In watching replays of this year's Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) at Santa Anita Park, it occurred to me that jockey Victor Espinoza had some tough choices aboard California Chrome.
California Chrome finished third in the Classic, just a neck behind winner Bayern. At about the three-sixteenths pole, I thought he looked like the winner but he wasn't able to get past Bayern or runner-up Toast of New York as those two dug in to maintain their positions through the stretch.
Horses coming around the final turn of the 2014 Breeders' Cup Classic - Wally Skalij - Buy this photo
California Chrome did make up nearly 2 1/2 lengths in the final half-mile of the 1 1/4-mile Classic that was completed in :49.66, which at first glance seems like an improvement of his Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) victory where he made up a half-length in a final half-mile run in :51.86. (I didn't research how much track shape and the speed of the two tracks being compared may have played into this, at 2 1/5 seconds I'm just going with the raw times here.)
After such a close Breeders' Cup Classic finish, one can only wonder if the outcome would have been different if California Chrome had not raced three wide through both turns. That wide run and his start from post 13 amounted to him running 41 feet farther than the winner according to TRAKUS.
California Chrome (left), Toast of New York, and Bayern in the final stretch of the 2014 Breeders' Cup Classic - Rick Samuels - Order this Photo
But keep in mind that California Chrome's dislike for being boxed in may have forced Espinoza's hand. In the first turn there were opportunities to move inside instead of racing three wide, but the Steve Coburn and Perry Martin homebred entered the Classic off his worst effort of the year, a sixth in the Pennsylvania Derby (gr. II), where the two-time classic winner displayed an aversion to racing behind horses and being boxed in. It made sense that Espinoza would trade some lost ground for a clear path in the Classic.
That said, I don't think California Chrome had the target on his back in the Classic that he did as the 4-5 favorite in the Pennsylvania Derby. Maybe some ground could have been saved without getting boxed in. But that observation has hindsight in its favor. We'll never know.
Espinoza was good with the three path.
"The outside post definitely helped me get the position I wanted, I had a good trip," Espinoza said. "On the backstretch I thought I had a chance to win, but I knew the other horse (Bayern) was going to be tough when he gets the lead like that."
California Chrome did race three wide in winning the Preakness Stakes (gr. I), so a somewhat wide trip certainly isn't insurmountable for the talented son of Lucky Pulpit. California Chrome's ideal early position appears to be the one taken in the Classic by Toast of New York: tracking a leader while racing in the clear. It's the racing style he used in his most impressive win of the season, a 5 1/4-length waltz to victory in the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I).
In the Classic he was tracking and in the clear, but the competition proved good enough to hold him off.
Perhaps against some lighter fields next year, California Chrome can improve his comfort level racing behind or boxed in by horses, which would add more options to his game when he starts in top races.
Of course, he's doing pretty well as it is.
Classic Trends Continue
Some trends noted by this blog in the weeks before the Breeders' Cup Classic continued in this year's race.
Only one Classic winner ever has finished worse than third in their start before the Classic: Arcangues. California Chrome came up short in his efforts to go against that trend while Bayern added to it, winning off his Pennsylvania Derby victory.
We also noted that each of the past 10 Classic winners had at least two starts in the 21 weeks before the Classic and five of the past six had started three times. California Chrome had just one start in that timeframe while Bayern started three times.
After the race, Espinoza suggested it was a factor.
"The last sixteenth, he (California Chrome) was digging as hard as he could, but getting just a little tired," Espinoza said. "I wish he had one more race. It was a little too much for him today."