12/31/2014 12:02PM

Jerardi: Big players gear up for a sequel to stellar 2014 racing season

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Barbara D. Livingston
Dual classic winner California Chrome will return to race in 2015, initially targeting the Feb. 7 San Antonio Stakes at Santa Anita.

Is there any chance 2015 can be as fascinating as 2014?

The answer obviously will be determined over time, but, given what we know about the top horses that will be running in 2015, the possibility for another phenomenal year is there.

Consider that at this time last year, Bayern was just about to make his first start, California Chrome had won only California-bred races, Untapable was a filly with more pedigree than achievement, and Main Sequence was coming off an 0-for-6 year in Europe with less than $50,000 in earnings. At least three of them will be voted 2014 divisional champions. One of them is almost certain to be Horse of the Year. All of them will be running in 2015. So will Shared Belief, who was unbeaten and about to be crowned 2-year-old champion a year ago.

So, where 2014 started with uncertainty, 2015 is going to start with the certainty of the Big 5 (and, if we are really lucky, Wise Dan) all returning to the races, and the Feb. 7 San Antonio at Santa Anita where Shared Belief and California Chrome are going to run against each other for the second time.

The Nov. 1 Breeders’ Cup Classic was exciting, but unsatisfying. California Chrome certainly got a chance to run and earned the best Beyer Speed Figure of his career. Shared Belief certainly was compromised by the wild start and the traffic right after the start. That the horse was beaten by less than four lengths strongly suggests that three-way photo may have been a four-way photo if not for the start.

We will never know what might have happened in the Classic if Bayern had not taken that left turn. Would there have been a speed duel? Would Shared Belief have gotten great position? Would Victor Espinoza have been able to wait a little longer on California Chrome?

If we are lucky, the picture may become clearer in 2015. The Big 3 from the 3-year-old male division, which combined for nearly $10 million in earnings and 13 graded stakes wins in 2014, are not only all running, they are all based in California. No reason to think the San Antonio is the only race they will run against each other this year.

Is Bayern capable of earning those giant figures only if loose on the lead? Or was that fight he showed in the stretch run of the Classic a dimension that will make him a horse very hard to get by, no matter the circumstance?

Can California Chrome learn to run inside horses and still have that great acceleration he showed in all his great victories? Was the amazing spring of 2014 California Chrome just a tease to a bigger, faster, stronger 2015 version?

Is Shared Belief as good on dirt as he is on synthetic surfaces? His four dirt races, one at Los Alamitos and three at Santa Anita, have all been excellent efforts, but none gave off the same aura as the 2013 Shared Belief who was so impressive on the Cushion Track at Hollywood Park or the Shared Belief that ran away from the field in the 2014 Pacific Classic on Polytrack at Del Mar and earned a 115 Beyer.

So we have those three, plus Untapable and Main Sequence. Put the filly and the grass horse into the money equation and the 2014 earnings swell to nearly $15.4 million and the graded stakes wins to 23, which would include 17 Grade 1 wins, among them the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Breeders’ Cup Classic, BC Distaff, BC Turf, Kentucky Oaks, Pacific Classic, Santa Anita Derby, Haskell, United Nations, Joe Hirsch Turf Classic, and Cotillion.

Perhaps there has been a recent year where we had that many horses who won that many major races coming back to race again, but I can’t remember it. And the Big 5 are not just horses that were in and out of form. They ran a combined 36 times in 2014 with 27 wins.

I will always look back on 2014 as one of my favorite years because we had really good horses running brilliantly in the best races all year long. I felt fortunate to have a front-row seat for most of it and feel confident this book has a few more chapters whose pages need turning.