Bigger, better California Chrome ready for second shot at Dubai World Cup

In a photo provided by Benoit Photo, California Chrome and jockey Victor Espinoza win the Grade II, $200,000 San Pasqual Stakes horse race Saturday, Jan. 9, 2016, at Santa Anita in Arcadia, Calif.
In a photo provided by Benoit Photo, California Chrome and jockey Victor Espinoza win the Grade II, $200,000 San Pasqual Stakes horse race Saturday, Jan. 9, 2016, at Santa Anita in Arcadia, Calif. AP

The challenge before California Chrome is the same one the champion colt was being readied for 12 months ago. That is pretty much where the similarities between his venture to Meydan Racecourse last year for the $10 million Dubai World Cup and his expected presence in the world’s richest race this Saturday end.

The current incarnation of Chrome is performing in a way he hasn’t since taking Thoroughbred racing to the brink of a fairytale journey in 2014. While most of the principal players remain in place, a partnership with Taylor Made Farm has revamped the intensity around the camp and re-energized the horse.

The 2014 Horse of the Year is back to being a marquee name in a race loaded with accomplished adversaries, and he will head a salty American contingent trying to reclaim its old form in a race it previously dominated.

One year after finishing second in the Dubai World Cup and subsequently being sidelined for the rest of 2015 because of a cannon bone bruise, a new-look California Chrome has a chance to surpass two-time Horse of the Year Curlin as the richest North American runner in history should he claim the $6 million winner’s share of the purse in the headline race of Saturday’s World Cup card. The Art Sherman-trainee is one of five American-based runners, all Grade I winners, in the 12-horse field and landed the No. 11 post position when the draw was held Wednesday.

The Dubai World Cup anchors a nine-race card worth $30 million in purses on Saturday with the signature race set to go off at 1 p.m. EDT.

Where American-based horses won seven of the first 14 editions of the World Cup, North American runners struggled when the event moved from Nad al Sheba in 2010 to glittering Meydan and its all-weather main track. Last year’s World Cup was the first contested back on dirt after Meydan replaced its synthetic Tapeta surface, and the fact California Chrome managed a runner-up effort behind Prince Bishop was a credit to his class given the contentious atmosphere around him at the time.

Taylor Made turns the page

The decision to go to Dubai in 2015 sparked in-fighting among California Chrome’s connections, most notably between majority owner Perry Martin and Steve Coburn, who co-bred the colt with Martin and owned a 30 percent share. When tensions within the group hit a peak last summer, Taylor Made Farm bought out Coburn’s portion of the 2014 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner, brought him to their Nicholasville-based farm for some needed recuperation and sent him back into training with Sherman in October about 160 pounds heavier and with a group of partners finally on the same page.

“You know it was a new endeavor for them (the Coburns). The first horse he ever owned turns out to be California Chrome and. … it was kind of overwhelming,” Sherman said during a national teleconference this week. “Sometimes you might get a little bit carried away. but now they’re on the right track and they have people around them who are real horsemen and looking out for everybody. The atmosphere is so much easier for me being a trainer and knowing we have horsemen behind us.

“I thought after last year, he’d go to the breeding farm and I’d never see him again. But Taylor Made did such a wonderful job with him. (Last year) was just hard on him, he needed to have a little time off, the horse never really had much opportunity to get turned out. And what a difference it’s made.”

California Chrome never did lose the rabid fan base he built during his Triple Crown attempt in 2014. And in his first two starts in this his 5-year-old season, he has emulated the form that has earned him four Grade I triumphs and $6,532,650 in earnings to date when he captured the Grade II San Pasqual Stakes on Jan. 9 over a field that included fellow Dubai World Cup entrant Hoppertunity and then shipped to Dubai early to win a 1¼-mile handicap race at Meydan on Feb. 25 while carrying 132 pounds.

“He does everything just right and he just looks so terrific,” Sherman said. “He is just striding out and looking good. He’s the picture of health, I’ve never seen him in this perfect condition that he is now. He has just turned into an individual that you can’t believe.”

Espinoza likes the new Chrome

Jockey Victor Espinoza, who also piloted 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, has echoed the sentiments that the California Chrome he sits on now is a more handy runner that his younger self. He will need to use every bit of the colt’s ability to fend off his 11 rivals Saturday with Grade I winners Frosted and Mshawish figuring to be the toughest challengers.

Frosted, winner of the Grade I Wood Memorial last year, is conditioned by Lexington native Kiaran McLaughlin, who spent a decade training in Dubai and is attempting to win his second Dubai World Cup having saddled eventual Hall of Famer Invasor to victory in 2007. Frosted — who will break from post No. 9 on Saturday — made a spectacular run in his first start since the Breeders’ Cup Classic last October when he rolled to a 5-length win in the Group II Al Maktoum Challenge Round 2 on Feb. 4 in a track-record time of 1:56.67 for 1,900 meters (1 3/16 miles).

“Frosted will probably have to run the best race of his life to win, but he can do it. He looks fabulous and has worked well," McLaughlin said.

Al Shaqab Racing’s Mshawish — who like California Chrome will stand at Taylor Made upon his retirement — was a Grade I winner on turf last year who has been every bit as impressive since switching to the main track. The son of Medaglia d’Oro won the Grade III Hal’s Hope and Grade I Donn Handicap in his first two starts this season and has blossomed physically as he seeks his first win at 10 furlongs.

“When we first got him, he was very difficult — he was strong and hard to handle,” Nick Bush, exercise rider for trainer Todd Pletcher, said of Mshawish. “Every time I work him now on the dirt, he gives me 100 percent. Now that we are figuring him out, he’s unreal. I think he is better on the dirt than the turf, for sure.”

Alicia Wincze Hughes: 859-231-1676, @horseracinghl

The American contingent

U.S.-based representatives in the $10 million Dubai World Cup:

Keen Ice (PP 1, trainer Dale Romans): The horse who defeated Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in the Grade I Travers Stakes last August has been struggling to find his stride since, suffering four subsequent losses. Was seventh in the Al Maktoum Challenge Round 3 at Meydan on March 5 and needs to catch the perfect pace scenario in order to mount his closing bid.

Mshawish (PP 2, trainer Todd Pletcher): A Grade I winner on turf last season, the son of Medaglia d’Oro is coming in off a 2-length score in the Grade I Donn Handicap on Feb. 6. Finished a game third behind Solow in the Dubai Turf last year despite battling a foot bruise.

Frosted (PP 9, trainer Kiaran McLaughlin): In his first start since the Breeders’ Cup Classic last October, the Grade I-winning son of Tapit broke the track record at Meydan for 1,900 meters (1 3/16 miles) when he rolled to a 5-length win in the Group II Al Maktoum Challenge Round 2 on Feb. 4. Has been working brilliantly in Dubai since.

Hoppertunity (PP 10, trainer Bob Baffert): Won the Grade II San Antonio Stakes by a nose on Feb. 6 to snap a nine-race losing streak dating to February 2015. Like Keen Ice, needs to catch the right pace scenario and have a perfect trip to pull off the upset.

California Chrome (PP 11, trainer Art Sherman): Sherman said the 2014 Horse of the Year is “5 lengths better” form-wise than he was when he ran second in the 2015 Dubai World Cup. Captured the Grade II San Pasqual in his season debut on Jan. 9 and won a 1¼-mile handicap race at Meydan by 2 lengths on Feb. 25. Will surpass Curlin as the highest-earning horse in North American history with a victory.

Other notable U.S.-based runners on Dubai World Cup card:

Frank Conversation (Doug O’Neill): $2 million UAE Derby

X Y Jet (Jorge Navarro): $2 million Dubai Golden Shaheen

Confrontation (Kiaran McLaughlin): $2 million Dubai Golden Shaheen

Lady Shipman (Kiaran McLaughlin): $1 million Al Quoz Sprint

Marking (Kiaran McLaughlin): $1 million Godolphin Mile


Dubai World Cup Day

Television coverage on TVG begins at 5 a.m. EDT. Post time for the Dubai World Cup is 1 p.m. EDT.