The Del Mar crowd roared as California Chrome put a head in front of Dortmund in the final turn of the $200,000 San Diego Handicap (gr. II) July 23, but little did they know the battle they were in store for in the stretch.
With Dortmund close to a half-length behind the 2014 Horse of the Year late in the turn, the hulking son of Big Brown somehow found more on the inside and the pair dueled to the wire. Back to head-and-head late, California Chrome eventually outlasted his fellow chestnut to win by a half-length.
"I tell you, Dortmund made him work for it," trainer Art Sherman said.
Dortmund broke poorly under jockey Gary Stevens but rushed up on the inside to set fractions of :23.47, :47.02, and 1:10.51 through six furlongs, while California Chrome and Victor Espinoza stalked in second.
"He was a little funky with me in the gate and didn't get away best, but he got rolling and we were doing good," Stevens said. "We had the slow fractions I was hoping for and he was going along fine.
"Then, from the three-eighths to the five-sixteenths, it was on. I thought maybe we were going to run out of gas, but he kept digging. He ran that last quarter-mile on heart."
The pair hit a mile at 1:34.49 and California Chrome edged his rival at the wire to win in 1:40.84 for 1 1/16 miles. Win the Space finished 7 1/4 lengths behind in third.
"I saved something for the end. I knew I'd have to," Espinoza said. "I have a lot of respect for Dortmund and he made me run hard. ... When we came down the stretch, I was concerned. This horse was carrying a lot of weight (five pounds more than Dortmund). That was the challenge, but he was a runner all the way today."
Sherman, noticing a tendency toward speed in the prior races on the main track, made sure to tell Espinoza not to let Dortmund get too far away. Dortmund had a 1 1/2-length lead after the opening quarter and California Chrome tracked about a length off the frontrunner in the backstretch before moving up to challenge entering the final turn.
"You can't let a horse like Dortmund get away," Sherman said. "So, press him as much as you can. (Dortmund) is a really game horse. I think both horses needed a race and you'll see two stronger horses coming back in the Pacific Classic (gr. I)."
That potential matchup for the Del Mar summer feature, along with the presence of defending champion Beholder, could set up to be one of the most significant races in the seaside racetrack's history.
It was California Chrome's eighth graded or group victory. The winner paid $3.60, $2.20, and $2.10 across the board as the 4-5 favorite. Dortmund delivered $2.40 and $2.10 as the 6-5 second choice, and Win the Space brought $2.20 to show.