By Mark Lamport-Stokes
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Twelve months after American Pharoah ended a stellar career with a commanding victory at the Breeders' Cup Classic, California Chrome is ideally placed to follow suit in similar fashion in the same race on Saturday.
A huge fan favorite just like 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, 'Chrome' is near the end of his illustrious career and is the early favorite to win the Classic, the showpiece in the two-day racing carnival at Santa Anita Park.
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The Art Sherman-trained colt, winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes in 2014, is unbeaten this year after romping to victory in all six races in dominant fashion, including the Dubai World Cup on March 26.
With jockey Victor Espinoza in the saddle, California Chrome has been installed as the even-money morning-line favorite for the $6 million feature event at iconic Santa Anita with its picturesque backdrop of the San Gabriel Mountains.
The 5-year-old chestnut will break from the fourth post in a 10-horse field, leaving Espinoza with the strategic call on whether to charge into the lead early on or bide his time.
"All I can do is have confidence and trust my decisions," Espinoza told reporters. "Chromes, they (the horse's fans) love him as much as I do. It makes my job tougher because I don't want to disappoint them.
"I'd rather be outside, but '4' will be good. As long as California Chrome is ready, I should be able to move out of there quick."
A formidable challenge to California Chrome should come from the late-developing 3-year-old Arrogate, who stormed to victory by a staggering 13 1/2 lengths in the Travers Stakes at Saratoga in August after setting a track record.
BAFFERT EYES HAT-TRICK
With veteran Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith aboard, Arrogate will start on the outside from the 10 hole as a 5-2 choice, and will offer Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert a shot at a third consecutive triumph at the Breeders' Cup Classic.
Baffert saddled 2014 champion Bayern at Santa Anita and last year's winner at Keeneland, American Pharoah, with Espinoza on board.
"We don't know how good he is, but he'll have to be super to beat 'Chrome'," Baffert said of Arrogate. "He's stayed healthy since the Travers and he's maturing.
"But he'll have to be really good to beat Chrome. Now I know how the other guys felt last year when I had American Pharoah."
Twelve months ago, American Pharoah romped to a commanding 6 1/2 length victory over a fading Effinex to bring the curtain down on a spectacular career.
Other runners of note in the Classic include Frosted, the third choice at 5-1, Melatonin at 12-1, and Effinex and Hoppertunity, who are both 15-1 chances.
The Breeders' Cup, a 13-race meeting worth a total of more than $28 million, will be run on Friday and Saturday and hosted by Santa Anita for a record ninth time. There are four races on Friday and nine on Saturday.
(Editing Larry Fine)