09/23/2014 12:54PM

Hovdey: For California Chrome, it was 'They're off, you lose'

Tom Keyser
California Chrome had a tough trip in the Pennsylvania Derby and finished sixth.

The fundamental difference between the fantasy of sport and the reality of competition was on full, merciless display at Parx Racing last weekend, when California Chrome answered the bell but not much more while finishing sixth to the swift Bayern in the $1 million Pennsylvania Derby.

The fantasy of a lifetime was realized for the legion of California Chrome fans who came to Philadelphia from miles around, adorned in well-worn California Chrome T-shirts and caps, to see their Kentucky Derby and Preakness hero in the chestnut flesh.

The reality was a state-sanctioned, 1 1/8-mile horse race among eight young Thoroughbreds, all leaving the gate at the same time under official scrutiny, but with the result a foregone conclusion barely a furlong into the fray by the unforgiving forces of position and pace.

The fantasy was that California Chrome could overcome his 105-day absence from competition, his cross-country trip to Parx and then, as the race unfolded, his awkward position behind and inside horses and still somehow muscle his way into the clear to mount a winning attack.

The reality was the sight of Bayern and Martin Garcia traveling first class on the lead while California Chrome and Victor Espinoza squirmed in coach, knees cramped, suffering in their center seat.

The fantasy would have been a late run by California Chrome to at least throw a scare into the winner and set the table for excitement to come. But California Chrome is a thinker – we’ve seen that from the start – and in his reality the race was a hot and sandy mess, unworthy of any more than token effort at the end after a mile’s worth of banging his head against a wall.

The opposing trainers mirrored their horses. Bob Baffert watched Bayern’s rocking chair race from the comfort of his couch back home in Arcadia, Calif., while Art Sherman found himself planted on the inside rail of the Parx main track, not far from the winner’s circle and flanked by a hallelujah chorus of vocal Philly fans. A fish bowl has more privacy.

“It wasn’t one of my greatest days, I can tell you,” said Sherman, who was feeling every one of his 77 years. “Very humbling.”

Sherman took some consolation from California Chrome’s contribution toward a banner day of racing at Parx and its record $10 million handle on the program. The track’s investment in appearance fees ($200,000 for California Chrome’s people, $100,000 for Bayern’s) helped prime the local publicity pump like nothing since the era of local celebrity Smarty Jones, in 2004.

Since then, casino-fueled renovations have transformed the grandstand into a comfortable, modern facility. You can still fit Parx into the far end of Belmont Park and still have room for Santa Anita, but the house was full and the service seemed to hum. You can’t ask for more than that.

“I was happy for the people here at the track,” Sherman said. “I only wish our colt could have come through with a better race.

“He might have come up short on me anyhow, no matter what kind of trip he had. It’s just aggravating when you don’t even get a chance. Victor apologized afterwards. He said they had him right where they wanted him.

“I know he’ll benefit from the race, but you’re not sure how much,” Sherman added. “Victor wrapped up on him the last 70 yards. I just hope I can fight another day.”

As for the winner, Bayern was comprehensively humbled in his previous start, the Travers Stakes, in which he put up no more fight than a shuttlecock in a hurricane. It was the distance. It was the track. It was, in fact, a race Bayern was never going to win, a reality confirmed by Baffert’s top assistant Jim Barnes, who was on the scene at Parx.

“You love to have a horse like him when you know exactly what kind of race is his kind of race,” Barnes said. “This was his kind of race. The Haskell was his kind of race. The Travers was not.”

Give Bayern seven to nine furlongs on a fast, sandy strip soaked to the gills on a warm afternoon and watch him fly. He was nearly late to the paddock at Parx – that’s a long walk from those new barns on the far turn – but nothing else about him is slow when conditions are right. He has walked his beat now in the Woody Stephens, the Haskell, and the Pennsylvania Derby, and don’t forget he won the Derby Trial back in late April as well, only to be disqualified for an untimely drift.

Bayern was eliminated at the start of the Preakness and never saw either the lead or which way California Chrome went. He was practically eased while finishing ninth of 10. That makes the two West Coast colts all square, although advantage Bayern, because in horse racing it’s not a matter of what you’ve done, but what you’ve done lately.

With a better trip and maybe two more works under his belt, California Chrome and the Pennsylvania Derby might have been a perfect match, and the Chrome bandwagon would be rolling again. Instead, questions will persist until the Breeders’ Cup Classic, when California Chrome meets unbeaten Shared Belief, trained by Sherman’s Northern California rival Jerry Hollendorfer, and a collection of East Coast colts that could include Tonalist, Wicked Strong, and V. E. Day. If Baffert has his way, Bayern will be there, too.

“I’d love to beat Hollendorfer’s horse,” Sherman said, and who can blame him? But first he’s got to catch Bob’s.