The term "also-ran," like so much racetrack parlance, is firmly entrenched in the American lexicon.
Taken literally, the term describes any horse in a race that did not finish in the top three, but it has taken on a pejorative connotation. Also-rans—in politics, sports, or anything vaguely considered a "race"—aren't just losers. They're hopelessly behind.
For the $180,000 Winter Challenge Dec. 17 at Los Alamitos Race Course, a race written entirely to serve as a prep for California Chrome 's final race in the Jan. 28 Pegasus World Cup (gr. I), it is at least perceived—despite the literal meaning—that the field is largely a collection of also-rans in the shadow of the big horse.
So why would trainers enter nine horses (and two also-eligibles) to take on a horse that they, to a man, feel they have almost no chance of beating?
A $10,000 purse share to any horse that finishes—an outside-the-box tactic employed by Los Alamitos to fill the race—surely encouraged several, if not most to enter the race.
"Everyone was kinda kidding me, because they thought I might nominate my whole barn with the $10,000 out there," said trainer Gary Stute, who has Unusual Meeting in the Winter Challenge, a horse he claimed out of a Golden Gate Fields turf race Dec. 3. "I claimed him for $20,000 for Santa Anita. So, instead of working him, I can race and pay for half the horse."
Stute isn't alone in his primary motivations for entering the 1 1/16-mile race against the 2014 Horse of the Year, but there is also a tinge of hesitation from some involved, regarding the race and how it reflects on the integrity of racing.
"You think about the integrity of racing and (you'd like to) know you're putting the horse in a spot where you can win," said Brian Koriner, the only trainer with two entrants in the Winter Challenge—Wrightwood, who won his lone race in 20 starts back in August of 2014, and Lucky J Lane, a gelding who has competed in stakes and won an allowance at Los Alamitos in September. "You never want to look up at the tote board and see your horse at 100-1, but you also want to pay your bills. Christmas is coming and I've got a family. That's a big part of why I'm running—no doubt about it—and it is part of a lot of people's decisions to run."
Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer entered the clear second choice, grade III winner Point Piper, to simply get a race into a horse who is training well. Hollendorfer doesn't have a specific race target for Point Piper, a son of Giant's Causeway whose last nine races have been against graded stakes competition, but is fine with getting a race into the 6-year-old.
"They made it so there is enough money available if you run well, so other horses who are looking for prep races could get a race also," Hollendorfer said. "It looks difficult (to beat California Chrome) on paper, but you can never tell."
For another stakes winner, Papacoolpapacool, trainer Phil D'Amato is using the Winter Challenge as a tryout of sorts for the 4-year-old Temple City gelding. A runner on grass in 17 of his 18 starts, D'Amato wants to see if Papacoolpapacool will take to dirt to give him options for his 2017 campaign.
"It's really kinda hard to find race to run my horse in," D'Amato said of Papacoolpapacool, who has limited allowance conditions available. "He always trained really good on the dirt and I figured it'd be a good time to try it. For the purse money, if you run second, it's about the same as winning an allowance race.
"We're expecting a good race from him, but he'd have to run the race of his life to beat a horse like that. There's no disgrace to running second to California Chrome."
A surprising aspect that arose during discussions with trainers not named Art Sherman, however, was one of eagerness in participation. California Chrome is, to many, California's horse, and that sentiment is not lost on the group of trainers based in the state.
The chestnut trained by Sherman is the dream for so many—a California-bred with unassuming breeding who went on to be a superstar. To go along with that, the 79-year-old Sherman, a Californian since an early age, is one of them.
"Chances are we're going to get beat, but we get to support a California horse and a California trainer," said Vladimir Cerin, who has Ain't Misbehavin in the Winter Challenge. "Art is a unique trainer. When we come and congratulate him after he wins a race, we all mean it. Sometimes when a trainer wins a race, you congratulate them, but you don't really mean it.
"It means a lot to me to be a part of the race. I love that horse."
"I'm really not a good loser, so it's weird to say," Koriner said, "but years down the line, I get to say I ran against California Chrome."