Treating his 132-pound burden like a feather, and his opponents in accordance with their inferior ratings, California Chrome sailed through his Thursday prep for the March 26 Dubai World Cup (G1).

The inside of Meydan’s dirt track was playing favorably throughout the card, suggesting that the 2014 Horse of the Year’s rail draw would put him in the right place from the start. But as discussed in my last blog on “Chrome’s” task in this handicap over the World Cup trip, he hasn’t liked being mired on the fence in the past, and was likely to seek a way out early.

Executing this maneuver turned out to be a little less straightforward than I first thought. Korean raider Success Story predictably hustled from post 4, but Hunting Ground also showed speed wider out, keeping California Chrome in as they passed the stands for the first time. But regular rider Victor Espinoza seized the opportunity entering the clubhouse turn, and Chrome’s agility got him out of a potentially problematic pocket.

Advancing down the backstretch, Chrome was in his comfort zone stalking Success Story and Hunting Ground in the clear. As happy as he was psychologically, however, he was covering extra ground — and on perhaps a less favorable strip of track. That point’s worth bearing in mind in assessing the merit of his performance.

Chrome was traveling ominously well turning for home, and it was just a matter of time, and a question of how far, once he asserted. Under a virtually motionless Espinoza, Chrome delivered the coup de grace in a couple of strides. His two-length margin of victory doesn’t tell the whole tale, for he was in hand every step of the way. Indeed, Espinoza said afterward that he was saving something in the tank for the big one.

For the same reason, his final time for the about 1 1/4 miles – 2:04.24 – is academic. According to Racing UK, that’s the second fastest clocking since Meydan converted to dirt, bettered only by Prince Bishop’s 2:03.24 when beating Chrome in the 2015 World Cup. On the other hand, the dirt appeared to be playing quick Thursday night. Lowly rated handicapper Brabbham recorded 2:04.27 in a handicap that didn’t even qualify as a Carnival race, while One Man Band was an eyelash away from equaling the about seven-furlong mark (1:23.54) in the opener. Marking’s time for about six furlongs, 1:10.86, also wasn’t far off Secret Circle’s record of 1:10.64.

Chrome’s rivals have little pretense of being World Cup night animals, but the runner-up, Storm Belt, was officially the second-best horse on ratings (105 compared to Chrome’s 121) and ran accordingly. Success Story showed plenty of heart, while admittedly on the rail’s golden highway, to salvage third from Hunting Ground.

One who should have performed better was Godolphin’s Good Contact, who looked out of sorts tossing his head on the backstretch and never factored in sixth. Even allowing for the fact that he endured the widest trip, this was a disappointing display. He failed to take advantage of his extra break in the weights, which he was given thanks to apprentice rider Edward Greatrex. He was getting 21 pounds from Chrome, who was spotting the rest a hefty 15 pounds.

 

Thus California Chrome has emulated Hall of Famer Curlin by flaunting his class in a course-and-distance handicap prior to the World Cup. But can he emulate him by winning the world’s richest race?

During Curlin’s reign over Dubai in 2008, he was unambiguously the best dirt horse around. Fast forward eight years, and the same can’t be said of Chrome.

Of course, as the 2014 Kentucky Derby (G1) and Preakness (G1) hero, and Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) near-misser, Chrome is obviously high class. Nor was there any disgrace in finishing best of the rest to Shared Belief in the 2015 San Antonio (G2). And we remember how valiantly he soldiered on for second in last year’s World Cup.

The salient question is, can Chrome improve on that effort in an even stronger renewal of the World Cup? On the plus side, trainer Art Sherman has emphasized that the mature 5-year-old Chrome is stronger than he’s ever been, and Alan Sherman has lauded his workouts. Getting a prep over the track, and making the World Cup his third start off the layoff, are other positive changes from a year ago.

Yet the fact remains that the 2016 Dubai World Cup is attracting other top-tier Americans – Frosted, who was utterly dominant in his track-record Maktoum Challenge Round 2 (G2); Keen Ice, who runs in the March 5 Maktoum Challenge Round 3 (G1); and turf-turned-dirt performer Mshawish, who captured the historically key prep, the Donn H. (G1).

Frosted and Keen Ice are contemporaries of American Pharoah. Although no match for him in the Triple Crown and the Breeders’ Cup Classic, they can continue to flatter the retired superstar, and advertise the depth of the 2015 classic crop. From that perspective, there remains a nagging suspicion that Chrome didn’t have the same caliber of horse to beat in his 2014 Triple Crown bid.

In addition to the strength in depth of this year’s World Cup, there’s also the age-old question of how the race will unfold. Chrome figures to carve out the same kind of pace-chasing trip as he did in 2015, with Japanese veteran Hokko Tarumae sure to be once more in his pacesetting role. Presumably parked out wide to feel comfortable, Chrome will be covering extra ground again on a more tiring surface. He can get away with it when he’s upwards of 16 pounds better than the field, but can he get away with it in a far tougher race with formidable opponents?

Art Sherman is hopeful:

“Now I feel good about the $10 million race coming up.

“That mile and a quarter under his belt now, he’s going to be double-tough I think (in the World Cup).

“If we can ever get lucky enough, he’ll wind up being the richest Thoroughbred ever. He’ll pass Curlin, who was a great Thoroughbred. It would be an honor for that to happen.”

The rest of the Meydan action will be analyzed in Monday’s installment of “Dubai Carnival beads,” including Safety Check’s repeat in the Zabeel Mile (G2), and the argument about whether Marking should go for the Golden Shaheen (G1) or the Godolphin Mile (G2) on World Cup night. In the meantime, here are those two replays:

 

 

Photo courtesy of Dubai Racing Club/Andrew Watkins.