Simon: California Chrome Has Earned Horse of the Year

by | 12.01.2014 | 11:18am
California Chrome

I do not believe the Breeders' Cup Classic should automatically decide Horse of the Year. Didn't feel that way in 2010 when Blame beat Zenyatta by a head-bob, nor do I now.

To this day I still have hair-pulling arguments over Blame versus Zenyatta, usually with male friends incorrectly supporting their Y chromosome equine counterpart. Their arguments remain as weak as they ever were. Never mind that the superstar mare bumbled like a hobbled goat over a surface she clearly despised; forget how she reached deep into her ample heart to stage an impossible rush and finish within a head of 20-for-20 career perfection. All that mattered to my nattering cohorts was that Blame reached the wire first by the length of my fist. End of story. Only it really wasn't. To be honest, Blame's record that year was worthy of an older divisional champion and nothing more: Four wins in five starts, three Grade 1s, stuffed by Haynesfield in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Good, not great, certainly a long way from immortal. Ah, but Zenyatta. Despite her near-miss in that twilit race, there was one for the ages—a horse we'll be talking about long after today's record books have moldered to dust.

Who will we talk about ten years … a hundred years … from now when 2014 comes up for discussion? My hunch is it won't be Bayern.

Since Bayern's narrow Classic triumph over a fast-finishing California Chrome, I've experienced a sense of déjà vu, but with a twist. This time, despite a modest and muffled drumbeat of support for Bayern as Horse of the Year, I've encountered far more vocal outrage leveled in his direction—and a monumental willingness to toss his Classic onto history's trash heap. Bayern, as we know, took out a chunk of his competition at the start, changed the entire complexion of the race, inadvertently (or not) set things up to suit his running style to a tee … then found himself on the receiving end of what smelled to many like “home cooked” reffing.

Anger vibrated palpably through cyberspace. Santa Anita's stewards mutated overnight from respected guardians of the rules of racing into an evil trinity, as blind as the three mice of fable. “The worst call in all of sports,” one wordsmith raged. … “Almost as incompetent as Congress,” another pounded into his keyboard.  … “Racing is becoming as irrelevant as boxing,” ranted a third. Interspersed in this electronic commentary was a cascading lava flow of expletives-deleted, personal insults, and fury-drenched venom: “Sickening” … “Dirty politics” … “Disgraceful” … “Egregious” … “Joke of a decision” … “Ugly and ignorant” … “Horrendous” … “Inexcusable” … “Criminal” … “A great sport ruined by corrupt people …” “Screw horse racing.”

More than a few implied the stewards feared offending Baffert on his home turf; others harrumphed away, promising to boycott racing altogether, or at least to refrain from future wagering at Santa Anita. Hyperbole was thick as springtime grass, but the underlying sentiment was clear: The Classic wasn't fair, it wasn't clean, and the officials got it wrong, wrong, wrong!

Let us be clear: Though the stewards themselves may be indefensible in some eyes, Baffert himself a local tyrant with dictatorial powers, and jockey Martin Garcia a thug in silks and stirrups, Bayern himself is an innocent—and a good one at that. Certainly, the son of Offlee Wild was no one-hit wonder as a dual 2014 Grade 1 winner and track record setter. But he is also and undeniably a one-dimensional, front-running freak-out who requires an uncontested lead, without which … he flops. Roughed up early in the Preakness, Bayern never got close to the front and was beaten a country mile. Even with the lead, he fizzled to last in the Travers; was passed by a 40-to-1 shot in the Arkansas Derby; and was disqualified in the Derby Trial after physically mauling a nonentity named Embellishing Bob. Sound like a Horse of the Year candidate to you? Only if you believe the Classic is the prime determining factor for Horse of the Year.

As I said, that's not how I roll.

Though some will make a case for four-time Grade 1 grass winner Main Sequence or two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan, I'm going to assume at this point that Horse of the Year for 2014 will be a four-way race between a sophomore quartet: Shared Belief, Untapable, Bayern, and California Chrome. I've eliminated Bayern; now, toss out the filly and the gelding.

Good as she is, Untapable is no Rachel Alexandra, Zenyatta, nor even a Havre de Grace. A four-time Grade 1 winner, yes, but she flopped something awful in the Haskell—and if recent history is a guide, a filly must beat males to attain the top honor. Trot out any excuse you want on her behalf, but Untapable's past performance line that day remains singularly unimpressive.

And Shared Belief? Simply not enough. What did he actually beat this past year? Just five Grade 1 winners (including an over-the-hill Game on Dude), compared to 12 for California Chrome and ten for Bayern. In the Classic he had ample excuses for his first defeat, but with or without them, Shared Belief never for a minute looked like a horse with winning on his mind.

So, it comes down to California Chrome, undisputedly racing's biggest name of 2014.

Horse of the Year should first and foremost be based on racetrack achievement, and Chrome's record was golden. He won the Kentucky Derby. He won the Preakness. On a bloodied foot he finished within two lengths of the first Triple Crown sweep in 36 years. Then he won on grass. He ran from January to the end of November, like the iron horses of old, outrunning almost every major male rival in his division: Bayern, Tonalist, Wicked Strong, Shared Belief, V. E. Day. He closed on Bayern like a freight train in the Classic, falling short by a mere neck. He notched six wins in nine starts, five in graded stakes. He was a bi-coastal quadruple Grade 1-winner and earner of more than $4-million.

One might argue that in a secondary sense and in a close contest, Horse of the Year could—and maybe even should—come down to something more than cold statistical record. California Chrome was flashy, charismatic, blessed with interesting connections and a compelling wrong-side-of-the tracks story that folks could relate to. He drew huge, happy crowds to otherwise half-empty race courses, from California to Maryland to New York. Even in defeat, people cheered him. He made headlines. Journalists clamored to write about him, and their stories were upbeat and positive.

Horse racing is a sport in trouble, some say on the wane … combating public image problems and slowly losing its fan base to other entertainment options. But through the spring and into November, even non-fans were paying attention. And it wasn't Bayern whose name was emblazoned nationwide across countless purple T-shirts, on the brims of hats, and on numerous supportive placards waving at rail-side. For a window in time, a chestnut beauty from out of the West accomplished some wonderful things, and in so doing, hauled racing out of the shadows and into the limelight. California Chrome single-handedly made an ancient and troubled sport relevant … in the very best of ways.

Mary Simon, a two-time Eclipse Award winner for outstanding writing, is author of two books: Racing Through the Century and A History of the Thoroughbred in California

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