11/27/2014 12:22PM

Hovdey: Another story of boy meets girl


It’s easy to get carried away with this boy vs. girl deal at Del Mar on Saturday, when California Chrome meets Lexie Lou in the $300,000 Hollywood Derby. After all, she’s been there and done that, having stomped colts in the Queen’s Plate last July. And he’s a colt with a capital “C” who unfurled his young stallionhood in a big way last May while saddling in close proximity to Ria Antonia on the Pimlico grass.

“Now I’m worried,” deadpanned Art Sherman. “What if he draws next to her in the gate? He’s liable to just follow her around out there and never want to go by.”

He didn’t. Lexie Lou drew the No. 2 hole, while California Chrome breaks from post 5 among the six entered in the 1 1/8-mile event on firm turf. Still, the imagination soars, along with California Chrome’s hormones. Sherman was asked if there might be something he could do to quiet the adolescent beast bubbling just beneath the rosy chestnut coat of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner.

“No way,” the trainer replied, indignant at the idea. “I like him like that.”

Whether the Hollywood Derby is considered the end of Chapter 1 of the California Chrome story or the beginning of Chapter 2 matters not. The challenge stands alone as an intriguing departure late in a season that already has provided Sherman and the colt’s owners, Steve Coburn and Perry Martin, enough thrills to last a lifetime.

Consider for a moment the depths to which California Chrome had fallen a year ago. The promise of his smart win in restricted company in Del Mar’s Graduation Stakes was sullied first by a woefully unlucky run in the Del Mar Futurity and then by a game but ultimately disappointing try in the Golden State Juvenile.

The rest, as they say, is amazing – six straight wins that took him to the threshold of the Triple Crown. But the fact remains that California Chrome has not won a race since he strutted his stuff both before and during the Preakness. His Belmont was brave, his Pennsylvania Derby was a wash, and his Breeders’ Cup Classic was one of those ran-too-good-to-lose races that did nothing to hurt his reputation. Now comes the Hollywood Derby, which he needs to win to restore his standing and should win in spite of trying grass for the first time in 16 starts.

“There’s no question, if the race is not on the grass, we would want no part of California Chrome,” said Mark Casse, who trains Lexie Lou for Gary Barber. “We ran against him in the Preakness, and I got to watch him close up. I’ve got a tremendous amount of respect for him. But at least there’s the question if he’s as good on the grass, and we already know the answer with our filly.”

Their filly is a wiry bay package of attitude who on Wednesday morning was cooling out after a gallop at Del Mar under the supervision of Casse’s top California assistant, Randi Melton.

“She won’t knock your eyes out,” Melton said. “But when you start picking her apart, you can see why she’s as good as she is.”

Lexie Lou’s victory in the historic Queen’s Plate on July 6 gave Casse an emotional first win in Canada’s biggest race. And even though it is restricted to Canadian-breds, some of those Canadian-breds have been named Northern Dancer, Kennedy Road, With Approval, and Dance Smartly, all of them major winners south of the border.

In her last two starts against fillies her own age, Lexie Lou won the Autumn Miss Stakes at Santa Anita and the Wonder Where at Woodbine, both on turf. In between, she was distanced on soft ground against older fillies and mares in the Canadian Stakes.

“We won’t have to worry about the ground on Saturday, that’s for sure,” Melton said. “This has been a great place to train, and she seems to love it here – although she’s not the type who’d go out of her way to let you know.”

Casse confirmed Lexie Lou’s antisocial tendencies.

“Oh yeah, she’s not the friendliest horse you’ll ever find,” the trainer said. “But most of the good fillies I’ve ever trained are that way, and she definitely fits in that category. If you go in her stall and you’re not careful, she’ll kick you and bite you.”

Funny he should mention that. On the afternoon California Chrome arrived at Del Mar, a week before the Hollywood Derby, this reporter violated one of his steadfast rules and stepped inside the ropes to lend a stablehand a hand, me being unqualified to do much more than fill a bucket. But Raul Rodriguez, California Chrome’s meticulous groom, was having trouble threading the hayrack rope through the recessed bolt in the stall door frame, and it seemed like the thing to do.

“Here,” I heard myself say, “let me hold the rack while you tie it up.”

California Chrome, edgy after a three-hour freeway commute from Los Alamitos, stood in the back of his stall and counted – “one Mississippi, two Mississippi” – then lunged. I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt and claim that he was aiming for the hay, but the way he locked onto my left biceps seemed right on target. It was over in a flash. He got his hay, and I had a story to tell, but very little sympathy.

“He bit you?” cackled Sherman. “All right. That’s my boy – on the muscle.”

And, boy, do I have a filly for him.