03/24/2016 2:26PM

Hovdey: Chrome a different kind of fresh for this World Cup


Saturday is Dubai World Cup Day, although by the time it is Saturday in most of North America, it will be practically Sunday in Dubai, and whatever happened there on Saturday will be history. Where’s the Flat Earth Society when you need it?

The analysis from the horde of American expat wannabes on the scene has been describing World Cup favorite California Chrome as a much fresher horse than he was at this time last year in Dubai, when he finished second to the mysterious Prince Bishop. This redefines “fresh” since last year he was racing for only the second time in four months and was coming off a game second in the San Antonio Stakes to Shared Belief, who went on to dismantle the Santa Anita Handicap.

Fresh this time around means two races since January after 10 months of rest and recuperation from an experience at the 2015 World Cup that clearly wrung him out nose to tail. Fresh means more than two months spent exercising daily in the darkness of the vast Meydan complex and languishing most of the rest of the time in an air-conditioned stall. Fresh means being deprived of the energy bump a stallion gets from hanging around the herd back at his home barn. Fresh, in this case, sounds like something you’d open in the space shuttle that’s been vacuum-sealed against the elements.

But if by a fresher California Chrome they mean bigger, stronger – more California Chrome – with a different game plan that has worked so far and a surrounding atmosphere of businesslike calm rather than carnival crazy, okay. That works. Bring on the fresh.

With five accomplished American runners passing through customs for the 21st World Cup, chances are good that the trainer’s trophy will come back to the States for the 10th time. Cigar cracked the code first out in 1996, followed in 1998 by Silver Charm and in 2001 by Captain Steve. In 2004, Pleasantly Perfect commenced a run of U.S. dominance that included Roses in May (2005), Invasor (2007), Curlin (2008), and Well Armed (2009).

Alarmed that their race was turning into a glorified version of the Jockey Club Gold Cup, the ruling Maktoum family spent $2 billion on a new racetrack and attendant amenities, jacked up the purse to $10 million, and tossed in a synthetic surface, rendering the quaint days of the Cup at classy little Nad al Sheba to history’s back pages.

The synthetic years were five and out. American participation dwindled with each passing renewal until 2014, when exactly none of the 16 World Cup runners was trained in the U.S. The return to dirt last year lured California Chrome from the West and Lea from the East, both testing the water, and their 2-3 finish to Prince Bishop opened the floodgates for this year’s running.

In order to win the $6 million first prize from the $10 million purse – the numbers sound ridiculous just typing them – California Chrome must deal with the best field he has faced since the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Classic, where he was a close third to the 3-year-olds Bayern and Toast of New York. If he runs that race, he wins. Anything less drops him into the lap of one of his fellow U.S.-trained contenders, led by Frosted, finally out from under American Pharoah’s shadow, and Mshawish, this year’s version of Lea.

The World Cup, as contested at Nad al Sheba, was run over a unique layout for the mile-and-a-quarter-ish 2,000 meters. The gate was placed off to the right of the grandstand at the end of a poorly lighted chute that gave the race an eerie atmosphere of emerging from the night. From there, they connected to the back of the main course, took a false half-turn to the left, and then traveled another straight run to a very American left-handed hook to a long, testing final straight. It was a fair, fun course that offered few excuses.

At Meydan, the dirt course is a commonplace oval stuffed inside a grass course, with two broad American-style turns. The World Cup begins in front of the stands, like the Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park, and requires an unattractive scramble for position into the first turn with the field compressing toward the rail.

Much was made of California Chrome’s wide journey around both turns in last year’s World Cup. Whether that made a difference in the face of Prince Bishop’s performance remains debatable, but only among die-hard trip handicappers, land surveyors, and shut-ins. And not for nothing, but Prince Bishop was wide at the back of the field on the first turn and wide outside of California Chrome on the last.

Since the World Cup’s move to Meydan in 2010, only Animal Kingdom has been able to win for the U.S. That was in 2013, when the Kentucky Derby winner was wide on both turns, spurted clear in upper stretch, and had plenty left to turn back the late run of international star Red Cadeaux. Joel Rosario rode the winner for Graham Motion and the Team Valor syndicate, which had just taken on its Australian partners.

“I had an outside post, so going around the first turn, I just tried to hold my position,” said Rosario, who is scheduled to return to riding this week after breaking his wrist last month. “After that, it was a good trip all the way around.”

In many respects, it was an identical trip to the one California Chrome had last year when he was second-best.

“If I could have saved some ground, it would have been better, but it really depends on the horse,” Rosario went on. “Some of them like to be on the inside. Others feel better on the outside. My job is to know where they like to be. One thing is, if you are on the best horse, losing a couple of lengths on the turn probably won’t matter.”

Animal Kingdom, age 5 at the time, was clearly the best horse, giving him a rare Derby-World Cup double. Rosario himself completed the double five weeks later on Orb.

“All I could think at the finish was, ‘Wow, this is amazing,’ ” he said. “It was a dream come true. I wish every jockey could have that feeling.”

Animal Kingdom broke from post 11 of 12. On Saturday, the 5-year-old California Chrome, also a Kentucky Derby winner, breaks from post 11 of 12. Rosario laughed.

“That sounds pretty good to me,” he said.