A former champ faces an uphill battle for Dubai World Cup glory
At 6:30 a.m. on a Friday, the opulent glass and steel Meydan racecourse in Dubai is nearly empty with the first light slowly seeping through a thin curtain of desert haze.
Only the silhouettes of two mounted racing stewards, snug in their red jackets near the rail, indicate an upcoming track action that could heat up the cold daybreak in the horse racing capital of the United Arab Emirates.
And just as the floodlights illuminating the dirt track go off, one of the stewards says: “He always comes 10 minutes before the horse.”
As soon as he finished his sentence, a man with narrow spectacles wearing a black jacket, jeans and a baseball cap emerges from a tunnel leading to the track, binoculars hanging tightly over his shoulder.
Assistant trainer Alan Sherman, who signed up for the early seven furlong work, will be accompanied by none other than California Chrome, the 2014 Horse of the Year, whose rags-to-riches story has captured the imagination of thousands of American racing fans.
At 7:00 a.m. sharp, the chestnut horse, in four white stockings and a distinctive blaze, pops up in the distance. It is a two-and-a-half mile ( four-kilometer) walk to the track from his temporary residence in a quarantine barn, on the outskirts of the 60,000-spectator racing venue, a far cry from the 200 yards (183 meters) he is used to back home in Los Alamitos, California.
Chromie, as his regular jockey Victor Espinoza likes to call him, walks slowly, ears pricked, giving the sandy track a nonchalant glance, before Sherman hides his white facial stripe under the silver grey blinkers of a new partnership—California Chrome LLC.
Aside from the longer walk, Dubai feels like home for Chrome, Sherman says. “He’s a very smart horse. He does not get worked up about anything. He’s pretty level-headed all the time. He knew where he was when he got here.”
The five-year old winner of the first two legs of the elusive Triple Crown series in 2014, the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, has apparently matured, strengthened and filled up since finishing as runner-up in the $10 million Dubai World Cup last March, stunned by a curveball that was Dubai crown prince’s very own eight-year old veteran Prince Bishop.
World Cup Prep
Now, Chrome, bred by Perry Martin and Steve Coburn for as little as $10,000 is back in Dubai to set the record straight in a bid to retire this year as one of the top money earners of all time.
“He’s a bigger, stronger horse this year. He’s very focused on what he wants to do and I think he’s going to put on a pretty good show for us,” says Sherman, assigned by his father Art, a trainer, to get Chrome in shape for his Dubai challenge.
With earnings estimated at $6.4 million so far, the son of Lucky Pulpit still has some catching up to do to match the legendary Cigar, who won the inaugural running of the World Cup in 1996, retiring as the lead money-earning U.S. thoroughbred with nearly $10 million.
This year, connections that include Perry Martin and Taylor Made Farm, shipped Chrome to Dubai early, on January 21, to give him time to acclimate, unlike last year when he arrived in the city after a 15-hour flight, just two weeks before the big night.
His readiness for the March 26 World Cup will now be tested in a handicap at Meydan on February 25, instead of a prep race in the United States like last year when he lost to Shared Belief in San Antonio Invitational Stakes.
Such a route has paid off for another American runner, Curlin, who came to Dubai in early February 2008 to breeze through a handicap, before clinching the World Cup title at the old Nad Al Sheba racecourse.
The handicap picked by Chrome’s crew is over the same distance as their main March target—2,000 meters or 10 furlongs.
“He’s been doing great since he’s been here, very happy with him. He is holding his weight well, actually gained weight and am looking forward to running him (in the handicap),” Sherman says.
Last year, Chrome’s Horse of the Year reign was a quiet one after his globetrotting ambitions were cut short by injuries. Instead, American Pharoah stole the headlines, snatching the Triple Crown glory for the first time in 37 years.
But in Santa Anita’s G2 San Pasqual Stakes on January 10, his first outing since the 2015 World Cup, old Chrome seemed to be back in style, hitting the lead at the quarter pole to bring home a one-and-a-quarter length victory in the 1 1/16-mile contest. After the race, Art Sherman said he believed Chrome had a lot more in his tank than what he showed.
“Coming off a nine-month layoff and running the big race, he did his first start out, I just wanted him to relax a bit after that race, get him over here, let him settle in,” Sherman junior says.
“We started training him and he has not taken a step backward. He has just been going forward ever since he came here from Taylor Made.”
Meydan’s dirt track, which replaced the artificial Tapeta surface, which was removed before last year’s Dubai World Cup races, also seems to suit Chrome well, Sherman says.
“I like it. He seems to get a hold of it well. It is a little sandier here [than in California]. He did not mind it last year and this year it is better than last year. It is a little firmer.”
“It [the layoff] was a blessing actually. It made everybody just kind of sit back and be patient and let the horse grow and it really helped him out. He is a different horse this year than he was last year,” he says, adding that he hopes to get a good race in the handicap.
“That gives us a month until the World Cup, which I think is the perfect timing. Usually, their third race off a layoff is when they are normally at their best. That’s the game plan.”
However, the path to securing the biggest $6 million slice from the world’s richest thoroughbred race, will be anything but easy for Chrome, currently seen as a 4-1 favorite.
Nominations include Curlin’s son Keen Ice, the only horse to defeat champion American Pharoah last year.
Dortmund, the 2015 Santa Anita Derby winner trained by Bob Baffert, and Fascinating Rock, the 2015 Champion Stakes winner prepared by Dermot Weld, are the highest rated horses among the World Cup nominees at 123, two notches above Chrome.
For the home side, Godolphin’s Wood Memorial victor, Frosted, has already made a mark after landing in Dubai.
Trained by Kiaran McLaughlin, the four-year old annihilated his rivals by a five-length margin in round two of the $250,000 G2 Al Maktoum Challenge on February 4, breaking a track record of over 1,900 meters. No wonder he is now favored at odds of 9/2, just after Chrome.
“Frosted ran a great race the other day. That was pretty impressive. I can’t worry about Frosted. As long as Chrome’s healthy and happy he will run to beat him. That’s for sure,” says Sherman.
“There are some really good horses coming in that race. Not only the ones that are already here but horses coming from America to run. This is probably going to be one of the best World Cups they’ve had for a while as far as the quality of horses.”
Mike de Kock-trained Mubtaahij, the 2015 UAE Derby winner, another local challenger looking to spoil Chrome’s ride.
American Hall of Fame trainer Baffert has already tasted the World Cup victory twice, with Silver Charm in 1998 and Captain Steve in 2001, while McLaughlin won the trophy when saddling Invasor in 2007.
Asked whether he will do anything differently in the upcoming big race, where Chrome will again partner Espinoza, to pre-empt a Prince Bishop-like upset, Sherman says: “No, not strategy-wise. The horse has got tactical speed so he won’t be far off the lead.”
Trailing Dortmund and Fascinating Rock in the rating, Chrome has not managed to win a 2,000-meter race, or longer, since his 2014 Kentucky Derby triumph, raising questions about his stamina that were dismissed by Sherman.
“I do not have the concern of the distance of the race. He won going a mile and a quarter already, he ran fourth in Belmont going a mile and a half and he was not stopping that day.”
Sherman also says that he feels no pressure to win from the horse’s owners or the large fan base: “This horse tries every time he runs so this time should be no different.”
“We wouldn’t be here if we did not think we had a good chance to win. We did not come here to lose, that’s for sure. But it’s a race, a horse race, so anything can happen. As long as he puts in a big effort and gets a good clean trip, everything will work out.”