What is being billed as a steppingstone for California Chrome toward the $12 million Pegasus World Cup (G1) at Gulfstream Park on January 28 drew more runners than may have been originally expected.
The $180,000 Winter Challenge Stakes at Los Alamitos attracted an overflow field of 12 when drawn on Wednesday, meaning California Chrome will be taking on nine rivals when he lines up in the far outside 10 post under jockey Victor Espinoza.
The actual entrants aren’t exactly on par with the 2014 Horse of the Year, and in fact includes claimers Wrightwood, Presidentsky, Ain’t Misbehavin, Lucky J Lane and Unusual Meeting. There are only two legitimate stakes runners in the bunch.
Point Piper is the best of that pair, finishing second in the November 27 Native Diver Stakes (G3) most recently at Del Mar. The Jerry Hollendorfer-trained six-year-old, who captured the Longacres Mile Handicap (G3) in August, will be facing California Chrome for the second time this season. Point Piper ran sixth behind the popular chestnut when kicking off his 2016 campaign in the January 9 San Pasqual Stakes (G2).
The only other real stakes competitor is Papacoolpapacool. However, the Philip D’Amato charge will be facing black-type rivals for the first time in this spot since finishing a well-beaten ninth in the April 9 Thunder Road Stakes (G3). Since then Papacoolpapacool has been going against optional claiming company.
California Chrome will break just to Papacoolpapacool’s outside but should have no trouble taking command of this contest. Not one in this field owns high enough BRIS Speed ratings to indicate they can go with the Art Sherman-trained five-year-old, who will probably lead all the way home.
One interesting sidenote on the champion though: despite Los Alamitos being where he does most of his training , the Winter Challenge Stakes will be the first time California Chrome has ever competed at the Southern California track.
Rounding out the field are stakes winner Avanti Bello and Howdy. Air Pocket and Ground Rules would each need someone to scratch to draw in from the also-eligible list.
While the Winter Challenge Stakes will be drawing most, if not all, the attention on Saturday, Los Alamitos also scheduled the $100,000 Soviet Problem Stakes for juvenile fillies going a mile earlier in the card.