With fingers crossed seemingly all across the country from fans hoping for a clash of West Coast superstars Aug. 20 in the TVG Pacific Classic (gr. I), the stage is finally set.
Outside of the Breeders' Cup, there's not much more to ask for from the standpoint of an elite matchup. The trio features 17 grade/group I wins, five Eclipse Awards, and more than $19.2 million in earnings combined from 38 overall victories between them.
All three have been dominant for stretches of time in California, but each enters the race uniquely positioned following their last race.
For California Chrome and Dortmund, both could turn in an improved effort—although that might be hard to imagine—in the 1 1/4-mile Classic following a one-two finish in the July 23 San Diego Handicap (gr. II) that featured a stretch duel to remember.
But both were coming off of significant layoffs. California Chrome made his first start since his victory in the March 26 Dubai World Cup (UAE-I), while Kaleem Shah's Dortmund made his 4-year-old debut and his first start in nearly eight months.
According to Shah, the path to the Breeders' Cup for Dortmund has always set up for a run in the Pacific Classic, but the Big Brown colt's game second in the San Diego sealed the deal to enter for the August showcase.
"He was training well going into the race and we expected him to run well," Shah said of the Bob Baffert trainee. "But it was his first race back. Building up to the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I), the natural progression was always the San Diego, Pacific Classic, and Awesome Again (gr. I), but we take it one race at a time."
Dortmund will also have the benefit of an outside draw in the field of nine, as opposed to his rail spot for the San Diego. Dortmund will be in post 8 with first-time jockey Rafael Bejarano, just inside Dalmore—the only 3-year-old in the field—while California Chrome drew rail duty this time.
"Certainly, we can eyeball them on the outside," Shah said. "It looks like an advantage on paper, but what happens in a race doesn't often go as planned."
For California Chrome, trainer Art Sherman said the son of Lucky Pulpit will likely have to show more speed early to get positioned under jockey Victor Espinoza.
"I wouldn't have been my top choice, but what happens is what happens," Sherman said. "We might have to ride a different race from there. He just seems to run more comfortable on the outside. He likes to be in the clear when he's running.
"But with his kind of speed, he's going to come away from there running. From then on, we'll see."
Like her two rivals, Beholder is coming off a hard-fought prep in the Clement L. Hirsch (gr. I) Aug. 30 at Del Mar, where she finished a tight second to fellow champion Stellar Wind.
The loss ended an eight-race win streak for the Spendthrift Farm mare that dated back to 2014, and Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella waited as long as he could to decide whether to have the three-time champion defend her title in the Pacific Classic, a race she won by 8 1/4 lengths in 2015.
"What put us over the hump was Richard," said Spendthrift general manager Ned Toffey. "(Spendthrift owner B. Wayne) Hughes was very clear that he did not want to get in the middle of this. The Pacific Classic was the plan. We've all known that for a while and hoped that would be what materialized, but after she got beat, Mr. Hughes' approach was to stay out of it and let Richard tell us.
"She was going to tell him and he was going to tell us."
"I looked for a week to find a reason not to run in this race because it is a hell of an undertaking, and I couldn't find any," Mandella said. "She had a great work, came out of it great, and you only live once."
Mandella said Beholder's strategy will likely be to stalk the early pace after breaking from post 7 under Gary Stevens, just as she did in her Pacific Classic score last year, when she blew by the frontrunners with a breathtaking move in the final turn.
"If Beholder runs back to her Pacific Classic last year, I don't think anybody has much of a chance to beat her," Toffey said.
In the Hirsch, Beholder took to the front, allowing Stellar Wind to stalk and pounce just to the outside.
"It's good to be outside, away from the action inside early," Mandella said. "Our intention is to get her back (off the pace) and go back to our game that works. We got a little creative last time and it wasn't the best thing, but I don't know if it made any difference."
Sherman also spoke to the tactics of the race, but admitted with three horses that essentially have the same running style, it is hard to separate one.
"You get to this caliber and it's going to be tougher now," Sherman said. "You deal with some horses who are maulers. It's not going to be an easy go for anybody. You've got three horses with similar running styles and something has got to give."
Although the focus is on the three favorites—California Chrome is at 8-5 on the morning line, followed by Dortmund (5-2) and Beholder (3-1)—connections of the star runners are not ruling anyone out, including the likes of grade I winners Hoppertunity and Hard Aces, graded victors Imperative and Dalmore, and graded stakes-placed runners War Story and Win the Space.
"Everybody is talking about these three horses, but I wouldn't rule out any horse pulling an upset," Shah said. "In there any potential starter can pull off the upset. Even Cigar lost (the 1996 Pacific Classic)."
The prevailing sentiment from practically everyone involved, however, is appreciation. One of the most significant races on the West Coast deserves a standout field to draw the attention of the racing world.
"That's the competition of the business—who is going to be the better horse?" Sherman said. "I'm sure they all think they can win it. You've got the three best handicap horses in the country in one race, and that makes it exciting."
"This is what horse racing is all about," Shah said. "It's good for the fans and good for the sport. Let the best horse win. ... The drama of the superstars in the race—that's what it's all about."
For the Beholder camp, which has had its share of bad breaks leading into big races—most notably before last year's Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I)—the appreciation for their mare, and her chance to run against the best of the West, of either sex, runs deep.
"For anybody who has been in the industry for any lengths of time, this game is humbling and you're going to have disappointment," Toffey said. "That gives me a tremendous amount of appreciation for when it all falls into line.
"When it does come together, you appreciate it that much more."
Del Mar, Saturday, August 20, 2016, Race 9
PP Horse Jockey Wgt Trainer M/L 1 1California Chrome (CA) Victor Espinoza 124 Art Sherman 8/5 2 2Hoppertunity (KY) Flavien Prat 124 Bob Baffert 8/1 3 3War Story (KY) Ricardo Mejias 124 Dean Greenman 30/1 4 4Hard Aces (KY) Santiago Gonzalez 124 John W. Sadler 15/1 5 5Win the Space (KY) Joseph Talamo 124 George Papaprodromou 15/1 6 6Imperative (KY) Norberto Arroyo, Jr. 124 Richard Baltas 20/1 7 7Beholder (KY) Gary L. Stevens 119 Richard E. Mandella 3/1 8 8Dortmund (KY) Rafael Bejarano 124 Bob Baffert 5/2 9 9Dalmore (FL) Kent J. Desormeaux 118 J. Keith Desormeaux 20/1
Del Mar, Saturday, August 20, 2016, Race 9