Updated on 07/26/2016 2:01PM

California Chrome outduels Dortmund in San Diego Handicap

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Emily Shields
California Chrome, making his first start since March, narrowly defeats Dortmund in the San Diego Handicap.

DEL MAR, Calif. - California Chrome and jockey Victor Espinoza were in a familiar place on the turn of Saturday’s $200,000 San Diego Handicap at Del Mar. With three furlongs to go, California Chrome was running alongside the pacesetter and giving Espinoza positive vibes for the stretch run.

Back in March, in the $10 million Dubai World Cup in the United Arab Emirates, Espinoza was in a similar spot and chose a point in early stretch to urge California Chrome to the front. California Chrome drew off to win that race by 3 3/4 lengths.

In the San Diego, Espinoza made his move at the quarter pole against a capable leader in Dortmund. Espinoza had too much respect for his rival to wait for the stretch.

“That’s where I wanted to be,” Espinoza said. “I dropped the reins a little at the three-eighths. I didn’t want Dortmund to get away from him.”

Racing outside of Dortmund, California Chrome led in early stretch, holding a narrow advantage of a head with a furlong to go. Through the last eighth, California Chrome and Dortmund were side-by-side, with little between them. California Chrome was always in front and kept his lead to the finish, prevailing by a half-length in a brilliant race.

“I wanted to save a bit for the last sixteenth and that’s what I did,” Espinoza said. “It was a great race. That was something else.”

California Chrome ($3.60) ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:40.84 in his first start since the Dubai World Cup. California Chrome carried top weight of 126 pounds, five more than Dortmund.

The 2014 Horse of the Year, California Chrome won for the 13th time in his 22-race career. Owned by Perry Martin and Taylor Made Farms, California Chrome, 5, has earned $12,652,650, a record for a North American-based Thoroughbred.

For Dortmund, the millionaire multiple stakes winner who finished third in the 2015 Kentucky Derby, the Grade 2 San Diego Handicap was his first start since a win in the Grade 3 Native Diver Stakes here last November. Dortmund is trained by Bob Baffert for Kaleem Shah.

Dortmund was plagued with foot problems earlier this year, but had trained well in the build-up to the San Diego Handicap. He was considered a danger to the wildly popular California Chrome.

Ridden by Gary Stevens, Dortmund, the 6-5 second choice in a field of five, led by as much as 1 1/2 lengths early in the race, through fractions of 23.47 seconds for the opening quarter-mile and 47.02 seconds for a half-mile.

Dortmund was closely tracked by California Chrome throughout, with a half-length between them after a half-mile. Even when passed in the stretch, Dortmund fought back for several strides.

“I was coming back on him,” Stevens said. “He was trying to inch back and it was huge. It was a great effort for his comeback and a top effort. Hats off to California Chrome.”

Dortmund finished 7 1/4 lengths in front of Win the Space, who was followed by Follow Me Crev and Crittenden.

Espinoza and trainer Art Sherman discussed tactics earlier on Saturday. Sherman emphasized that he wanted Espinoza close to Dortmund on day when front-runners enjoyed significant success.

“I told Victor, ‘The track is playing to speed,’ ” Sherman said. “Press him as much as you can.

“They ran awfully fast,” Sherman said. “It was a great race. I thought they both raced their races. Dortmund made it hard for him.”

The rematch is scheduled for the $1 million Pacific Classic here on Aug. 20.

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