Match races began in this country nearly 180 years ago, on Nov. 20, 1822, when the legendary Eclipse defeated Sir Charles in Washington, D.C.
There have been nearly 200 match races in the United States since then, and, if all pieces of the puzzle fit together, the latest one will be presented at Del Mar on July 21, between two of the world’s best sprinters, champion Kona Gold and Caller One, winner of the $2 million Dubai Golden Shaheen.
The major sticking point at the moment is money. Bruce Headley, trainer of the 7-year-old Kona Gold, and Jim Chapman, conditioner of the 4-year-old Caller One, say they won’t match their horses unless Del Mar comes up with a $500,000 purse and irons out a few other wrinkles. If not, this match may burn out before it is even struck.
"At this time, the only thing I can say is we’re having discussions," Del Mar director of racing Tom Robbins said. "In order to make this match race work, the participants have to accept the conditions, as does the TOC (Thoroughbred Owners of California) and the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club. We are having discussions but the only thing that’s firm right now is the date of the race - July 21."
As it stands, unless Headley and Chapman lower their purse demands, or unless Del Mar meets them, the second match at Del Mar in its 62-year history won’t take place.
"They’re going to have to come up with more money," said the 29-year-old Chapman. "Right now, the purse is not $500,000. They want to do it for $250,000 or $300,000, but the money has to be right for us to run these horses together this early in the year. We’re both undefeated (in 2001) and I don’t want to run against Kona Gold until the Breeders’ Cup and the Eclipse is on the line." Chapman did not publicly commit to an alternative race should the match race fail to materialize, but the July 1 Triple Bend Handicap at seven furlongs seems a reasonable option. Kona Gold would run in the Bing Crosby Handicap on July 22 if the match race fizzles.
"We’re ready to run, for $500,000 or some money after the race on the back end, but it’s up to them now," Chapman said. "Bruce committed (to the match) before I did, but Del Mar has got to come up with at least $500,000. They act like it’s not going to work for that amount, but it’s no sense in running against each other yet for any less than that. Both horses are geldings so they have to make their money as race horses and there’s more money down the line without them banging heads right now. That’s why Headley’s saying $500,000, too, and I wouldn’t want to run for any less than that. The Dubai Cup (Golden Shaheen) is $2 million, and my horse is only four years old. I’ve got more to lose than Bruce does. I mean, these two are going to run against each other eventually."
If not in a match race, then in the $1 million Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Belmont Park on Oct. 27.
"Del Mar will have to come up with the money if they want us to run," said the 67-year-old Headley. "Where will they get it from? Maybe they can get a sponsor. I’d hate to take it from the horsemen. That wouldn’t be fair."
The last time Kona Gold and Caller One met was in the 2000 Breeders’ Cup, won by Kona Gold. Caller One finished fourth.
"In the Breeders’ Cup, he was a young horse (three), he broke bad, Corey (Nakatani) rushed him up and he went :20 and change the first quarter and Kona Gold (only) beat him about three lengths," Chapman said.
As far as strategy, should the match occur, Chapman feels he has the edge. "It looks like I have more speed than Kona Gold and that’s a big advantage," he said. "Caller One is so naturally fast and Corey’s a speed rider, but until they come up with the money, it’s not really an issue, because we can’t run together for any less than $500,000. We don’t want to take overnight purse money. It’s not fair to the other horsemen."
Trainer John Sadler, who won the first match race in Santa Anita history in 1991 when his Valiant Pete defeated champion quarter horse Griswold at four furlongs, agrees with Chapman on the strategy.
"Usually, the front horse wins," Sadler said. "Valiant Pete laid a surprisingly close second to the quarter horse. We were right on his hip less than a length away and we were able to beat him, but I would say Caller One would have a big edge."
THE HOMESTRETCH: As if Bob Baffert wasn’t loaded with Point Given, Congaree, Captain Steve and Wooden Phone, now 2000 Santa Anita Handicap winner General Challenge is close to a comeback. The California-bred gelding worked six furlongs at Santa Anita June 14 in a bullet 1:12.40 . . . Robbins says Del Mar’s turf course, which absorbed physical and verbal abuse last year, should be much improved for the 43-day season that begins July 18. "Lief Erickson, grounds superintendent at Santa Anita, has been working with us the past 10 months and the course is doing very well," has been very professional. The course should be in a lot better shape." At Santa Anita, Erickson is called "The Miracle Man." . . . Simon Bray says Startac, who hasn’t raced since finishing 10th in the Kentucky Derby, is pointing to his return in either the Aug. 11 La Jolla Handicap and/or the Sept. 3 Del Mar Derby. "Wherever he runs, he’ll stay on the grass, that’s for sure," Bray said. Startac, a son of 1987 turf champion Theatrical, was thrust into the Kentucky Derby picture after an impressive victory in the Turf Paradise Derby on dirt . . . John Amerman’s New Zealand-bred Happyanunoit could become the first filly or mare since champion Flawlessly to win back-to-back runnings of the Beverly Hills Handicap on Sunday. "She is the soundest she has been in a year and a half," says trainer Bobby Frankel . . . Hall of Fame trainer Ron McAnally hopes to have turf star Dark Moondancer ready for Del Mar, as well as Printempts.