A tremendous 11-race card is on tap at Del Mar on Saturday, led by the 27th running of the $1 million TVG Pacific Classic (GI), a Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In” event for the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI) set for November over the Del Mar main track, as well as the Del Mar Oaks (GIT) and Del Mar Handicap (GIIT) sharing the stage as the undercard co-features.
The weather is supposed to be perfect in Del Mar Saturday, with sunny skies and a high in the mid-70s. Fast and firm all day is the scenario.
Not much can be said about the Pacific Classic that hasn’t been said everywhere about 20 times over the past few weeks and while last year the race buzz was about the meeting of California Chrome, Beholder and Dortmund, this year there may be more scuttlebutt as champion Arrogate — currently North America’s richest racehorse — returns to contest the Del Mar summer feature off a stunning fourth-place defeat as the 1-20 favorite in the San Diego Handicap (GII) a month ago. With much to prove, he faces seven in this year’s renewal, which has been carded as the afternoon’s eighth race with a post time of 5:45 p.m. PT.
California-bred gelding and fan favorite Best Pal, who was inducted into racing’s Hall of Fame in 2010, won the inaugural running of the Pacific Classic in 1991 and since then a group of tremendous handicap stars have claimed top honors at the track located a stone’s throw away from the Pacific Ocean, including Bertrando, TInners Way (twice), Gentlemen, Free House, Skimming (twice), Lava Man, Game On Dude, Shared Belief, the mare Beholder and California Chrome last year.
It’s hard to know what’s really going on with Arrogate and it’s unwise to question a Hall of Fame trainer who conditioned a Triple Crown winner two years ago, but it’s no secret that something has been amiss with the gray son of Unbridled’s Song and those who paid close attention to the Bob Baffert trainee for the past couple of months may have noticed he didn’t seem like his old self.
First of all, he got more time off than his connections initially said he would after returning from his tremendous victory in the March 25 Dubai World Cup (GI) and, additionally, he wasn’t training very hard in the weeks before he shipped to Del Mar for the San Diego.
Arrogate is a horse who has always loved training and did so aggressively since the start of his career, often giving exercise rider Dana Barnes all she could handle. And his works were always ultra-impressive, usually one stride to every workmate’s two and he posted worktab bullets effortlessly and consistently. But for the last two months it seems as if he’s not been as aggressive or strong.
Now, this is not to say there’s anything significantly wrong with the son of Unbridled’s Song, but he didn’t look as tough and his lead changes weren’t as effortless and he seemed a little flat in his post-Dubai works, which showed in the San Diego, as jockey Mike Smith gave up asking anything of him after about a half-mile.
Since then, however, Baffert believes he’s gotten to the root of the problem, trained him harder and tightened the screws and allowed him to get used to the Del Mar surface more, which has been heavier and deeper than in previous years and certainly more so than any track Arrogate has regularly trained over.
He looked more like his old self in his last work and, at worst, it showed that he’s better than he was prior to the San Diego debacle. It’s no secret that sometimes coming back from Dubai can be difficult and even good horses have an off day, so if he really is back to his old self (and just watching him would make one think he’s darn close, if not completely there), he’s a deserving favorite.
If Arrogate runs his race he’s head and shoulders above any horse in the race and he’s versatile, so Smith can place him where he is most comfortable in the early going. If he’s fit enough and ready, which Baffert obviously thinks he is or he wouldn’t be sending him postward, he shouldn’t have much trouble.
Speedway Stable’s Collected is the “other” Baffert in here and without the presence of his stablemate would be the clear-cut favorite off three straight stakes wins, including a 14-length romp in the Precisionist Stakes (GIII) at Santa Anita back in June. The flashy chestnut son of City Zip was on the Triple Crown trail a year ago before finishing 10th in the Preakness (GI) and a subsequent lengthy vacation produced a “different” horse when he returned to action in April, as he won his first race back by 3 ¾ lengths.
Like his stablemate, Collected also has some tactical ability, which jockey Martin Garcia will need to use depending on how the pace sets up. He has earned some monster speed and pace figures and has room to improve even still, but the 10-furlong distance may be a bit of a question against this field. His best makes him an absolute must-use for any exotics and if the favorite falters again, he may be the one picking up the pieces.
Hronis Racing’s Accelerate was the beneficiary of the faltering Arrogate in the San Diego last time out, but that’s not to say he didn’t earn the victory — and he’s improving at the right time. The John Sadler-trained son of Lookin at Lucky, who had been an also-ran for much of his 12-race career before getting blinkers (and a rider change to Victor Espinoza) for the San Diego, ran the race of his career and earned amazingly high speed, class and pace figures in doing so.
The concerns about Accelerate are mostly distance limitations questions. Yes, he won the San Diego by 8 ½ lengths, but it took a faltering Arrogate to do it, and the field behind him that day was not as strong as the bunch as he’ll face today. He’s never tried 10 furlongs and, though he won the nine-furlong Los Alamitos Derby (GII) last year, his best distance seems to be around a mile or maybe a sixteenth further. He’s faced and ran well with some big-time names over his last few starts and was third in the very competitive Breeders’ Cup Mile (GI) and deserves respect, but he won’t offer much value after his last race and will need a similar performance to win. Accelerate and Espinoza will also have company this time on the lead, so he’ll have to work more. He’s training well and looks great on the track, so nobody would be shocked to see a win.
The five remaining horses consist of three former claimers, a marathoner and horse who hasn’t won in two years and has had extensive layoffs.
Hard Aces is a multiple Grade 3 winner who seems to prefer longer events. He is loaded with talent, but he doesn’t win very much. He was second to today’s rival Curlin Road last out in the Cougar II Stakes (GIII) after a bumpy start and a wide trip, but he seems like he’s in a bit tough.
Curlin Road, one of the three former claimers, is riding a two-race win streak from four starts since being haltered by trainer Doug O’Neill earlier this year. He’s definitely improving, but this is by far the toughest field he’s ever faced. His best, though, makes him a good bet for a larger piece of the pie.
Royal Albert Hall was claimed from O’Neill for $50,000 last month and after some adjusting by new trainer Kristin Mulhall (nothing major, just changing things to how she prefers them), the son of Royal Applause makes his dirt debut after a long stretch on the turf. Mulhall said he has worked “phenomenally” on the main track since she got him, including a bullet half-mile in :47 where he took “a ton of dirt” in his face and he’s also got a stride more suited to dirt in that he’s more of a consistent type without a tremendous turn of foot. He has a pretty good resume and several graded stakes placings in his 27-race career and he doesn’t need to improve much to pick up a larger check.
Donworth hasn’t turned out to be what his connections had hoped for when they acquired him two years ago and has yet to post a win. He was third behind a couple of really good horses in the San Antonio Handicap (GII) 18 months ago and second in the San Diego last out, but, overall, he’s a cut below the top choices here again.
Former claimer Sorry Erik is the lone 3-year-old in the bunch and, while a good horse, he seems like he’ll need every bit of reserve talent his connections say he has to have a say here.