frustrated when our big horses stick to ultra-conservative schedules. How many times did we want Wise Dan to do something a little different and not target the same races he already had won? Now that an important horse actually is taking the road less traveled, we probably should embrace it, even if it is a little unsettling and despite some conflicting feelings.

The big negative here is it is clear that Art Sherman, the trainer who is more responsible for the success of California Chrome than anyone else on the planet, now has been completely marginalized when it comes to decision-making for this colt. Reports say Sherman remains the trainer of record, but that just seems like a technicality. In every other sense, Sherman has had the colt he developed from humble beginnings into a Horse of the Year yanked from his care. All the quotes I’ve seen from Sherman about this were diplomatic. But it doesn’t take much reading between the lines to see that he does not think this is a great idea, and that should tell you something.

And this idea, while sporting and admirable, is strange. If international competition is your desire, then I could see California Chrome going on to, say, Japan or somewhere and competing in major events on dirt. But California Chrome’s two-length victory over Lexie Lou in the Hollywood Derby in his only turf start does not inspire confidence that he can be competitive with the kind of horses he’ll face at Royal Ascot or be as competitive as he was Saturday in the Dubai World Cup.

I know California Chrome likes to run outside of horses, but a ride from Victor Espinoza that had him getting caught four wide on the first turn and three wide on the far turn in the World Cup was a ride that did him no favors whatsoever. Send a little bit if you have to. Or take back a little bit if you have to. But don’t get caught four wide on the first turn in a two-turn race.

Maybe it wouldn’t have made any difference, and maybe California Chrome would not have been able to hold off the implausible Prince Bishop under any circumstance. But the kind of ground loss California Chrome had Saturday is very costly, no matter what kind of race you’re competing in.

Other Saturday notes

** For five straight racing days from Saturday, March 21, through last Friday, the rail on the Gulfstream main track was absolutely, undeniably dead. It was the kind of track bias that bettors lock into and capitalize on. But all of us thought for sure that by Florida Derby Day on Saturday, the track would be evened out for Gulfstream’s biggest day of the year. It wasn’t. The rail was as dead Saturday as it had been at any time the previous week, if not more so.

** Fortunately, the dead rail had little to no impact on the running of the Florida Derby. Materiality and Upstart, the two best horses on paper in reverse order going in, broke from posts 7 and 9, were away from the rail all the way around the track, and thoroughly dominated, finishing one-two.

Rick Violette, whom I have immense respect for and like, trains Upstart and blamed the outside post for his colt’s loss. I strongly disagree. Upstart’s position on Materiality’s outside flank was actually ideal with the way Gulfstream’s track has been playing. Upstart was just second best this time but remains a top-level Kentucky Derby contender.

Materiality now is 3 for 3 and has earned Beyer Speed Figures of 110 and 102 in his last two starts, both going 1 1/8 miles. Materiality is a force, but he did not race at 2 and will attempt to become the first to win the Kentucky Derby without having raced at 2 since 1882. This is not just some silly statistic. This is big history to overcome.

** Unfortunately, Gulfstream’s dead rail did impact the results of a couple of other main-track stakes there Saturday. Eskenformoney made an outside run to the lead in the Gulfstream Park Oaks, then dropped to the inside, and was run down by Birdatthewire, who stayed outside. And Valid, the even-money favorite in the Sir Shackleton, was swallowed by the quicksand on the rail. Both Eskenformoney and Valid were ridden by Javier Castellano.

** Competitive Edge made it three blowout scores from as many starts with his successful comeback in Friday’s Tamarac Stakes at Gulfstream. And as impressive as Competitive Edge’s return was, it was even better when you consider he went to the rail early in that race and stayed there. I’ve been playing Gulfstream regularly, and I can tell you that from March 21 through March 28, Competitive Edge was the one and only main track winner who spent any meaningful part of the race on the inside. The only one.

** You have to hand it to International Star for sweeping the Kentucky Derby prep series at Fair Grounds, a sweep he capped with his victory over Stanford in the Louisiana Derby. And yet, I still don’t consider International Star a top-level Kentucky Derby aspirant. He had a beautiful trip Saturday, and he only scored by a neck over Stanford, who was crushed by Materiality earlier this month at Gulfstream.

** But I’m a Chatterbox, who completed her sweep of Fair Grounds’s Kentucky Oaks preps with a decisive score in the Fair Grounds Oaks, absolutely is the top contender for the Kentucky Oaks, and by a clear margin. I’m a Chatterbox just looks like she’s in a different league than the crew who disputed the Gulfstream Oaks.

** Speaking of elite Kentucky Derby candidates, Mubtaahij created quite a buzz with his destruction of his United Arab Emirates Derby field, and he is coming to Louisville. But though Mubtaahij obviously is a talented colt and in top hands, he beat little Saturday, and he had the kind of perfect trip he could never hope to get in a 20-horse Kentucky Derby. Moreover, the Beyer folks estimated that Mubtaahij ran about a 95 at Meydan. He will have to improve.

** I’m drawing a line through Main Sequence’s loss in the Dubai Sheema Classic. That race was a mess for him, literally from the start.

** Of all the big races we saw on Saturday, was any winner more impressive than Solow in the Dubai Turf? Didn’t think so. What a monster.