The 2016 racing season swings into gear this weekend with the Grade 2 San Pasqual at Santa Anita Park and the return of California Chrome, the 5-year-old dual Classic winner, who will start for the first time since his second-place finish in the Dubai World Cup last March.
Kentucky Derby points are available as well on Saturday at Santa Anita with the Grade 3 Sham Stakes offering qualifying points of 10-4-2-1 for the top four finishers. Collected, a Bob Baffert-trainee is the 3-1 favorite and Dressed in Hermes (7-2) is the second choice for trainer Janet Armstrong.
Return of California Chrome
With the death of Shared Belief and the retirement of American Pharoah and other stars such as Honor Code, Liam’s Map and Tonalist, the 2014 Derby and Preakness winner is the biggest name in the racing game heading into 2016. The son of Lucky Pulpit is the 4-5 favorite in the field of eight going 1 1/16-miles at the Great Race Place.
His main competition will come from perpetual runner-up Hoppertunity (5-2), who will look to defend his San Pasqual, which happens to be his only win in 2015. Imperative (6-1), a 6-year-old Bernardini gelding is the third choice. His two best races in 2015 were second place finishes to Dortmund in the G3 Native Diver and a second to Moreno in the G2 Charles Town Classic.
Triple Crown winning jockey Victor Espinoza retains the mount aboard California Chrome and will look to get off to a big start to the racing year.
The three finalists for the 17 different categories of Eclipse Awards were announced on Wednesday by the NTRA and there were not a lot of surprises within the top three in each of the categories. Team American Pharoah was represented in six of the 17 categories. American Pharoah was up for Horse of the Year and 3-year-old honors; Bob Baffert for Trainer; Victor Espinoza for Jockey and Zayat Stables for both Owner and Breeder categories.
The three horses up for Horse of the Year honors were Pharoah, Beholder and Runhappy, the Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner. The usual noise was made about foreign horses that ran only once in North America being nominated. The top three first place votes in each category are named finalists and will be present at Gulfstream Park next Saturday night (Jan. 16) for the annual awards ceremony.
I don’t get too worked up about the foreign nominees, as most probably won’t be the ones standing at the podium at the end of the night. Only the first place votes count, so why voters have to spend time thinking about second and third place votes when they don’t amount to anything renders them useless to me.
The toughest categories to choose a winner for me were Top Jockey and Female Sprinter. I went with Javier Castellano over Victor Espinoza based on his full body of work, even though Espinoza pulled off the first Triple Crown in 37 years. Castellano’s astounding success at Saratoga winning the Hopeful, Vanderbilt, Woodward, Alabama, Whitney and Travers (beating American Pharoah).
In the Female Sprinter category I was torn between La Verdad and Lady Shipman, so I went with the dirt horse that had a decent year winning four graded stakes and finished second to the other finalist, Wavell Avenue in the BC Filly & Mare Sprint.
Finalists that were not on my ballot: Runhappy (Horse of the Year, 3-year-old colt), Golden Horn (Male Turf Horse), Found (Female Turf Horse), Midwest Thoroughbreds (Owner), and Darley (Breeder).
Those on my ballot that did not make the cut: Honor Code (Horse of the Year), Frosted (3-year-old colt), Mondialiste (Male Turf Horse), Lady Eli (Female Turf Horse), Goldolphin (Owner) and Adena Springs (Breeder). Each of these garnered my third place vote, except for Lady Eli who I placed second in the Female Turf Horse category.
The only foreign horse that ran once that I included as a finalist was Found in the 3-year-old filly category for beating the boys in the Breeders’ Cup Mile who I placed third. Other than her, I stayed away from foreign horses that ran only once on the continent.
The top two look very tough in here, but don’t ignore the Square Eddie, Found Money who is 6-1 and has won both trips on the Santa Anita strip. We’ll see what Dressed in Hermes can do on the dirt after four straight races on the grass and with Hall of Famer Mike Smith in the irons.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.