Whoever wins Saturday’s $200,000 Best Pal Stakes (GII) has some big shoes to fill: firstly, for who the race is named after and, secondly, last year’s winner (Nyquist) went on to earn championship status — and three Grade I juvenile victories — before capturing the Run for the Roses this past May.
This year, a talented field of six 2-year-olds loaded with potential will race the 6 ½ furlongs in the traditional prep for the Del Mar Futurity (GI) in three weeks, the summertime closing day feature at the place where the turf meets the surf.
The Best Pal was run as the Balboa Stakes for more than 20 years, and over varying distances, from Saturday’s distance to as long as a mile back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. In 1995, though, the race and was re-named for eventual Hall of Famer Best Pal, who captured this event in 1990 on his way to victory in the Del Mar Futurity and, eventually, a runner-up finish in the Kentucky Derby the following year.
Racing fans would have to have been living under a rock in the early ‘90s to not know who Best Pal was. Even now, 18 years after his death, the fan-favored gelding ranks as the third richest California-bred of all time with $5,668,245 in earnings, sitting only behind 2000’s Horse of the Year TIznow and 2004 Horse of the Year California Chrome, who currently ranks as the richest North American thoroughbred ever.
Best Pal won the inaugural running of the Pacific Classic (GI) in 1991 and also the Hollywood Gold Cup (GI) and Santa Anita Handicap (GI) 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.
Best Pal was sent to his birthplace, Golden Eagle Farm in Ramona just miles from Del Mar, upon his retirement in 1996 after a six-year career. After two years of well-earned rest and relaxation and, then, a happy job accompanying the young 2-year-olds to and from the track, Best Pal lied down and died unexpectedly at age 10 while on the job. The cause of his death was reported to be a heart attack, but if anyone ever saw him run they’d know there was nothing ever wrong with the big brown gelding’s heart. The humbly bred son of Habitony currently rests under a 600-year-old oak tree where what remains of Golden Eagle is located today.
Only one of the six this entrants year is a California-bred — Rinse and Repeat, a Reddam Racing hombred son of Square Eddie who broke his maiden last out at third asking for trainer Doug O’Neill and jockey Mario Gutierrez. He carries some familiar connections, as his owner, trainer and jockey were also responsible for Nyquist a year ago. Rinse and Repeat broke his maiden over this track three weeks ago and though he’s not much of a morning glory, his works have been consistent. He looks like he can sit off the anticipated hot early pace, which will only help his chances in here.
Hall of Famer Bob Baffert has won the Best Pal seven times and seeks his eighth with Kaleem Shah’s Klimt. The $450,000 son of Quality Road, who is named after the late painter Gustav Klimt, took two races to make the winner’s circle but was impressive in romping to a 5 ¼-length romp in a maiden special weight at Santa Anita 4 ½ weeks ago in his second start. He’s had four very impressive works over the local surface since arriving at Del Mar a month ago and will have Baffert’s go-to rider Rafael Bejarano in the irons. He’s got a highest last-race speed figure and draws a nice post position toward the middle of the track in number 5 and will likely take up a preferred position just off the pace from the gate. He looks like a deserving 9-5 morning line favorite.
Trainer Peter Miller sends out impressive first-out winner Big League for his first start in, well, the big league. Rockingham Ranch bought this leggy son of Speightstown out of the Ocala 2-year-old sale five months ago and, after a couple months’ break, he has been training steadily at nearby San Luis Rey Downs since early May. Big League gets the benefit of seasoned jockey Norberto Arroyo Jr., who is hungry in his return to California, and an ideal outermost post position to get his preferred spot either on or near the lead in the early going. He won’t need much improvement off his 3 1/2-length maiden victory to reach the winner’s circle in here.
Thirstforlife ships in from Kentucky and an impressive 6 ½-length romp in a Churchill Downs maiden event nine weeks ago. He carries some impressive connections into Southern California in owners Gary Barber, Michael Tabor and Vincent Viola (St. Elias Stable) and trainer Mark Casse, but the $240,000 son of Stay Thirsty will need to show a bit of improvement in his first foray into graded stakes company after earning a third in the Kentucky Juvenile Stakes in his debut in May, but he gets the benefit of top local jockey Joe Talamo in the saddle, which can only help his chances.
Drafted is a bit of a head-scratcher. He carries some pretty fancy connections in owner Godolphin Racing and trainer Eoin Harty, but owns a very humble pedigree and beginning. Usually the runners wearing the Godolphin blue are either highfalutin’ sales purchases or homebred bluebloods, but Drafted is a blue collar son of Canadian champion sprinter, the humbly bred Field Commisson, and the Darn That Alarm mare Keep the Profit, who was sold for just a mid-four figure price twice in her 18 years of life.
After Harty plunked down $35,000 for this ridgling at the Ocala sale in March, Drafted broke his maiden at first asking at Keeneland before shipping across the pond for an unsuccessful bid in a soggy juvenile sprint at Royal Ascot. Now back in Harty’s California shedrow, the gray has had a couple of decent works over the surface and may provide a surprise now that he’s back on dirt.
Secret House was a first-out wire-to-wire winner for trainer Doug O’Neill and the partnership of Sheep Pond Partners and Head of Plains Partners in late May before putting in a very uninspired effort in the Santa Anita Juvenile five weeks ago. He’s a fair work horse and may improve with the addition of blinkers, but his innermost post position isn’t ideal and he may just be a cut below his rivals in here.