It’s hard for me to believe that 31 years have passed since I called the official race chart for the inaugural running of the Pacific Classic at Del Mar.
Best Pal won the 1 1/4-mile event by one length in 1:59 4/5. The California-bred gelding not only defeated his elders that day, he broke the track record.
One of the most popular horses to ever race in California, Best Pal won the first Pacific Classic under the burgundy and gold silks of John and Betty Mabee’s Golden Eagle Farm. The Mabees bred the son of Habitony and the King Pellinore mare Ubetshedid.
Best Pal’s win in the first Pacific Classic was especially sweet for John Mabee. A founding member of the board of directors of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, Mabee served as the organization’s first president and then its chairman for close to 25 years.
John Mabee played an important role in the creation of the Pacific Classic, then won the first running of the $1 million event.
For the race chart, I wrote: “BEST PAL, outrun early while being reserved, raced wide on the backstretch, moved up to be in an easy striking position on the far turn, responded readily to steady left-handed pressure in the drive while gaining strongly, ran down TWILIGHT AGENDA to get the lead in deep stretch and was increasing his advantage in the closing yards.”
Patrick Valenzuela rode Best Pal for future Hall of Fame trainer Gary Jones.
Twilight Agenda finished second. He was followed in order by Unbridled, Festin, Farma Way, Itstallgreektome, Anshan and Stalwart Charger.
I have crafted the morning line for this year’s $1 million Pacific Classic in which nine are entered.
I had a very difficult time deciding who to make the morning-line favorite. The way I see it, either Express Train or Royal Ship probably will be sent away as the Pacific Classic betting choice. I think it really could go either way.
Express Train won Del Mar’s Grade II San Diego Handicap at odds of 5-2 on July 17. Royal Ship finished third in that race as the 8-5 favorite.
In terms of morning-line favoritism, I ultimately gave the nod to Express Train at 3-1, while pegging Royal Ship at 7-2.
I originally was going to make Express Train a 5-2 favorite and Royal Ship the second choice at 3-1. But as a consequence of Independence Hall being a surprise eleventh-hour entrant, I raised the morning-line price for both Express Train and Royal Ship a notch.
I pegged New York invader Dr Post at 4-1. Independence Hall, Tizamagician and Tripoli are each 5-1.
While I was in the process of formulating the morning line, it appeared to me that Express Train, Royal Ship, Dr Post, Independence Hall, Tizamagician and Tripoli all are quite capable of proving a tough customer in the Pacific Classic. I think Daily Racing Form’s Jay Privman was spot on when he wrote that the Pacific Classic morning line “reflects the competitive nature of the race.”
Rounding out the field and attempting to pull off an upset are Cupid’s Claws (15-1), Magic On Tap (20-1) and Sheriff Brown (30-1).
Below are my Pacific Classic selections:
1. Express Train
2. Royal Ship
3. Dr Post
One the reasons that I made Express Train the morning-line favorite and why he’s also my top pick is his fine record (4-3-1-0) on Del Mar’s main track. His lone defeat on that this particular track came in his career debut when he finished second to the highly regarded Eight Rings in a 5 1/2-furlong maiden special weight race for 2-year-olds.
At that time, Eight Rings looked like a rising star for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert. Following his maiden triumph, Eight Rings was backed down to 1-2 favoritism in the Grade I Del Mar Futurity, but he ducked in sharply early and unseated jockey Drayden Van Dyke.
Eight Rings subsequently rebounded to win the Grade I American Pharoah Stakes at Santa Anita. But he then finished a disappointing sixth in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at that same track.
After his poor performance in the 2019 BC Juvenile, Eight Rings continued his less-than-stellar form when finishing fifth and seventh in his only two 2020 starts.
In his initial 2021 start, Eight Rings lost further luster when he finished fourth as the 8-5 favorite in Santa Anita’s Grade II Triple Bend Stakes on May 29.
After the Triple Bend, it’s perfectly understandable why many people were writing off Eight Rings, as evidenced by his 16-1 odds when he ran in Del Mar’s Grade I Bing Crosby Stakes on July 31. But Eight Rings perked up to finish a sharp second in the Bing Crosby, a race he lost by just a neck to Dr. Schivel.
As for Express Train, since finishing second to Eight Rings in the aforementioned 2019 maiden race, he has not lost on Del Mar’s main track, all in two-turn races.
In his second career start, Express Train won a one-mile maiden special weight race by 14 1/4 lengths for owner CRK Stable and trainer John Shirreffs at the 2019 Del Mar summer meet. Back then, I thought Express Train might be every bit as good as Honor A.P., another promising 2-year-old owned by the CRK Stable and trained by Shirreffs. Honor A.P. won the Grade I Santa Anita Derby last year, defeating Authentic, who went on to be the 2020 Horse of the Year following victories in the Grade I Haskell Invitational, Grade I Kentucky Derby and Grade I BC Classic.
Express Train started only once at Del Mar last year. He won a one-mile allowance/optional claiming contest by two lengths on the main track at the summer meet.
As mentioned earlier, Express Train registered yet another victory on Del Mar’s main track six weeks ago when he got the job done in the San Diego. The 4-year-old Kentucky-bred Union Rags colt won the 1 1/16-mile San Diego by a half-length over Tripoli.
Royal Ship, a 5-year-old Brazilian-bred Midshipman gelding, has the look of a major player in the Pacific Classic off his last three races.
Trained by Hall of Famer Richard Mandella, Royal Ship won Santa Anita’s Grade II Californian Stakes on April 17 by a neck over Country Grammer. Country Grammer then turned the tables in Santa Anita’s Grade I Hollywood Gold Cup. Country Grammer won the Gold Cup by a head over Royal Ship.
Royal Ship finished 4 1/4 lengths in front of Express Train in the Gold Cup. And then Express Train finished 1 1/4 lengths in front of Royal Ship in the San Diego.
Mandella has four Pacific Classic wins to his credit. The Mandella-trained Dare and Go took the 1997 renewal in an $81.20 upset when he defeated 1-10 favorite Cigar, whose winning streak was snapped that day at 16. Mandella went on to also win the Pacific Classic in 1997 with Gentlemen, 2004 with Pleasantly Perfect and 2015 with the multiple Eclipse Award-winning distaffer Beholder.
The late Hall of Famer Bobby Frankel and Baffert share the record of six Pacific Classic wins by a trainer. Baffert will break the record if Magic On Tap can find a way to topple his foes this Saturday.
Dr Post goes into the Pacific Classic off a win in the Grade III Monmouth Cup when racing with blinkers for the first time on July 17. His performance was better than the 1 1/4-length margin of victory suggests. The good doctor won going away after racing extremely wide into the lane. Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher trains the 4-year-old Kentucky-bred Quality Road colt.
Independence Hall, trained by Michael McCarthy, has not appeared under silks since he finished third as the 3-5 favorite in the Californian in April. He had made two previous 2021 starts. Independence Hall finished third to Knicks Go and Jesus Team in the Grade I Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 23, then ran fourth to Idol, Express Train and Maxfield in the Grade I Santa Anita Handicap on March 6.
Something to keep in mind is all four of Independence Hall’s wins in 10 career starts have come in races around one turn. The Pacific Classic will be contested around two turns.
I believe that Tripoli should be taken very seriously in the Pacific Classic off his runner-up effort in the San Diego. Running that well in his stakes debut showed that he belongs with “the big boys” like Express Train and Royal Ship. Tripoli was right there at the end of the San Diego despite being fanned wide into the stretch.
Hronis Racing owns Tripoli. John Sadler is the trainer. This owner-trainer team won the Pacific Classic in 2018 with Accelerate and in 2019 with Higher Power.
Mandella also is represented in the Pacific Classic by Tizamagician. The 4-year-old Kentucky-bred Tiznow colt won Del Mar’s Grade III Cougar II Stakes at 1 1/2 miles by 2 1/4 lengths on July 18.
Tizamagician could have a big say in the Pacific Classic. He has finished first or second in seven of his last eight starts. A concern in the Pacific Classic is his lack of a triple-digit Beyer Speed Figure in his 18 career starts inasmuch as Express Train, Royal Ship, Dr Post, Independence Hall and Tripoli all have recorded a triple-digit Beyer on more than one occasion.
Many racing fans are saddened that the Arlington Million, which this year was renamed the Mr. D. Stakes while having its purse slashed from $1 million to $600,000, evidently will never be run again.
Two Emmys, ridden by James Graham and trained by Hugh Robertson, led past every pole in last Saturday’s Mr. D. Allowed to set a snail-like pace (:26.12, :52.43, 1:16.64), Two Emmys had just enough gas left in the tank to win by a neck in a 27-1 upset when able to stave off the late charge by 2-5 favorite Domestic Spending.
With this year being said to be the final year of racing at Arlington Park, it is so sad that the Arlington Million -- the world’s first $1 million Thoroughbred race -- will be no more.
Arlington’s Secretariat Stakes for 3-year-olds, which was renamed the Bruce D. Stakes this year, also will be no more.
How in the world can Secretariat no longer have a stakes race named after him? This is just plain wrong.
I believe the folks at the New York Racing Association should address this wrong by coming up with a race named after Secretariat. And I am not talking about some minor stakes race. New York should have an IMPORTANT race named after the 1973 Triple Crown winner.
It actually makes more sense for New York rather than Arlington to have a Secretariat Stakes anyway. Secretariat made 15 of his 21 career starts at New York tracks. He raced at Arlington Park just once.
Belmont Park, of course, is where Secretariat won the Belmont Stakes by a spectacular 31 lengths in what many consider to be the greatest performance by a Thoroughbred in American racing history.
Come on, NYRA. Please honor Secretariat with an important race named after him.
I have an idea. Why not rename the Belmont Derby, a Grade I race at 1 1/4 miles on the grass, either the Secretariat Stakes or Secretariat Derby? After all, Secretariat was undefeated on the grass. In his two grass starts, he won the Man o’ War Stakes at Belmont Park and the Canadian International at Woodbine. Besides, it makes a lot more sense to have a Secretariat Stakes or Secretariat Derby on the grass than a Man o’ War Stakes on the grass. That’s because Man o’ War never raced on the grass.
THE HEART OF JOHN HENRY
Due to the apparent end of the road for the Arlington Million, there was much discussion last weekend of the first running of the race in 1981 in which John Henry won by a scant nose over The Bart.
John Henry won 39 of 83 starts during his illustrious career. I wondered just how many times he had been victorious when the race had come down to a photo finish.
According to my research, John Henry was involved in 14 photo finishes in which he won or lost by a nose, head or neck. Remarkably, he won 11 of those 14 races, the first of those coming in his career debut in which he eked out a nose victory in a four-furlong maiden special weight race at Jefferson Downs in Louisiana on May 20, 1977. One of those 11 wins also came via the disqualification of Perrault in the Santa Anita Handicap.
Below is John Henry’s record in photo finishes:
Finish (Track) Date Race (odds) Winner if not John Henry
1 by nose (JnD) 05-20-77 maiden special weight race (8-5)
1 by head (EvD) 09-05-77 Lafayette Futurity (5-1)
1 by neck (Bel) 06-25-78 allowance race (3-1)
2 by head (Bel) 07-29-78 G2 Lexington Hcp (5-1) Mac Diarmida
1 by head (SA) 01-01-80 G3 San Gabriel Hcp (8-5 favorite)
1 by neck (Hol) 05-26-80 G1 Hollywood Invitational Hcp (9-10 favorite)
2 by neck (Bel) 06-14-80 G2 Bowling Green Hcp (9-5 favorite) Sten
1 by neck (Bel) 09-07-80 G3 Brighton Beach Hcp (2-5 favorite)
1 by nose (AP) 08-30-81 Arlington Million (11-10 favorite)
1 by head (Bel) 10-10-81 G1 Jockey Club Gold Cup (3-1 favorite)
1 by neck (SA) 11-08-81 G1 Oak Tree Invitational (2-5 favorite)
2 by nose (SA) 03-07-82 G1 Santa Anita Handicap (13-10 favorite)*
2 by neck (AP) 08-28-83G1 Arlington Million (7-5 favorite) Tolomeo
1 by neck (Bel) 09-22-84 G1 Turf Classic (1-1 favorite)
*John Henry finished second but was placed first through the disqualification of Perrault
The only three horses to get the better of John Henry in the above table were Tolomeo, Sten and Mac Diarmida. It should be noted that one of those three horses, Mac Diarmida, was voted a 1978 Eclipse Award as champion turf horse.
John Henry was voted a total of seven Eclipse Awards, one shy of Forego’s record.
BACKGROUND CAPTURES LONGACRES MILE
When I was contemplating who to pick on top in last Sunday’s Grade III Longacres Mile at Emerald Downs, I ultimately opted for Five Star General. I was looking for someone capable of coming from off the pace in a race seemingly loaded with front-running types.
I also elected to take a stand against Anyportinastorm, who was being asked to carry top weight of 123 pounds.
Well, I was right to go with a horse who could come from off the pace. And I was right to try and beat Anyportinastorm. I just pick the wrong darn horse.
The right horse was Background. Sixth early in the field of 11 and ridden impeccably by Rocco Bowen, Background came on relentlessly in the stretch and just got up to prevail as the 2-1 favorite. Windribbon, off at odds of 12-1 and a pace factor from the beginning, shook clear in upper stretch to sport a 2 1/2-length advantage at the eighth pole. It looked like Windribbon might well be on his way to an upset, but then he got nailed in the last jump by Background.
Five Star General? He was just way too far back when eighth early after racing extremely wide into the clubhouse turn. Five Star General never threatened, but he did manage to finish third, two lengths behind Windribbon.
Papa’s Golden Boy vied for the lead to the top of the stretch. He weakened a bit in the lane and finished fourth. Considering the pace situation, Papa’s Golden Boy actually acquitted himself well to lose by only a little more than two lengths in a longer race than he prefers.
Anyportinastorm also vied for the lead to the top of the stretch before weakening to end up sixth.
Background carried 121 pounds. Michael Puhich trains the 4-year-old Florida-bred Khozan gelding. Background races for the Giddyup Stables of Bob and Molly Rondeau.
Bob Rondeau is a retired popular Seattle sports broadcaster. He was the radio voice for University of Washington football and basketball for more than 30 years. Rondeau retired following the 2017 football season.
Rondeau for many years anchored the Fox Sports Northwest broadcast of the Longacres Mile. I sat alongside him when I worked as an analyst for the Longacres Mile telecasts in 2001, 2002 and 2003. It was an absolute pleasure to work with such a pro.
As someone who knows Rondeau, I can attest to what a huge thrill it was for him to win the Longacres Mile.
This was the second Longacres Mile victory for Puhich (whose all-time favorite horse, Turbulator, is the same as mine). Puhich also won the 2012 Mile with Taylor Said.
According to Puhich, late in 2019, he happened to see on television a 2-year-old Khozan colt by the name of Untitled win a six-furlong maiden race for Florida-breds by 11 lengths at first asking. Ralph Nicks trained Untitled for owners Brent Fernung and Michael Sebastian.
Puhich was interested in possibly buying Untitled, but it turned out that the price was way too high. Following Untitled’s maiden win, Gary Barber bought into the colt to become a co-owner with Sebastian. Untitled has gone on to win only two of his ensuing 10 starts. Most recently, Untitled finished seventh in the Benny the Bull Stakes last Saturday at Gulstream.
When Puhich was unable to acquire Untitled, the trainer was tipped off to another Khozan offspring. That’s how Background came to be owned by the Rondeaus and trained by Puhich after being acquired privately from two of Untitled’s breeders, Brent Fernung and Crystal Fernung.
The 32-year-old Bowen, who currently is based at Arlington Park, was overcome with emotion after last Sunday’s Longacres Mile, which was the first graded stakes win of his career. It was a “coming home” of sorts for Bowen, who had not ridden a race at Emerald Downs since 2018. Bowen is the only jockey to have won three straight riding titles at the track that conducts racing in the shadow of majestic Mount Rainier.
The Longacres Mile was Background’s first stakes victory. His final time last Sunday was 1:36.67. He was credited with an 82 Beyer Speed figure.
In his most recent start prior to the Mile, Background had recorded an 88 Beyer in Arlington Park’s Hanshin Stakes on June 26, which he lost by a head when finishing second on synthetic footing. He switched to dirt in the Longacres Mile. Background’s previous three career wins had all come on the dirt at Oaklawn Park.
Below are the Beyers for the Longacres Mile winners going back to 1990 (the figures prior to this year are listed in the 2021 American Racing Manual, which is now digital only and available for free on The Jockey Club’s website):
2021 Background (82)
2020 Anothertwistafate (92)
2019 Law Abidin Citizen (96)
2018 Barkley (94)
2017 Gold Rush Dancer (97)
2016 Point Piper (103)
2015 Stryker Phd (99)
2014 Stryker Phd (97)
2013 Herbie D (100)
2012 Taylor Said (98)
2011 Awesome Gem (96)
2010 Noosa Beach (99)
2009 Assessment (94)
2008 Wasserman (90)
2007 The Great Face (91)
2006 Flamethrowintexan (101)
2005 No Giveaway (93)
2004 Adreamisborn (99)
2003 Sky Jack (105)
2002 Sabertooth (96)
2001 Irisheyesareflying (100)
2000 Edneator (104)
1999 Budroyale (106)
1998 Wild Wonder (111)
1997 Kid Katabatic (105)
1996 Isitingood (105)
1995 L.J. Express (94)
1994 Want a Winner (87)
1993 Adventuresome Love (93)
1992 Bolulight (106)
DEL MAR BEYER ADJUSTMENTS
Speaking of Beyer Speed Figures, there was this item on the Daily Racing Form’s website Sunday regarding figures for Del Mar: “Readers of past performances for Del Mar may notice numerous small changes in Beyer Speed Figures at the meeting since they were initially published. The Beyer Speed Figure team has re-timed some of the races at the meeting and recalculated the track variants in an attempt to provide the most accurate possible ratings for the horses at Del Mar.”
NTRA TOP THOROUGHBRED POLL
Below is the Top 10 in this week’s NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll:
Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)
1. 338 Knicks Go (27)
2. 303 Letruska (6)
3. 253 Essential Quality (1)
4. 225 Maxfield
5. 150 Domestic Spending (1)
6. 139 Silver State
7. 90 Gamine
8. 60 Hot Rod Charlie
9. 50 Shedaresthedevil
10. 41 Mystic Guide
10. 41 Jackie’s Warrior