When the field for Saturday’s $300,000 TVG San Diego Handicap (GII) at Del Mar was drawn on Wednesday, not too many people were surprised to learn that only five will line up and face Juddmonte Farms’ handicap division leader Arrogate. North America’s richest racehorse, with more than $17 million in earnings, the big gray colt hasn’t started since his impressive last-to-first romp in the March 25 Dubai World Cup (GI) at Meydan in the middle of the Middle Eastern desert, but he at last is gearing up for a probable start in the Aug. 19 Pacific Classic (GI) and will eventually defend his title in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI) when it is renewed for the 33rd time on Nov. 4 over Del Mar’s main track.
The weather in Solana Beach is expected to be typically beautiful on Saturday, with afternoon highs in the upper 70s and the sea breeze, as always, keeping conditions cool. The intense humidity from earlier in the week is expected to subside and an ideal day of racing is on tap.
The San Diego Handicap has become the major local prep race for Del Mar’s signature event, the $1 million Pacific Classic, but long before California-bred fan favorite Best Pal won the inaugural Pacific Classic 27 years ago, the San Diego was consistently featuring some of the West Coast’s best handicap horses.
Named for California’s premiere southern city, the San Diego Handicap was first run in the track’s first season in 1937 and has grown in prominence and stature on the national racing scene in recent years.
The great California-bred gelding Native Diver was the first to put the race on the national map, winning it three times from 1964 to 1966. The future Hall of Famer’s story is not all that different from last year’s winner, dual Horse of the Year California Chrome’s, in that both Cal-breds were out of inexpensive mares who were bred to young and unproven stallions. Both ran well beyond their pedigree expectations and both represent somewhat humble California connections.
Bates Motel, the champion older horse of 1983, Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI) winner Skywalker, millionaire Skimming in 2000 and 2001 (en route to his back-to-back wins in the Pacific Classic), Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo in 2006, and fellow Dubai World Cup winner Well Armed are just a few of the names to have won the San Diego in years past. California Chrome used the San Diego last year as a springboard to his impressive Pacific Classic romp.
Even though he’ll be making his first start in four months, it’s hard to think Arrogate won’t romp and give Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert a fourth win in this event. The long-striding son of Unbridled’s Song is a classic overachiever and he does nothing that isn’t amazing — from jogging, to galloping, to working and racing. All of his performance figures — speed, pace and class — stand head and shoulders above his five rivals and while 1 1/16 miles is probably a bit short for him, he did win all three times he tackled the distance last year.
Arrogate’s Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith will be back aboard and the pair will break from post three, though it really doesn’t matter from a tactical standpoint. He can go right to the front if he chooses or take back (as we all learned so clearly in his last race, he can win from just about anywhere). He will carry at least nine pounds more than his rivals, but it’s an impost he’s successfully carried at least twice before.
Baffert also sends out Cat Burglar, who suffered a 14-length defeat to another stablemate in Collected in the June 24 Precisionist Stakes (GIII) at Santa Anita. And while some might be inclined to bet the “other Baffert” and that angle has been profitable in the past, this is probably not a time to do it. Yes, Cat Burglar is a two-time winner at this distance and owns a third over this surface, but he’s obviously not as fast as his barn buddy. His overall resume is strong to complete the Baffert exacta under Bejarano, though, so expect him to get a solid ride from post five even if he doesn’t appear capable of holding off the big, gray freight train closing from behind.
Hronis Racing’s Accelerate is undefeated in two Del Mar starts and while he hasn’t won in three tries at this distance, he won last year’s Los Alamitos Derby (GII) at nine furlongs before cutting back to finish a decent third in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (GI). He’s still looking for his first win after four outs this year, but, to be fair, he’s finished right behind names like Midnight Storm, Hoppertunity, Danzing Candy and Collected in graded stakes and optional claiming races. His best earns triple-digit speed figures and he’s a bit of a closer who will get a decent pace to run at under new jockey Victor Espinoza after leading the field to post. Unfortunately for the John Sadler trainee, he figures to finish right behind a really good horse once again.
El Huerfano will probably head right to the front from the break under jockey Evin Roman and while the stakes-placed son of Tannersmyman is coming off a nice allowance win at a mile last out, the Pete Miller trainee has never come close to facing the caliber of the top runner here (and, to be honest, the second and third choices) and is in pretty deep.
Dalmore makes his first start after the ultimate equipment change (gelding) last month and while his connections have always had high hopes for this son of Colonel John, the Keith Desormeaux-trained 4-year-old has been a bit of a disappointment. Hopfully, gelding will put his mind on actual business and he focuses on racing and moves up to pick up a larger piece here.
Once promising Donworth makes his second start after a 14-month break and he’ll need to show a lot more than he did when finishing a well-beaten fourth in the Precisionist last time out. Doug O’Neill trains the son of Tiznow for Reddam Racing LLC.
The San Diego has been carded as the ninth race Saturday and is expected to leave the gate at 6:03 p.m. PT.