06/20/2014 2:40PM

Hovdey: Hunt begins for the next California Chrome


“No one ever committed suicide with a good 2-year-old in the barn” is how the hoary racetrack saying goes. Woody Stephens gets credit for trotting it out more often than most, even though its origins remain obscure.

Now that summer has arrived, those palliative 2-year-olds are coming into bloom. Hope rises, and positive signs are everywhere. Wesley Ward won another baby race at Royal Ascot this week. Jerry Hollendorfer’s young’uns are running wild. And on Sunday, in the $100,000 Santa Anita Juvenile, Art Sherman will be saddling a son of Lucky Pulpit with a chance to prove that his last son of Lucky Pulpit was no fluke.

Then again, so what if he was? At about this time last year, California Chrome was busy losing his stakes debut in the Willard L. Proctor Memorial at Hollywood Park, a race won by Kobe’s Back. A year later, at Belmont Park, California Chrome was going for the Triple Crown while Kobe’s Back was found in the Woody Stephens Stakes on the undercard. They both finished fourth, although I suspect one will be remembered longer than the other.

Horses change – no news flash there – and to pass judgment on a young horse so early in the game is to do a disservice to all concerned. The trend may be toward waiting longer to bring the more prized Thoroughbred possessions to the game, but there is something to be said for early initiation, if only to give a 2-year-old a small taste of the life that is to come.

Even in this more recent age, there are examples of horses who started early and stayed the course. Skip Away, made mostly of iron, began as a 2-year-old on June 16, 1995, and earned $9.6 million without ever going to Dubai. Rachel Alexandra made her first start on May 22, 2008. Fifty-one weeks later, she won the Preakness. Lure was on his way in a 2-year-old maiden race on June 13, 1991, and ended up in the Hall of Fame. Best Pal, another in the Hall, won his maiden voyage on May 18, 1990, and finally said farewell on Jan. 15, 1996.

The newly named Santa Anita Juvenile does not pretend to replace the old Hollywood Juvenile Championship. For starters, the meet ending a week from Sunday precludes Santa Anita from having a 2-year-old stakes of anything but local significance, and 5 1/2 furlongs hardly foretells the future.

In its heyday, though, the mid-July Hollywood Juvenile Championship was a real six-furlong prize. Its winners included classic winners Affirmed and Tomy Lee and a host of runners – among them Arrogate, Old Pueblo, Malicious, Royal Owl, Terlingua, Desert Wine, King Glorious, Mr. Purple, and Came Home – who went on to major accomplishments at age 3 and beyond.

The status of the Hollywood Juvenile Championship waned in the last decade, and its significance was usurped by the Best Pal Stakes at Del Mar. In the meantime, the W.L. Proctor Memorial, honoring the respected trainer, will be salvaged from the wreckage of Hollywood Park to be renewed at Los Alamitos on July 13.

California Chrome made his debut on April 26, 2013, earlier on the calendar than any of the seven entered in the Santa Anita Juvenile, including his Art Sherman stablemate, Kristi’s Copilot. All but the first-time starter Homer Matt are 1 for 1.

A son of the Harlan’s Holiday stallion Majesticperfection, Homer Matt is a $625,000 Ocala Breeders’ Sale Co. 2-year-old purchase owned by Gary Hartounian and Castleton Lyons. He has been training at San Luis Rey Downs for Peter Miller, who decided that the 5 1/2 furlongs of the Santa Anita Juvenile was as good a place as any to get things rolling.

“He’s the kind of colt I didn’t want to run five-eighths, but there were no 5 1/2-furlong maiden races,” Miller said. “They might outsprint him, but he’s a really good colt – real sound, real smart, real talented.”

It has become a custom in recent years to ask every trainer who leans toward the acquisition of precocious 2-year-olds to explain exactly why he or she is not following Ward’s lead and launching attacks on Royal Ascot. Miller, currently a close third in the Santa Anita standings, has made his mark with young horses like Set Play, Comma to the Top, and Majestic City. He was asked: “Why not Ascot?”

“Wesley’s a fine trainer and a friend of mine,” Miller said. “He’s done a great job. But sure, I could do it. I don’t think it’s all that difficult. You need the right horse and the owner willing to make the trip. And the ship from the West Coast is longer than from Kentucky or New York. I am thinking about it, though, definitely considering taking something over there next year. It looks like it could be fun.”

Miller’s other Santa Anita Juvenile runner is Global Magician, a son of Globalize (by Summer Squall), who cracked at first asking for Ellen Jackson on May 17 at Golden Gate Fields. Gary Barber and Ed Wachtel bought him privately after that and turned him over to Miller.

“He’s a real quick horse, and training well,” Miller said. “I wanted to get another race into him before the stake at Del Mar for Cal-breds.”

That would be the $100,000 Graduation Stakes on July 30. It’s not Ascot, but last year it was good enough to serve as the first stakes win for California Chrome.