The 2014 Hollywood Derby
A tough decision faced voters of racing's year end awards immediately after the 2014 Breeders' Cup Classic. The main event of the annual extravaganza had been run for the thirty-first time, and a highly controversial result came with it.
It began literally at the start. Bayern, who crossed the wire first in the Classic, veered into post time favorite Shared Belief, who in turn made contact with Moreno. An inquiry was made after the finish, but no change was made.
The stewards' ruling had its supporters and critics, but Bayern was declared the winner, and thus was in the mix for the Outstanding Three Year Old and Horse of the Year honors at the Eclipse Awards. But so was fellow sophomore California Chrome.
From the start of 2014, the California-bred son of Lucky Pulpit had taken the sport by storm. A chestnut colt with an unheralded pedigree, Chrome captivated people with his unlikely Triple Crown bid, winning all of his Kentucky Derby preps before taking the Run for the Roses and the Preakness before coming up short in the Belmont. Outside of his dead heat fourth place in the Belmont and sixth in the Pennsylvania Derby, Chrome had won every start in 2014.
Bayern, on the other hand, came into his own during the second half of the year. It began with the Grade II Woody Stephens Stakes on Belmont Stakes Day, where the Offlee Wild colt dominated his rivals by 7 1/2 lengths while running the seven furlong race in one of the fastest times in its history. From that point on, Bayern went on to win multiple graded stakes for the rest of the year, including the Grade I Haskell Invitational and Breeders' Cup Classic.
The careers of California Chrome and Bayern intersected a couple of times throughout 2014. First came the Preakness. Chrome was the winner of the Triple Crown's middle jewel while Bayern encountered all sorts of trouble before coming in ninth place. They met a few months later in the Grade II Pennsylvania Derby, where Bayern got the win while Chrome took seventh place after staying close to the front in the early stages. Then came the Classic, where Bayern survived the stewards' inquiry as Chrome finished right behind him in third.
That put voters of the Eclipse Awards in a dilemma. Bayern won the Classic as a three year old, and had beaten Chrome in two of three starts. But Chrome was a dual classic winner and had won more races, including stakes. No matter who won, each horse was going to get votes. But there was no clear consensus as to who would win.
The Breeders' Cup Classic was Bayern's season finale. But as it turned out, California Chrome was not done yet.
Not long after the Classic, trainer Art Sherman sent Chrome to Del Mar, which was in the midst of its inaugural Bing Crosby Season. After Hollywood Park closed in 2013, the autumn dates previously alotted to the Track of the Lakes and Flowers were transferred to the seaside racetrack. Longtime events like the Native Diver Handicap, Matriarch Stakes, and Hollywood Derby were now going to be contested in San Diego County. And it was the Hollywood Derby that was chosen for California Chrome's next start.
The fact that California Chrome was entered in the Grade I contest was major news. First, his presence guaranteed a big on-track crowd for Del Mar's November 29 program. Second, the race was going to mark Chrome's initial foray onto the turf. And third, his result in the race was going to factor into the year end awards. There was no doubt he was going to be nominated for the Outstanding Three Year Old and Horse of the Year honors, but it was not certain he would win them. A win in the Hollywood Derby strengthened his case for each honor. Losing the Hollywood Derby had the possibility of negatively affecting his bid for the prizes.
A big field did not await California Chrome in the Hollywood Derby. Only five rivals were sent to take him on. The most intriguing opponent came in the form of Lexie Lou, a filly who captured the prestigious Queen's Plate at Woodbine the previous July. The Southern California circuit was familiar with her, too, for she had won Santa Anita's Grade III Autumn Miss Stakes about a month before her date at Del Mar.
Joining Chrome and Lexie Lou in the starting gate were Cabral, Flamboyant, Sawyer's Hill, and Talco, none of whom had won any graded stakes. Cabral, Flamboyant, and Talco all achieved some success racing overseas, but they were not seen as serious contenders in the Hollywood Derby. Of that quartet, Sawyer's Hill, who to his credit had some graded stakes placings, was below 10-1.
As for the two main contenders, Lexie Lou was backed at close to 3-1. As for Chrome, he may not have started on turf before, but that was not seen as a concern. Favored at 7-10, fans believed he could handle the course in his first attempt.
Entering the starting gate, California Chrome looked stately. He moved into his stall with a confident aura, ready to battle his opponents on turf.
The start went well for all six horses. Chrome and Sawyer's Hill emerged from the group to run one two going down Del Mar's turf chute onto the main track. Sawyer's Hill was closest to the rail, but Chrome and Victor Espinoza cleared him to get on the inside as well going down the front straight. In third place was Lexie Lou, with the front two well ahead and the remaining three horses well behind her.
Chrome was credited with leading the first quarter-mile, but Sawyer's Hill and Rafael Bejarano took over as they reached the first turn. Espinoza was content for them to lead; no need to push the issue this early in the race.
Sawyer's Hill stayed in charge down the backstretch, putting some distance between himself and California Chrome. Meanwhile, Lexie Lou had company in Cabral, Flamboyant, and Talco, and the quartet made a charge to the front. Ahead of them, California Chrome made up ground on Sawyer's Hill. Going into the far turn, the field was close together, mere lengths separating first to last. Sawyer's Hill continued leading. But With the homestretch coming up, Chrome made his move.
Relaxed throughout the Hollywood Derby, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness champion strolled up alongside the leader. Espinoza soon began urging for more, and by the time they straightened, California Chrome emerged as the leader. Lexie Lou and Talco split Sawyer's Hill, the filly traveling on the outside and the long shot occupying the rail. As everyone moved towards the finish, thousands in the grandstand cheered on California Chrome, watching as he capped off his memorable 2014 season with a win by the beach.
The chestnut colt never looked in danger of losing in the waning seconds. Completely focused and fearless, he came to the wire in 1:47.88, winning his first (and only) start on turf as Lexie Lou took second and Talco third. It was Chrome's fifth graded stakes victory of the year, and his fourth Grade I. His record as a sophomore now stood at six wins in nine starts.
The Hollywood Derby stands as one of California Chrome's biggest wins. His performance played a vital role in what was a tremendous night for him and his connections at the Eclipse Awards. Chrome was voted Outstanding Three Year Old Male and Horse of the Year, becoming only the third California-bred to win the former honor and the second to take the latter. Bayern held the head-to-head advantage at two races to one, but Chrome produced a stronger body of work, including trying the turf and winning on it. Even making one start on the grass was missing from Bayern's record.
Dual classic champion, Champion Three Year Old, and Horse of the Year. California Chrome earned all of those titles in 2014. But with a crowd exceeding 20,000 on November 29 of that year, the colt with the underdog background undoubtedly showed he was also the people's champion.