09/07/2016 3:36PM

Hovdey: Del Mar's summer of triumph and pain


There is no denying the cosmic connection of Del Mar and California Chrome. Three years ago, he won his first stakes race at the seaside track, taking down a little number called the Graduation. Two years ago, he showed up in the fall with a roll of the dice on the grass in the Hollywood Derby, which he won for fun to cement 2014 Horse of the Year. This year, it was his bang-zoom double in the San Diego Handicap and the Pacific Classic, a homecoming of epic proportions.

Perfect symmetry would require that California Chrome stay in training next year at age 6 and return to Del Mar for a glorious valediction in the 2017 Breeders’ Cup Classic. Alas, that fairy tale won’t come true. So, for now, the game must be content with an appreciation for his few remaining starts, even as the sweet taste lingers from his summer of ’16.

California Chrome represented the artistic high point of a Del Mar season that was typically schizophrenic. Average daily attendance was down – if you can’t sell summer horse racing at Del Mar, well, what can you sell? – and casualties were up. The 17 equine fatalities during the meet were spread among illness, accident, and irreparable musculoskeletal damage in both racing and training. Each horse had an owner, a trainer, a groom, and a personal story worth telling, but none of them hit quite as hard as the death of Chasing Aces on the last day of the meet.

“There are a lot of people who go straight to the monetary loss and try to console you,” said Peter Miller, who trained Chasing Aces for a partnership that included Gary Hartunian, Edward Wachtel, and Earle Mack. “They tell you not to take it too hard. There will be other chances. I appreciate that, but that was the last thing on my mind. All I could see was that beautiful colt suffering in pain with no chance we could fix him.”

Chasing Aces, a robust son of Flatter, set a Del Mar track record for five furlongs early in the meet. He was given time to recover from that experience before entering the closing-day Del Mar Futurity, which turned out to have a small field deep in talent. Any one of the first three finishers – Klimt (by Quality Road), Straight Fire (by Dominus), and Midnight Pleasure (by Midnight Lute) – would be a treat to own.

Chasing Aces figured to be among them at the end of the Futurity, but instead, he was pulled up at the head of the Del Mar stretch by Tyler Baze. Miller rushed to his horse and rode with him back to the barn in the ambulance.

“He was standing, but he couldn’t put any weight on that left leg,” Miller said. “The vet felt the left knee and said it was probably a slab fracture. I let myself think maybe there was hope. You can repair a slab fracture if it’s not too serious. But then when they read the X-rays, the vets said they’d never seen one quite so bad.”

Earlier in the race, Chasing Aces made an awkward deke to the left where the temporary rail leading from the chute to the main track ended, exposing a no-man’s gap before the permanent rail resumed. He recovered, took hold of the bit, and rushed into contention, then was bumped and backed out of the fray. By then, the damage was done, and probably getting worse with every stride. Running on adrenalin, a young, vibrant Thoroughbred like Chasing Aces usually won’t quit until he can’t continue. Now, he’s gone.

Horse racing persists on a combination of money, romance, and selective memory. Those who make a career of it sign on for the warts as well as the glory. Fortunately, there was enough glory to go around this summer by the sea. Or at least enough to keep nightmares like Chasing Aces at bay, until the next one.

Chad Brown won a Breeders’ Cup race in his first year of training. Mr. Brown, meet Ms. Ruis, Shelbe Ruis, that is, whose summer of ’16 should go down in some kind of history.

Training the horses owned by her family, Ruis, 25, won with four of 21 starters, with another five hitting the board. They were mostly 2-year-olds (one of them was Midnight Pleasure), and the star of the show was Union Strike, a daughter of Union Rags who upset a handsome field in the $300,000 Del Mar Debutante on the meet’s final Saturday.

The 2016 Del Mar summer meet also will go down as the first of many titles predicted for Flavien Prat as he continues to solidify his star status among the nation’s young riders. Prat, 23, ended up sharing the title with five-time (now six) local champion Rafael Bejarano.

Prat took a five-winner lead into the final holiday weekend but saw it disappear by the middle of Sunday afternoon. On Monday, Bejarano landed the first blow by winning the Futurity aboard Klimt. Prat countered by winning the Del Mar Juvenile Fillies Turf on the exciting War Front filly With Honors for Keith Desormeaux to edge in front. Then, Bejarano tied the score at 38 with a romp aboard the Bob Baffert maiden Big Gray Rocket, as Prat watched helplessly for second.

They say if you’re going to shoot the king, don’t miss. Maybe so, but Prat winged him pretty good.