DEL MAR — When I filled out my ballot to choose my picks for horse racing’s 2014 Eclipse Award winners, the one thing I couldn’t get past about California Chrome was how much the colt dominated the sport in April and May and what his Zenyatta-like appeal and run meant to horse racing.
Yes, California Chrome went from mid-May to almost December without a win, losing three. But his wins in the Santa Anita Derby, Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes set up a dramatic run in the Belmont Stakes for the Triple Crown. That was the deciding factor for me. I picked California Chrome as the top 3-year-old male horse and Horse of the Year on my Eclipse Award ballot.
Of the 3-year-olds eligible for the Eclipse Award, only California Chrome and the filly, Untapable, had four Grade I wins. Turf specialist and older horse, Main Sequence, is the only other horse with four Grade I victories in 2014, and I picked him on top in two other categories, top older horse and top and top 3-year-old and up male turf horse.
I’ve read good cases for Bayern as Horse of the Year. His two Grade I wins included the controversial Breeders’ Cup Classic, and he also had wins in two Grade IIs and a Grade III. Shared Belief, who won three Grade Is and was knocked out of the BC Classic by Bayern at the start, beat older horses in the TVG Pacific Classic at Del Mar and the Awesome Again at Santa Anita. His win in the Malibu Stakes at Santa Anita on Dec. 26 gave him three Grade Is and a Grade II. He had a great year, but missed the first half of it due to a foot injury. To me, missing the Triple Crown races cost him when compared to California Chrome. Likewise, Bayern’s failure to win a Triple Crown race cost him, compared to Chrome.
California Chrome’s wins in the Santa Anita Derby, Kentucky Derby and Preakness alerted the nation – especially the casual horse racing fan — to a special horse and story. The colt’s run put California horse racing in the national spotlight at a time when it was dealing with the closure of one of its iconic tracks, Hollywood Park. The story put all of horse racing in the national spotlight. His loss in the Belmont Stakes after getting stepped on and having his right hoof gashed by Matterhorn ended his Triple Crown bid, but co-owner Steve Coburn’s unsportsmanlike antics afterward kept the story going long after the crown bid died. It took Chrome and Coburn over five months to do it, but they both redeemed themselves at Del Mar in late November. California Chrome won his fourth Grade I by taking the Grade I Hollywood Derby at Del Mar, doing so his first time ever racing on turf to give him his sixth win from nine starts on the year. Coburn took over the TVG telecast and said all the right things, this time.