02/13/2015 2:51PM

Hovdey: Desert mystery awaits California Chrome


The emotional response to the decision by the California Chrome camp to head for the $10 million Dubai World Cup instead of staying home to run in the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap is perfectly understandable. I forgive myself.

But dang, another race against Shared Belief in the Santa Anita event would have been a blockbuster. Fans would have had tales to tell the grandchildren. For those two minutes, the racing world would have stopped dead in its tracks to witness history, pulling a decent chunk of the general sports audience along for the ride. Who knows? ESPN might even have noticed.

Still, it is hard not to be encouraged by the record of American horses in the 14 runnings of the 1 1/4-mile World Cup on dirt at Nad Al Sheba, its former Dubai home. From 1996 to 2009, there were eight American-trained winners (nine if you count Street Cry, who began his career in California with Eoin Harty and raced primarily in the States). Another 15 have finished second or third, including Brass Hat, the runner-up in 2006 who was disqualified for trace levels of a corticosteroid administered 28 days before the race.

Those eight winners have included U.S. champions Cigar, Curlin, Invasor, and Silver Charm. Roses in May, Captain Steve, Pleasantly Perfect, and Well Armed were not champions, but they looked the part in Dubai. Medaglia d’Oro, Sandpit, Siphon, Victory Gallop, Harlan’s Holiday, and Behrens all hit the board.

So, California Chrome is going, and in a month he will be gone. His departure will leave the Santa Anita Handicap at the mercy of Shared Belief, whose finishing flourish to beat California Chrome in the San Antonio Stakes last Saturday was a sight to behold. Art Sherman had a good view from trackside, and while he would love another crack at the winner, he’s got those 10 million reasons to head for the desert with his reigning Horse of the Year.

Sherman undoubtedly will be in the crowd on Santa Anita Handicap Day, March 7, to watch his pal Jerry Hollendorfer scoop up the loot with Shared Belief. At the same time, Sherman’s thoughts will be 8,000 miles away, wondering what mysteries await at Meydan Racecourse.

Then again, he could ask Carl or Graham.

In the five years that the World Cup and its rich array of supporting races have been held at Meydan on grass and synthetic Tapeta, only two American-based runners have managed to win (the Tapeta was replaced by dirt for this season).

Kinsale King, trained by Carl O’Callaghan for Dr. Frank Sheehy, captured the 2010 Golden Shaheen at six furlongs, while Animal Kingdom took the 2013 World Cup for Team Valor and trainer Graham Motion.

“It doesn’t seem like those guys need a lot of advice,” Motion said of Sherman and his son, Alan. “I read this stuff on Twitter like, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t believe they’re taking the horse to Dubai ... it will be his ruination!’ I don’t get it. They’re right to take a shot, and the horses I’ve taken over there have handled it pretty well.

“California Chrome seems like a horse that handles everything,” Motion said. “That’s good because the night of the race is a tough ordeal for a horse. It’s a big crowd, and it’s very intense. But this horse handled the Kentucky Derby, and there’s nothing more unnatural for a horse than the Derby experience.”

Motion noted that the greatest culture shock is the distance a horse must walk from the quarantine barns to the track for daily training.

“It must be a mile,” he said.

O’Callaghan recalls the long trudge with Kinsale King.

“I think it took a toll on some of the horses,” O’Callaghan said. “I did it one time, then I ended up staying at the quarantine barn. There’s a little quarter-mile jogging track right there to do something with them if you want. I’m not saying it was right or wrong, but it’s what I thought was best for my horse.”

As far as the night of the World Cup, the trainers described how the horses are taken by van from the stables to an underground holding area beneath the massive grandstand, then moved to another area for saddling before they emerge into the parade ring. A full dress rehearsal is offered to school horses in the procedure, but O’Callaghan recommends against it.

“By all means, the trainer should observe, but I’d keep my horse back at the barn,” he said. “It’s a three-hour ordeal, nothing at all like what we know as schooling back home. Anyway, California Chrome doesn’t seem like a headstrong horse. He’s got a lot of class, although he does tend to scream at fillies.”

Motion is looking forward to returning to Dubai next month with Main Sequence, the double Eclipse Award winner of 2014 who comes back to the races next week in Florida. He will be pointing for the $5 million Dubai Sheema Classic at 1 1/2 miles on grass.

“Let’s face it, a 10 million-dollar race is life-changing,” Motion said of the World Cup. “And it’s an amazing experience to take on the rest of the world. I think we spend too much time trying to find the easiest spots for our horses. I really admire those guys for what they’ve done with California Chrome, and what they are trying to do.”