By Margaret Ransom
Saturday’s $200,000 Best Pal Stakes (G2) at Del Mar is the first graded stakes event for juveniles in Southern California and also a first glimpse into the future, first for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) in three months and also for next year’s Triple Crown trail.
For the second year, the distance of the Best Pal has been cut back to six furlongs from the previous multiple-year stint at 6 ½, mostly due to the lack of enough juvenile races run in progressive distances from Santa Anita’s spring meeting, through Los Alamitos’ two weeks and here to Del Mar’s summer season. But regardless of distance, whoever wins this will claim – at least temporarily — the title as the circuit’s division leader and early favorite for the Del Mar Futurity (G1) on Sept. 2.
The Best Pal was run as the Balboa Stakes for more than 20 years and over varying distances from nine furlongs to a mile. In 1995, it was re-named for eventual Hall of Fame gelding Best Pal, who won the Balboa in 1990 on his way to victory in the Del Mar Futurity and also a runner-up finish in the Kentucky Derby (G1) the following year. It has been contested around one turn since 1986.
Best Pal, who would have been 31 years old this year, still ranks as the third richest California-bred with $5,668,245 in earnings, sitting only behind two-time Horse of the Year California Chrome, who was the richest racehorse when he retired in early 2017 with more than $14 million in earnings; and 2000 Horse of the Year Tiznow. In addition to the Balboa, Best Pal won the inaugural running of the Pacific Classic (G1) in 1991, and also the Hollywood Gold Cup (G1) and Santa Anita Handicap (G1) over his 47-race career, sweeping the three big events for handicap stars in Southern California. He won 17 stakes races overall, nearly all of which were contested in the Golden State.
Upon his retirement in 1996, Best Pal was returned to his birthplace, Golden Eagle Farm in Ramona just miles from Del Mar at age eight and after two years of well-earned rest and relaxation in a second career accompanying the young 2-year-olds to and from the track, Best Pal died unexpectedly at age 10. The cause of death was reported to be a heart attack. The humbly bred son of Habitony currently rests under a 600-year-old Oak Tree where what remains of Golden Eagle is located today. Flying Paster, Saratoga Six, Timber Country, Dixie Union, Officer, Roman Ruler, Lookin At Lucky and Instagrand a year ago are recognizable names on the list of previous winners, but perhaps the most notable is 2015 juvenile champion and 2016 Kentucky Derby (G1) winner Nyquist.
Best Pal was just one of Golden Eagle Farm’s three winners of this race and the longtime major racing and breeding operation, which hasn’t had a starter since 2017, retains the title as top owner. Retired jockey Alex Solis rode five winners throughout his career and Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert has saddled eight winners.This year, Baffert will send out the maiden We’re Still Here off a pair of decent seconds at 4 ½ furlongs and 5 ½ furlongs, distances clearly too short for this son of Union Rags. He’s got a ton of upside, has some good tactical ability and regular (and co-leading) jockey Drayden Van Dyke, who rode Instagrand to victory last year, will be back aboard.
Kaleem Shah’s highly regarded and $550,000 yearling Schrodinger won his debut at Los Alamitos in wire-to-wire fashion for trainer Simon Callaghan. Named for Austrian physicist Erwin Schrodinger, who developed a number of theories on quantum physics, this son of Jimmy Creed is loaded with talent and has a ton of room to improve off his maiden score. Jockey Flavien Prat seeks a second Best Pal victory.
Trainer Doug O’Neill and owners Pappas Horse Racing Corp. and Charles Bartlett bought Raging Whiskey privately after he broke his maiden at Santa Anita at 4 ½ furlongs by 2 ½ lengths in gate-to-wire fashion in early June. The conditioner then sent the son of Bourbon Courage to New York for a third-place finish in the Sanford Stakes (G3) at Saratoga a month ago. Now back in California, the colt makes his fourth career start here. O’Neill has sent out three winners of this race in the past, including Nyquist. Abel Cedillo rides for the first time.
O’Neill also sends out Fore Left, who has won both of his career starts for owner Reddam Racing, including the Tremont Stakes at Belmont Park two months ago in his last start. The speedy son of Twirling Candy has been training well and has a quick turn of foot, which should help him here in this race which appears to have more off off-the-pace types than frontrunners. Mario Gutierrez will be back aboard.
Collusion Illusion impressed in his debut victory on Del Mar’s opening weekend and is back for his stakes debut for trainer Mark Glatt. Joe Talamo rides this son of Twirling Candy for the first time as Prat sticks with the favorite.
Wrecking Crew had a nice debut for trainer Peter Miller over this track two weeks ago and makes the logical next step. Owners Rockingham Ranch and David Bernsen paid $875,000 in March for this Sky Kingdom colt at the Fasig-Tipton Florida 2-year-olds in training sale and while he’s a long way from making up his purchase price yet, he’s certainly in the right hands to get that done. Hall of Famer Mike Smith takes over for Prat.
Del Secco DCS Racing’s Thanks Mr. Eidson broke his maiden wearing a $150,000 price tag, which is basically maiden special weight company, by a huge 9 ½ lengths a month ago and makes his fourth start in his stakes debut. The More Than Ready colt earned some decent figures last out and a repeat of that effort makes him dangerous for the mild upset. Norberto Arroyo Jr. rides.
The Best Pal is the eighth race on the day with a post time of 5:30 p.m. PT.