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The wait is almost over for California Chrome’s return to racing in Saturday’s Grade II $200,000 San Diego Handicap.
All that remains for the No. 1 horse in North America and the sport’s all-time leading money earner (more than $12.5 million) is a one-mile jog early Saturday morning before taking on four rivals in the 1 1/16-mile race, the ninth of 10 on the program with an approximate post of 6 p.m.
“That’s what I do with all my horses the morning of a race,” trainer Art Sherman said of the morning exercise. “They get used to a routine and you don’t want to change anything and keep ‘em alert, especially since he (Chrome) doesn’t run until so late in the day.”
Since it is the San Diego Handicap not all horses are weighted equally. California Chrome has the highest impost, 126 pounds, Dortmund is second at 121, Follow Me Crev and Win the Space 116 and Crittenden 114.
Hard Aces (118) and Soi Phet (115) were scratched yesterday from the San Diego Handicap to run in Sunday’s Cougar II Handicap and California Dreamin’ Stakes, respectively.
“He carries about 140 (exercise rider and tack) every morning and he won carrying 132 in Dubai. He’s a big strong horse and I’m not worried about that,” Sherman said. “I think (126) is fair, I kind of figured that’s what he would get.”
Sherman, 79, is old enough to remember a time when racing secretaries commonly assigned 130-plus pounds to the sport’s stars and it was a badge of honor for them to overcome the disadvantage. Dr. Fager’s last race was a six-length victory carrying 139 pounds in the Vosburgh Handicap on November 2, 1968 at Aqueduct. Two of Kelso’s 39 lifetime wins came while toting a 136-pound impost.
That was then. This is now.
“We’re not as inclined to really penalize the best horses,” said Tom Robbins, Del Mar’s Executive Vice President, Racing. “We don’t want to lose the best horses (over weight disputes), but at the same time we want the others to feel like they have a chance.
“Not just here, but around the country, the trend is to do away with handicaps in favor of weight-for-age or other conditions so that an owner or trainer knows pretty well what they’re going to get when they’re considering a race.”
The storied Whitney Handicap at Saratoga is now the Whitney Invitational Handicap, Del Mar Racing Secretary David Jerkens points out. The “handicap” designation has previously been dropped from major races like the Eddie Read, John C. Mabee and lesser ones like the California Dreamin’ and Solana Beach here.
“Will the San Diego be a handicap next year? It might not be,” Robbins said. An executive decision on the part of Robbins and Jerkens, in accord with the Thoroughbred Owners of California and it could happen.
The field for the San Diego from the rail out with oddmaker Russ Hudak’s revised morning line: Dortmund (Gary Stevens, 7-5), Crittenden (Martin Garcia, 20-1), Follow Me Crev (Alonso Quinonez, 20-1), California Chrome (Victor Espinoza, 3-5) and Win The Space (Mike Smith, 6-1).
Hoppertunity, the 7-5 morning line favorite for Sunday’s Grade III $100,000 Cougar II Handicap, was scratched Friday morning, reducing the field to five and moving Hard Aces to 8-5 favoritism on the morning line.
“(Hoppertunity) ran a little temperature yesterday, but he looks good today,” trainer Bob Baffert said Friday morning. “I’m pretty disappointed because he was doing so well. I don’t know what his next (race) might be. We’ll have to wait and see.”
Baffert has used the 1 ½-mile Cougar II as a prep for the $1 million TVG Pacific Classic for horses in the past, most notably with Richard’s Kid in 2009, the first of back-to-back Classic wins for the runner, and the race annually produces a Classic starter or two.
Hoppertunity, a 5-year-old son of Any Given Saturday owned by Mike Pegram, Karl Watson and Paul Weitman, finished third to California Chrome in the $10 million Dubai World Cup in March and fourth to Melatonin in the Gold Cup at Santa Anita in June.
The field for the Cougar II: Infobedad (Joe Talamo, 15-1), Energia Fribby (Drayden Van Dyke, 10-1), Seve’s Road (Rafael Bejarano, 8-1), Hard Aces (Santiago Gonzalez, 8-5) and Quick Casablanca (Tyler Baze, 4-1).
Saturday’s Grade II $200,000 San Clemente Handicap has been largely overshadowed in the build-up for California Chrome’s San Diego Handicap two races later on the program. And overshadowed is also an appropriate term for the case of 3-year-old filly Stays in Vegas compared to champion stablemate Songbird.
With Songbird away at Saratoga for Sunday’s $500,000 Coaching Club American Oaks, the San Clemente could be a coming out party for Stays In Vegas, the daughter of City Zip owned in part by the Jungle Racing LLC Stable of sports talk radio host Jim Rome.
“It (San Clemente) is always a good race every year and we have a filly that’s coming into it perfectly,” said Dan Ward, assistant to trainer Jerry Hollendorfer. “She’s a remarkably consistent filly, never runs a bad race and it looks like we have some speed in front of us. Having it start in the stretch, rather than the chute, we should be able to maneuver and get over from the No. 10 post and save some ground.
“He (Alex Solis) knows her and he’s very confident. He’ll ride her well.”
In compiling earnings of $319,600, Stays in Vegas has a record of 5-1-1 from eight lifetime starts. Her only off-the-board result was in last year’s Del Mar Debutante where the first three finishers were Songbird, Pretty N Cool and Land Over Sea, the latter two also becoming major stakes winners.
Stays In Vegas won the Grade III Senorita in May at Santa Anita and was a close-up third in the Grade II Honeymoon in June.
Del Mar Thoroughbred Club
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