03/25/2015 12:01PM

Hovdey: Sheikh Hamdan, minister of handicapping?


There are certain Thoroughbreds who live for the spotlight of center stage, whether they know it or not. They exist outside their skin, generous to a fault, eager to please.

Seattle Slew was such an animal. So were Alysheba and Easy Goer, Cigar and Point Given, both Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra. Affirmed and Spectacular Bid, great as they were, leaned more toward the aloof as consummate pros, while champions like Sunday Silence and Tiznow spent more time dealing with internal demons than playing to the crowd.

California Chrome is a show horse, and one of the most popular the game has seen. Like most media darlings, he draws fans and attention in amounts disproportionate to his accomplishments, which is saying a lot since his accomplishments include two legs of the American Triple Crown and the title of Horse of the Year. He’s got the looks of a pony on parade, a background that reads like a fairy tale, and a name that would have gone wasted on a lesser beast. Basically, he’s a four-legged Benedict Cumberbatch.

For the first time since the Belmont Stakes last June, California Chrome will have all eyes turned his way on the grandest possible stage Saturday night when he goes forth in the $10 million Dubai World Cup. Now in its 20th running, the World Cup will be broadcast live on the Fox Sports 1 network as well as TVG.

The variables facing California Chrome are many, including the recently installed sand-based surface over which the World Cup will be run. No less an authority than Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid al Maktoum weighed in last week that California Chrome might be in trouble since he’s never run on anything like the Meydan surface before.

Since Sheikh Hamdan is the deputy ruler of Dubai and minister of finance for the United Arab Emirates, this would be something like President Obama telling West Virginia that the hoop is going to get a lot smaller now that they’re up against Kentucky, and they might as well spare themselves the trouble.

Apparently, though, the sheikh had not bothered to note that California Chrome had never run on anything like the quirky Churchill Downs surface before he won the Kentucky Derby, or the deep-dish sand of Pimlico before winning the Preakness, or even the low tide expanse of Belmont Park before being bumped, cut, and pinched while finishing a brave fourth in the Belmont Stakes. California Chrome might have been less than his best for the Pennsylvania Derby and beaten narrowly on the square in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, but he has never, ever come back with the excuse that he didn’t handle the track.

Sheikh Hamdan, whose younger brother Mohammed runs the World Cup show, said he likes the chances of the house horses African Story and Prince Bishop on Saturday night, while tossing in the Japanese dirt horse Hokko Tarumae to fill out his tri. This reporter always will defer to local knowledge (did I mention he was the deputy ruler of Dubai?), but to these eyes, the video evidence of those three horses gives them absolutely no chance at the grand prize.

African Story is a quality runner who won the World Cup last year on Tapeta, but he was a reluctant winner of the final major Dubai prep, performing like a horse badly homesick for grass or synthetics. Prince Bishop is an honest old boy who will come running at the end but couldn’t catch California Chrome or Lea with a net. As for Hokko Tarumae, let’s just say he would be more at ease running against the boys back home.

In fact, after watching the winter’s competition from Dubai, it appeared as if Sheikh Hamdan himself had what looked like a natural-born dirt monster named Tamarkuz who possessed the speed to give the Americans all they could handle. So, where will he be on Saturday night? In the $1 million Godolphin Mile, of course.

“Tamarkuz is a miler, and the extra two furlongs of the big race is beyond his stamina,” Sheikh Hamdan was quoted as saying in the local press. “The trainer told me that he will stay the extra distance, but I don’t agree with him. I have told him that my horse is a front-runner and won’t go beyond the mile distance.”

The sheikh did concede that the training of Tamarkuz could be tweaked to make a run at the 2016 World Cup. Still, can you imagine Dinny Phipps slapping down Shug McGaughey like that in public, or Jim Rome telling Jerry Hollendorfer that he ought to try Shared Belief on turf? It’s good to be the king.

Now that they’ve settled in, the long flight to Dubai for California Chrome and Lea should not be an issue. The track surface, unless they take a plow to it on race night, should not be an issue. The lack of Lasix for one race, at least for non-bleeders, should not be an issue.

What should bother the backers of California Chrome – from trainers Art and Alan Sherman and owners Perry Martin and Steve Coburn on down – is that their champion has had exactly one race in the last four months, and in that race, the San Antonio Stakes, he surrendered willingly to Shared Belief. There is such a thing as taking too much on faith, but if he wins the World Cup despite his lack of recent court time, then California Chrome is every bit the world-class superstar he thinks he is.