California Chrome, the 2014 Horse of the Year, makes a long-awaited return to action Saturday in the $200,000 San Pasqual (G2) over 1 1/16 miles at Santa Anita.

Despite the expectation he will be an overwhelming, odds-on choice in the field of seven, the five-year-old will carry 119 pounds, two less than co-top weights Hoppertunity and Hard Aces, under the allowance conditions of the race.

The San Pasqual marks the first start for California Chrome since a second-place finish to Prince Bishop in the $10 million Dubai World Cup (G1) last March 28. The Art Sherman trainee will again point for that 1 1/4-mile test at Meydan on March 26.

California Chrome prepped for last year’s World Cup in the February 7 San Antonio (G2), where he finished second in an epic showdown with the late Shared Belief. There will be no repeat performance in next month’s San Antonio for California Chrome, who will ship to Dubai early and run in a prep race over the Meydan surface.

A late scratch from the Prince of Wales’s (G1) at Royal Ascot in June, California Chrome returned to the U.S. shortly thereafter and developed a cannon bone bruise that sidelined him the rest of the season. The chestnut’s been working steadily during the last couple of months, and punctuated his San Pasqual preparations with a six-furlong drill in 1:10 last weekend.

Hoppertunity, the 2015 San Pasqual winner, appears to have the most upset potential. Although winless in his final eight starts of last season, the hard-knocking veteran concluded his campaign with runner-up finishes in the Awesome Again (G1), Fayette (G2), and a title defense of the Clark H. (G1).

Hard Aces, who defeated Hoppertunity by a nose in the Gold Cup (G1) last June, seeks to regain his best form after unplaced efforts in the Pacific Classic (G1), Awesome Again, and Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1). However, he’s more likely to excel in longer races like the 1 1/4-mile Santa Anita H. (G1), for which the San Pasqual is a prep.

Imperative has placed just twice in nine previous starts at Santa Anita. Runner-up to Dortmund in the Native Diver (G3) at Del Mar in November, he’s been most effective in the past two editions of the Charles Town Classic (G2), which will be renewed in April.

Others with longshot hopes are 2014 San Antonio winner Blingo, unplaced in two outings since his return in October from a 19-month layoff, and the stakes-winning Point Piper, runner-up by a neck in the $165,000 Zia Park Championship last time. Likely front runners in the San Antonio are $100,000 Evangeline Mile winner Mystery Train and the allowance-class Alfa Bird.

California-based runners have won three of the past four runnings of the Kentucky Derby (G1), although none competed in the $100,000 Sham (G3), a one-mile test which kicks off the local road to the Triple Crown. The Sham winner will receive 10 qualifying points toward eligibility for this year’s Run for the Roses as part of the Road to the Kentucky Derby series.

Dressed in Hermes, who demonstrated a fondness for turf when taking the $101,000 Zuma Beach and the Cecil B. DeMille (G3) last fall, try again to show proficiency on dirt in the Sham. In his only attempt on the surface, he finished fourth in his debut behind subsequent multiple graded stakes winner Exaggerator at Del Mar in July.

Bob Baffert, who conditioned American Pharoah to a Triple Crown sweep last season, has entered DeMille runner-up Collected, who makes his debut on the main track, and Let’s Meet in Rio, a last-out graduate at Los Alamitos.

I’malreadythere, third at long prices in both the Bob Hope (G3) and Los Alamitos Futurity (G1) in his past two outings, goes for Jerry Hollendorfer, while Doug O’Neill saddles multiple stakes winner Found Money and allowance scorer Semper Fortis.

Hoping to improve with the addition of blinkers are Rare Candy, fourth in all three of his prior stakes attempts, and Sorryaboutnothing, who trailed throughout in the Los Alamitos Futurity. The maiden Laoban completes the field.

(Benoit Photos)