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Wonder horse California Chrome seeks 'Hollywood' ending to historic year

By Tom Sweetman, for CNN
updated 8:27 AM EST, Fri November 28, 2014
California Chrome has enjoyed highs in 2014 but also a few lows, yet he could still be crowned Horse of the Year in the U.S. California Chrome has enjoyed highs in 2014 but also a few lows, yet he could still be crowned Horse of the Year in the U.S.
An eventful year
An eventful year
An eventful year
An eventful year
An eventful year
An eventful year
An eventful year
An eventful year
An eventful year
An eventful year
  • California Chrome aiming to end historic year in style at Hollywood Derby on Saturday
  • Trainer Art Sherman hopes a win can clinch top U.S. thoroughbred award
  • The chestnut colt has won three Grade 1 races during 2014 including the Kentucky Derby
  • Three-year-old narrowly missed out on Triple Crown after placing fourth in Belmont Stakes

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(CNN) -- California Chrome's 2014 has been something of a roller-coaster ride but the year could still end on a high in the colt's final race of the American thoroughbred horse racing season at Del Mar.

The peaks of a Kentucky Derby triumph and a six-race winning streak have been matched by the disappointing lows of narrowly missing out on the Triple Crown and a three-and-a-half-month layoff to rest.

Yet victory in the Hollywood Derby on Saturday could be enough to consign those darker memories to the past and fire the three-year-old chestnut colt to the prestigious Horse of the Year accolade at January's Eclipse Awards -- an annual ceremony recognizing the year's best thoroughbred horses.

"Winning the award after all these setbacks would be even sweeter," California Chrome's trainer Art Sherman told CNN.

"It would be a great accomplishment for California Chrome and the highlight of the year for him. To win the Eclipse would really be something special."

Coming out on top at the Grade 1 meet at California's Del Mar racetrack will be no easy task, however, given that it will be his maiden race on turf.

In the days leading up to the event, Sherman and jockey Victor Espinoza have been working the horse hard on grass in anticipation that he will feel as at home there as he has done for much of the season on dirt.

"I don't think him running on grass for the first time will be a problem myself, I have a good feeling about this," Sherman says.

"If he gets the win then I think he deserves to be named Horse of the Year. To win on grass would be a whole new dimension for him, with his running style, so the voters would have to appreciate that."

An eventful year

Victory on grass would seal a fourth Grade 1 triumph of the year -- two more than any of his rivals have managed in 2014.

The three previous successes came at the Santa Anita Derby, the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes -- part of a six-race winning streak that captured the American public's imagination and set up the possibility of a first Triple Crown win in the sport since 1978.

"He got better and better as he turned three, he just got more mature," says Sherman, who became the oldest trainer to win the Derby in May at the age of 77.

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"He really is something else, the Real McCoy. I've had some great horses, but I've never had one like him."

The Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes triumphs, however, could not be replicated in June's Belmont Stakes -- the three-year-old had to settle for fourth -- and so the wait for a 12th horse to achieve the Triple Crown goes on.

Steve Coburn -- one of the horse's two principal owners -- reacted to the loss with a barrage of unsporting criticism and was later humiliated in the media for what was perceived as a severe case of sour grapes. He later apologized.

Sherman, meanwhile, still struggles to talk about the Triple Crown near miss, and California Chrome himself has yet to record a victory since the disappointment at Belmont Park.

"I thought we could win that Triple Crown going into the last race," Sherman recalls. "But California Chrome had problems in the race -- he was stuck and couldn't get out, he was stuck down in the railing.

"You hate making excuses for the horse, except I think he could have been the winner, I really do. The Triple Crown would really have been something. It would have been a real highlight."

Despite the setback, Sherman remains confident that the chestnut colt's record this year will be "enough" to at least secure the three-year-old-male title at the Eclipse Awards, with a trophy being presented to the most impressive horse in each division.

Ifs and buts

Had California Chrome won the Breeders' Cup Classic in October the Horse of the Year award may have been a formality, but he could only finish third.

The controversial race perhaps should have been more fruitful had Bayern and Toast of New York -- who finished first and second respectively -- been disqualified for early collisions involving the unfortunate Shared Belief.

"It was frustrating watching the way the start went, it was very controversial ... we're dealing with a $5 million race here," says Sherman.

"If we'd have won the Breeders' Cup Classic, the Eclipse Award would have been tied up by now. If there had been a double disqualification then we would have won."

"But timing is everything in this game," Sherman adds on California Chrome's return from his rest period.

"I never got the chance to get a strong race out of him afterwards. I think that's what cost us the Breeders' Cup, to be honest with you."

Looking ahead

While 2014 appears to be tinged with a sense of regret for Sherman, it is still a year that has brought about unforeseeable levels of success, and the future remains bright for California Chrome.

Despite persistent rumors that the three-year-old might not even race next year, it has since been confirmed that the chestnut colt will be back on the track in 2015.

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"The success this year hasn't come without its setbacks. But when you're running horses you're always going to have setbacks and you can't have a perfect trip," Sherman says.

"I wasn't 100% sure if he was going to race anymore. There were rumors that people were going to try to buy him, but the owners want to race him at four years old.

"He will be racing next season and the future is looking good, you bet."

Lost among the excitement of looking ahead to the future for California Chrome, while also reflecting on this year's achievements, it can be easy to forget about the horse's humble beginnings and just how the story all started.

Coburn and co-owner Perry Martin splashed out a mere $10,000 in total, paying $8,000 for mare Love the Chase in 2009, before then later breeding her to stallion Lucky Pulpit for a reduced fee of $2,000.

Fast forward to today, and that investment has produced an offspring which has amassed $4 million in career earnings, is said to be worth in the region of $12 million and is potentially one race away from being crowned the supreme horse of 2014.

"Winning the award would really be something, and what a great story for everyone to write about given the horse has gone from a $10,000 investment to making the money he has made," Sherman says. "It's a poor man's dream."

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