Saturday’s $200,000 San Diego H. (G2) at Del Mar pitted 2014 Kentucky Derby (G1) hero California Chrome against Dortmund, who was third to American Pharoah in the 2015 Kentucky Derby. The elder “Chrome” was favored at odds of 4-5, with Dortmund the close second choice at 6-5, and that’s how they finished after an epic battle.

Although there were three other runners, the San Diego was a Chrome vs. Dortmund match race in all but name.

Both were making their comebacks in the 1 1/16-mile event. Dortmund had been off for much longer, having been sidelined since last November. Chrome had a prosperous winter campaign, comprising victories in the San Pasqual (G2), a handicap race in Dubai, and his major objective, the $10 million Dubai World Cup (G1), which made him North America’s richest-ever Thoroughbred with more than $12.5 million in the bank. But he hadn’t raced since that March 26 triumph, and as the 126-pound highweight in the San Diego, he was conceding five pounds to Dortmund.

Breaking smartly beneath regular rider Victor Espinoza, California Chrome scampered to the lead in the opening strides, but the massive Dortmund got going on the rail and took charge. As Dortmund rattled off fractions of :23.47 and :47.02, Chrome kept close watch in second, and began to challenge at the six-furlong mark in 1:10.51.

If you’d never seen Dortmund race before, you might have thought he was in trouble as Hall of Fame rider Gary Stevens urged him along on the far turn. In contrast, Chrome was just gliding for Espinoza, as though he’d open up once they straightened up in the stretch.

But if you remember watching Dortmund on the 2015 Derby trail, you might recall that the giant colt can get outsprinted by a nimbler opponent on the turn. The straightaway is more his game, where he can lengthen that stride of his and fight back.

And so it proved once more on Saturday. Just when it looked like California Chrome might begin to edge clear, here came the imposing presence of Dortmund, grimly clawing back the yards on the inside. For a few strides, the Bob Baffert-trained 4-year-old threatened to regain an advantage from the 5-year-old Chrome.

But California Chrome is a champion – the Horse of the Year of 2014 in the wake of his heroics in the Derby and Preakness (G1). And he summoned that champion’s heart to stay in front, turning back Dortmund’s renewed challenge in a final time of 1:40.84.

“I saved something for the end,” Espinoza said. “I knew I’d have to. I have a lot of respect for Dortmund and he made me run hard.  I could see he (Dortmund) was running so hard. When we came down the stretch, I was concerned. This horse was carrying a lot of weight; that was the challenge. But he was a runner all the way today. What a terrific comeback race for him. He’s back. He’s such a special horse. This was exciting; an exciting race. He showed everyone today just how special he is.”

“They both ran terrific,” winning trainer Art Sherman said. “I tell you, Dortmund made him work for it. It’s going to be an interesting few races coming up. I told Victor the track has been playing to speed all day long and you can’t let a horse like Dortmund get away. So press him as much as you can. He (Dortmund) is a really game horse.”

Stevens also commented on Dortmund’s courage.

“I thought maybe we were going to run out of gas, but he kept digging,” the rider said of Dortmund. “He ran that last quarter mile on heart. I looked over and saw Victor was scrubbing (on California Chrome) and I thought maybe I had a chance. My horse gave it a great try.” 

There was a gap of 7 1/4 lengths back to Win the Space in third, and Follow Me Crev and Crittenden brought up the rear.

Owned by California Chrome LLC (the partnership including co-breeder Perry Martin and Taylor Made Stallions), the popular California-bred now sports a mark of 22-13-3-1, $12,652,650.

We have even more to look forward to, for the San Diego was a prep for Del Mar’s signature race, the $1 million Pacific Classic (G1) on August 20. Not only will we get a rematch between California Chrome and Dortmund, but you can also add superstar mare Beholder, the defending champion in the 1 1/4-mile Pacific Classic.

“Now maybe he and Dortmund and Beholder -- that will really be exciting,” Espinoza said.

“I think both horses needed a race,” Sherman observed, “and you’ll see two stronger horses coming back in the Pacific Classic. (Chrome) is that kind of horse, he loves to grind it out and he shows a lot of determination.

“What can I say -- he’s just Chrome, a wonderful horse to be around.”

Fans everywhere, led by his most ardent “Chromies,” agree.  

Photo courtesy of Benoit