While all the pre-race buzz surrounded older runners and former barnmates Game on Dude and Richard's Kid in Sunday's Grade 1, $1 million Pacific Classic at Del Mar, three-year-old Dullahan decided to make some noise of his own.
Campaigned by an approximate 25-strong Donegal Racing partnership, the chestnut colt smashed the previous track record of 2:00.61 set by Acclamation in last year's running of the race when speeding through 1 1/4 miles on the Polytrack in 1:59.54.
Jockey Joel Rosario allowed Dullahan to settle near the rear of the 10-horse field as 76-1 longshot Riveting Reason set the pace through fractions of :23 3/5 and :46 4/5. Riveting Reason was never allowed a breather, though, pressed the entire time by Suggestive Boy and Game on Dude. The latter horse, sent off the 6-5 favorite, got the jump on the field when suddenly moving up to take command through six furlongs in 1:11.
Game on Dude decided to play catch-me-if-you-can and kept motoring right on into the stretch. Dullahan was forced to go five wide around the turn but dug in to inch his way up to the leader's outside. The three-year-old son of Even the Score passed his older rival and pulled off to record a half-length victory to give his East Coast-based trainer Dale Romans a first stakes win at Del Mar.
"They didn't give me any special instructions," Rosario explained. "Just said the obvious: he's a closer, save ground if you can, then make a late run. It worked out perfect. He's a one-paced horse. He just goes and goes. When we went for home and I saw (Game on Dude) in front of me, I knew I had a big chance. My horse was coming and coming. He doesn't stop. He's a nice horse; a very nice horse."
"How about that. Oh my God; he ran great!," enthused Tammy Fox, Roman's assistant trainer. "I'm so glad we can come to California and take the West Coast money. They always take our money, now we're taking theirs."
Dullahan became just the third sophomore to take the Pacific Classic, joining the ranks of Best Pal (1991), General Challenge (1999) and Came (2002). While Dullahan had never raced in California before Sunday, at least one of his owners was eager for the colt to make a trip to the West Coast.
"Jerry Kirke thinks there are only two racetracks in America," said Donegal Racing head Jerry Crawford in early August, speaking of one partner in Dullahan's ownership group. "Del Mar and Santa Anita."
"It's true, I love the Southern California tracks," Kirke laughed on Wednesday when apprised of Crawford's comment during the draw party. "I've been banging the drum for something like this for about three years. 'Let's go to Del Mar. Let's go to the Pacific Classic.' I'm ecstatic and Donegal Racing is ecstatic.
"Several of the other three-year-olds that ran in the Triple Crown are either retired or taking a break from racing," he added. "To have Dullahan being active and training forwardly for the Pacific Classic is amazing. We're up against a tough group of older horses, but we're on his favorite surface and hopefully he'll revert to the form he's shown on it at Keeneland in the past."
While Dullahan's connections had faith in their runner, the betting public sent him off the 5-1 third choice to return $12.60, $5.20 and $3.40. Game on Dude ran well in defeat as the favorite, holding Richard's Kid to third by 2 3/4 lengths.
"Game on Dude ran a good race, the other horse just got us. Dullahan is a nice horse and he thrives on synthetics," acknowledged Game on Dude' trainer Bob Baffert.
"That was him making that move on the backstretch. I didn't send him," said jockey Chantal Sutherland, who had piloting duties aboard Game on Dude. "He just got strong at the five (furlong pole). He wanted to go. When he put his head in front of David's horse (David Flores on longshot Riveting Reason), he was fine.
"Then around the sixteenth-pole, as I was switching my stick to the left hand, I pushed my rein loose. It was dangling at the end; it looked awful sloppy. I haven't done something like that in 13 years. But I don't think it affected anything. He was still doing what he could do. Just unfortunate."
In a move that shocked most people, Richard's Kid was sold and transferred from trainer Bob Baffert's barn to Doug O'Neill's shedrow late last Saturday night. Assistant trainer Leandro Mora has been in charge of the string while O'Neill serves out a suspension.
"The first thing I told him not to do, he did," stated Mora, speaking of jockey Victor Espinoza who was chosen to replace Rafael Bejarano on Richard's Kid. "I told him not to stay inside; he loves to be outside. But he was down inside and that's not where I wanted him. He had a chance to get outside once but he didn't get out. That's the only thing I'm unhappy about."
Rail Trip was third by just a length in the 2009 Pacific Classic, and finished fourth in this 22nd edition of the race. He was followed under the wire by Suggestive Boy, the filly Amani, Jaycito, Where's Sterling, Akkadian and Riveting Reason.
"This was a good race for him. He's getting better and better," asserted Rail Trip's jockey, Jose Valdivia Jr. "This was another step along the way. We had a perfect trip and he ran a good race. There is better to come with him."
Dullahan earned his first win here since taking the Grade 1 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on April 14. That Polytrack test served as a prep for the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, where the chestnut ran huge to be third after a troubled, wide trip. While he didn't factor in his past two races -- unplaced efforts in the Belmont Stakes and Grade 1 Haskell Invitational -- Dullahan showed signs of his pre-Derby form in the Pacific Classic.
The Kentucky-bred colt ran second on the turf at Saratoga last year in a maiden before filling the show spot in the Grade 2 With Anticipation on the grass. He began his love affair with Keeneland's Polytrack when breaking his maiden in the Grade 1 Breeders' Futurity, then ran a decent fourth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile to close out his two-year-old campaign.
Dullahan only competed twice before the Kentucky Derby, posting a runner-up effort in the Grade 3 Palm Beach Handicap on grass and taking the Blue Grass. He improved his record to 3-2-3 from 12 career starts when adding the Pacific Classic to his resume, and the winner's share bumped his earnings up to $1,702,091.
"We had a little over 60 people here, which for us is a very small group. But some of us have never found our way out here from Iowa before," Crawford said after the race. "People are going to insist that this is a synthetic horse because he has won three Grade 1s on synthetic. But there's no one else in the country that has won three Grade 1s on any surface and placed in graded stakes on the turf and finished third in the Kentucky Derby.
"I would respectfully submit that the question with Dullahan is not what surface can he run on, but what surface can't he run on?"
Bred by Phil and Judy Needham and Bena Halecky, Dullahan was purchased for $250,000 at the 2010 Keeneland September Yearling Sale. He is out of the unraced Smart Strike mare Mining My Own, whose first registered foal, the Birdstone gelding Mine That Bird, was named the 2008 champion two-year-old in Canada following a campaign that included stakes wins in the Grade 3 Grey, Swynford and Silver Deputy. Mine That Bird went on to post a 50-1 upset in the Kentucky Derby the following season and also finished second in the Preakness and third in the Belmont Stakes before retiring with more than $2.2 million in earnings.
Farther back in this female line is 1983 champion older mare Ambassador of Luck.