07/24/2016 8:29AM

'Chrome' vs. Dortmund is great marketing for horse racing

Emily Shields
California Chrome, left, edges Dortmund in the San Diego Handicap on Saturday at Del Mar.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N. Y. – Promotions and track giveaways are nice, but if Thoroughbred racing really wants to create new fans, all it has to do – ALL it has to do – is offer a quick backstory to those who didn’t already know it on the two main protagonists in Saturday’s Grade 2 San Diego Handicap at Del Mar. Cue up the race replay above, and press “play.”

Really. You can search far and wide for better advertisements for Thoroughbred racing, and you can glom on to any celebrity of your choosing; none will work as well as this race, which was the best and purest display of what is great in this great game.

The San Diego was racing at its best for a combination of reasons. Certainly, the quality of the two main players had tons do with it. California Chrome was our Horse of the Year in 2014, and if he isn’t the best horse in the world off his powerful victory in the Dubai World Cup last March, he is among them. And Dortmund has always made a compelling case that he could be much, much more than an immensely promising colt if he could just get a little bit of health on his side.

There is no question that a big reason why the San Diego was so tremendous is that California Chrome and Dortmund went at each other right from the start, engaging in a virtual match race right down to the wire. In fact, the half-length margin California Chrome had on Dortmund at the finish suggests there isn’t a great deal between these two fine performers. Dortmund was coming off a longer layoff than California Chrome, but both were coming off layoffs, and California Chrome had the Dubai journey to overcome, too.

Bottom line: This race left us drooling for more.

Speaking of wanting more, California Chrome and Dortmund are scheduled to meet again in Del Mar’s Grade 1 Pacific Classic on Aug. 20, and already the handicapper in me is contemplating how these two will react after their efforts Saturday. The San Diego was (obviously) a very strongly run race; it had to be demanding to at least some extent on both horses, and there is only a four-week turnaround to the Pacific Classic.

I don’t like the term “bounce.” I much prefer “form regression.” But no matter what you call it, I really dislike how it has become used as almost a blanket excuse for a poor performance. In any case, my sense is top horses such as California Chrome and Dortmund are less susceptible to form regression than lesser horses; it’s one of the many things that make them top horses. So while I’m not banking on either taking a major step back form-wise next time, my instincts tell me that California Chrome is a little better equipped than Dortmund to take a step forward next month.

We will see. The fun will be in the finding out.

Quick notes:
* Trainer Chad Brown won the first two turf stakes of the Saratoga meet – shocking, I know – but with no slight intended to his overachieving Ancient Secret, winner of Friday’s Grade 2 Lake George for 3-year-old fillies, Dacita’s just-up decision in Saturday’s Grade 1 Diana was certainly the most important of these two scores.

Dacita has been strangely underappreciated. Perhaps this is because she went into a bit of a slump after she nailed none other than champion Tepin in the Grade 2 Ballston Spa Stakes here at Saratoga last summer in her U. S. debut, or maybe it is because she was a fortunate winner of the Grade 2 New York Stakes in June at the expense of runner-up Sea Calisi, who was brutally unlucky to lose after a bad trip.

And truth be told, Dacita might not win too many additional fans after the Diana. Even though she made a successful charge from last, she did so into an early pace that was much too fast, and very favorable to her deep closing style, and she only prevailed in a blanket finish.

But that would be a shame, because Dacita is really good when she is on her game. She is, after all, the last horse to have beaten Tepin, who has won seven straight races since, on two continents.

As for Miss Temple City, she finished an okay fourth in the Diana, her first start since a very creditable fourth in a Group 2 stakes at Royal Ascot, a trip she earned off a strong win over a good group of males in the Grade 1 Maker’s 46 Mile.

Miss Temple City did encounter a bit of traffic late on the far turn and in upper stretch, but she secured a clear path with ample time left in the race, and was, in the end, outkicked. And that fuels my suspicion that Miss Temple City is really at her best as a miler, and is, in fact, quite a good one. The bad news for her is that is the same sphere Tepin operates in.

*I wish I could be bullish on the winners of the two 2-year-old stakes on the first two cards at Saratoga, but both races left me a little flat.

Bitumen proved best as the favorite in Saturday’s Grade 3 Sanford, but did so against only four opponents, and after getting a great setup with three of those four opponents engaging in a pace battle. The thing is, the Sanford pace really wasn’t all that hot – 22.61 and 45.79 – and I was troubled with the way Bitumen was still unable to keep up early despite urging from Javier Castellano. I mean, what will he do when he’s faced with a pace set or disputed by higher quality opponents? Still, Bitumen is now 2 for 2, and he still has plenty of license to improve.

As for Sweet Loretta, winner of Friday’s Grade 3 Schuylerville, she also employed a wide sweep from off the pace. However, that approach was absolutely the way to go on an opening-day Saratoga main track that carried a profound dead rail bias. Sweet Loretta will have to face tougher company than what she ran away from in the Schuylerville when she moves on, and she will do so presumably without the track so heavily tilted in her favor. Let’s see how she does then.

* I was a big fan last year of Sentiero Italia. I thought she would make the jump from being a successful 3-year-old filly graded-stakes performer on turf to being an effective older female graded-stakes grass horse, which is a leap bigger than many realize. I’m still a fan. But I do think Sentiero Italia’s allowance win at Saratoga Friday in her 2016 bow was more workmanlike than eye-catching, and while she has a right to, she must take a real step forward next time to contend with better.