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When last we saw our four-legged heroes, precocious three-year-old California Chrome was embarrassed by the adults in the room when co-owner Steve Coburn called Belmont Stakes winner Tonalist and other fresh challengers "cowards" for not matriculating right alongside 'Chrome in the Triple Crown series.
We hope the 102,000-plus fans who gathered at Big Sandy are home by now, recovered and ready for the big summer racing season as Del Mar, Where the Turf Meets the Surf in idyllic San Diego County, opened Thursday and rustic Saratoga Race Course, aka The Spa, opens Friday. Heady days indeed for us purists.
Although these are the sit-back-and-relax boutique meets for all those who wander the paddock, they also offer main-event racing that is pound-for-pound the best of the year.
Out west, Del Mar kicks off the festivities fresh off the news that it was selected to host the 2017 Breeders' Cup Championships. It will be interesting to see how many people they can cram into the smaller venue, but there's time to worry about that later.
Highlights of the meet include the Bing Crosby Stakes, Clement L. Hirsch Stakes, the Del Mar Oaks, and Del Mar futurity, all Grade Is, and esteemed Grade IIs San Diego Handicap, the Best Pal Stakes-Sorrento Stakes tandem for two-year-old colts and fillies, respectively, the John C. Mabee for the females on the turf, and a Saturday-Sunday showcase including the Del Mar Handicap, Pat O'Brien (Father Flanagan for those of you old enough to remember) Stakes and the Del Mar Mile.
The culmination of the meet is the August 24th Pacific Classic for colts three and up, run at the classic 10 furlongs. California superstar Game On Dude, with Martin Garcia tagging along, demolished the race last year by 8.5 lengths to become only the second horse in history, after the Horatio Alger-esque Lava Man in 2006, to sweep the Santa Anita Handicap, the Hollywood Gold Cup and the Pacific in one year. Although it's now the Gold Cup at Santa Anita, the three-surface trifecta will never happen again as Hollywood Park awaits the wrecking ball.
If it's controversy you crave, the Internet smolders as California Chrome's connections are falsely being criticized for their unwillingness to parade the Triple Crown contender, like some mere piece of horse flesh, around Del Mar on Pacific Classic day. The purveyors of false idolatry, aka The Marketing Department, fail to remember Chrome did not win the Crown and is still in a competitive bent. Parades are for those who have or will soon be calling it quits. The Larry Tates also had a lot of people believing Zenyatta was the greatest horse who ever lived. Har har hardee har har.
It was just the way Coburn and Martin, not to be confused with Jerry and Dean, turned it down, right after they demanded 50 boxes of ziti to road trip from their Los Alamitos HQ. They hurt some feelings. "We bought the horse to race him, not parade him. We don't own the horse to parade him. He's a racehorse."
It appears 'Chrome's camp might even eschew a vanity setup tilt at Los Alamitos (newly expanded and re-tracked to fill the Hollywood void) and go in the Awesome Again Stakes, a win-and-in for the Breeders' Cup in America's dogged quest for easy plaudits and self-esteem. If the blueprint goes to plan, going forward, 'Chrome will run a prep into the BC Classic and we'll never see him again under a competitive blanket. Then he can parade.
Meanwhile, back east, owners and trainers and jockeys, well, trainers and jockeys, will have to remember it's work and not vacation as they head up to the Adirondacks and pitch tents in Saratoga.
Our storylines will include Shared Belief, perhaps the best colt in the land, as he embarks upon the Jim Dandy-Travers trail, as golden a road as you could ever travel. Foot problems hampered him earlier in the year, but he just pounced in the Los Alamitos Derby and appears primed.
But what of Ride On Curlin, needlessly run in all three gems of the Triple Crown, albeit with fortitude? Tonalist seems in perfect position for the second half of 2014, where he has the potential to blur memories of California Chrome. Throw in Commanding Curve. Kid Cruz seems on the improve, now 5-for-8 with wins in the Easy Goer and the Grade III Dwyer. Social Inclusion must be supported in at least one more wager. Bayern could become a monster, in the best possible way. Commissioner. Medal Count. Danza. Wicked Strong. We met them on the Crown chase, but these will now be different horses, for better or worse, as they mature closer to their prime.
Like binging on corn dogs and cotton candy at the carnival, Saratoga, in a season astutely slimmed down in response to racing reality, will offer the Diana (Saturday) and the Coaching Club American Oaks (Sunday), the Jim Dandy, Amsterdam, Whitney, the Test, Vanderbilt, the Sanford and the Hopeful, where kid Secretariat made his first bones, the Alabama, Personal Ensign, the "mid-summer Derby" Travers, King's Bishop, Ballerina, Forego and Woodward.
We'll meet up again with Wise Dan, Palace Malice, Will Take Charge. The ladies Close Hatches, Princess of Sylmar, Beholder, Midnight Lucky and Fiftyshadesofhay may just make the boys jealous. Turfers Obviously, Real Solution and Winning Prize will seek to dethrone Wise Dan. And Riposte, Somali Lemonade, Tannery and Stephanie's Kitten will romp on the turf in the female division.
In racing, these are the days of miracle and wonder, the best of the year. Can you tell?
Race caller Tom Durkin, the New York microphone legend, hangs up his binoculars after this Saratoga meet. He took it wire-to-wire in every one of the countless thousands of races he described over 43 years, from the dreary Februarys of Aqueduct, the grind of Belmont, to the sun-kissed summers at The Spa.
Down the shore July 27th, Untapable, perhaps the best horse in the land, will take on the boys in the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth. Rosie Napravnik will see the likes of speed merchants Bayern and Social Inclusion in the gate, but this Tapit filly oozes class and talent, transcending gender. She's so good, she'll make her races fairly unbeatable, but she's still a joy to watch.
There's just one wrinkle between now and the Breeders' Cup. As Fridays are for girlfriends and Saturdays are for wives, Saturdays have always been for racing in my world, and Sundays for praying for better angles. The lords of television, in this case Fox Sports 1, have spoken and many big races will now be run on Sundays. I already missed the Donn Handicap from Gulfstream early this year, so I'll have to make the adjustment.
And lest you think we'll let Churchill Downs Inc. off the hook in any installment of TrackNotes, we note the julep brains literally gave up in Florida, outsourcing racing management at its Calder Casino and Race Course to Frank Stronach's Gulfstream bunch. The ersatz rivals are already bumping uglies in the wagering universe. Churchill doesn't care about horse racing, having already transformed the Kentucky Derby from a horse race to a profit center. This gives them the ability to say they're satisfying the racing Satans so as to hold on to the casino license. CDI works as we speak to build the online casino its bagmen will buy in Washington one of these days. I've said it before and I'll say it again: CDI has forfeited its privilege to have anything to do with the Derby.
But we're talking about real racing at real horse palaces. Hot fun in the summer sun.
Tom Chambers is our man on the rail. He welcomes your comments.