Forget the 2016 Triple Crown season and the uncertainty of the three year old colt division for the moment. For the first time in a long time, there is actually a tough older horse division on both surfaces in the United States. Older fans of the sport like to point to the seventies as the golden age of horse racing, but it is this author's opinion that we are actually experiencing one right now. Names like Flintshire, Tepin, Songbird, California Chrome--a horse who would have been retired at the young age of three instead of racing at five had he any other group of owners, Dortmund, Beholder, Lady Eli, Frosted stir the imagination in a way that no other group of runners has in recent memory.
In any given year, we are usually lucky to get one shooting star like Rachel Alexandra or American Pharoah, horses who thunder across the racing horizon leaving a trail of horses in their wake, but when you blink, they're gone. Those who pay closer attention to the sport recognize the achievements of the enduring runners like Zenyatta and Wise Dan and this year's version in the six year old mare, Beholder.
Beholder, a mare who has won grade one events at two, three, four, five and six years of age, packs speed and brilliance into every race she runs. Not only can she carry that speed a mile and a quarter (see her 2015 Pacific Classic victory), she does it with a pedigree that says she should be gasping at the finish line. In October 2015, Beholder started to gain national attention when her connections stated that she would go against Triple Crown hero American Pharoah in the Breeders' Cup Classic. A mare who was seen as unstoppable in her home state of California would take on the king of U.S. racing over a fair track that neither had run over previously--a headline any horse racing writer would drool over and any fan would dream about.
Unfortunately, it was not to be. Beholder came down with a fever shipping in for the race, missing valuable training time. She recovered soon enough, returning to training within a matter of days. Not a week later, however, she was scoped after galloping and her connections found a little irritation in her lungs, necessitating the scratch of the great mare.
With Beholder scratched, American Pharoah dominated and Beholder walked out of 2015 with another Eclipse Award and promises for 2016. She is now for two for three prior to her title defense in the Pacific Classic. Her first two races were won as easy as she pleased, but her last seemed to be a screw tightener for better things. She did lose to 2015's three year old champion filly Stellar Wind, but her latest workouts have been as fast as ever.
While Beholder raced nearly to the end of the 2015 season, California Chrome was just getting back to business. His four year old season had started off well enough with second place finishes behind Shared Belief and Dubai representative Prince Bishop, but the trip to England seemed to be too much. It is my opinion that the trip did result in some good for the flashy chestnut, but a foot bruise prompted his connections to rest him at Taylor Made where the colt will stand stud at the closure of his career.
Another year bigger, stronger and faster, Chrome is undefeated in four starts this season. With the trophies of the San Pasquel, a handicap prep in Dubai, the Dubai World Cup and the San Diego Handicap in tow, Chrome heads into the Pacific Classic as the favorite to win. He's already run twice and dominated at a mile and a quarter this year so the distance isn't the question for him. The question will be if he can improve on the hard-fought decision over Dortmund, albeit that race was run at the less than ideal mile and a sixteenth and off a layoff for Chrome.
If that question isn't enough, Chrome will have to break like a rocket or Espinoza will have to make some tough, tactical decisions early on in the Pacific Classic. A rail draw isn't ideal as Chrome has only raced three times in the post, winning once and finishing sixth twice. The one win came in the Dubai handicap prep this year so that is encouraging as anything.
Dortmund may be the largest--pun intended--wild card of all. The 17.2 hand son of dual Triple Crown leg winner Big Brown is known to general audiences for his exploits in last year's Triple Crown season. Third in the Kentucky Derby and fourth in the Preakness behind American Pharoah, Dortmund never seemed comfortable in the spring and was given time off. Just when it looked like he was ready to return, the solid chestnut injured himself when he was cast in his stall. Finally back on track, the colt ended 2015 with two impressive victories in the Big Bear Stakes and Native Diver.
When he is healthy, Dortmund is extremely tough to beat. He's only lost three times in 11 career starts, twice to American Pharoah and once, most recently, to California Chrome. He is coming into the mile and a quarter with only one other race in 2016 and will be sitting outside Chrome and Beholder. Usually on the front end, Dortmund will have a choice. Run from the outside with Beholder to keep Chrome locked on the rail or hope Beholder goes after the 2014 Horse of the Year and stalk from third.
It will be a jockey's race, won or lost based on tactical decisions made by the human counterparts of these fine horses.
No matter who wins or loses, Saturday night's race will be an unbelievable race. Not only does it contain a backstory, a battle of the sexes, and several fan favorites, the 2016 Pacific Classic brings top horses at ages of six, five and four together for the first time at the elite level in a long time. If this sport needs anything--and it needs a lot--it needs more competitions like this.