The Aug. 26 edition of the $1 million TVG Pacific Classic (gr. I) at Del Mar is about more than just a trophy for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, who lost two-time Classic winner Richard's Kid in a swiftly-orchestrated transaction last week.
Previously owned by Zabeel Racing, the 7-year-old horse was sold and transferred to the barn of Doug O'Neill and Leandro Mora Aug. 18 to race for his new owners, a group led by Triple B Farm includes Mark Verge's Westside Rentals, Dave Kenney, and others.
Baffert, who was surprised by the sale, says he's moving on. Going into the 1 1/4-mile race minus one star player from the trio he'd planned to send has him all the more determined to see the contenders he does have in his barn—5-2 morning line favorite Game on Dude and 12-1 shot Jaycito—race well.
"I'm moving forward," the trainer said Aug. 23. "I'm just worrying about the horses I have in training. They're doing good, I just hope they show up."
TVG will televise the Pacific Classic, run on Del Mar's synthetic surface, with a special 90-minute show beginning at 4:30 p.m. PST. Post time for the Classic, race nine on an 11-race card, is scheduled at approximately 5:05 p.m. It will also air on Prime Ticket, Fox Sports San Diego, Altitude, MASN and MSG+. The race is part of the Breeders' Cup Challenge series, offering the winner an automatic entry to the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) Nov. 3 at Santa Anita Park.
Baffert has won three previous editions of the Classic but went a while between, taking the 1999 running with General Challenge, then going until 2009-2010 before back-to-back victories with Richard's Kid. His best chance at beating his own former winner this year comes with Game On Dude, who drew post 9 of 10 contenders entered Aug. 22.
The big bay, owned by Diamond Pride, Lanni Famly Trust, Mercedes Stables, and Bernie Schiappa, will have Chantal Sutherland in the saddle after pairing for triumphs in the Hollywood Gold Cup Handicap (gr. I), Californian Stakes (gr. II), and San Antonio Stakes (gr. II) this year. The duo's only loss in 2012 came in an ill-fated March trip to Dubai where Baffert suffered a heart attack and Game On Dude ran 12th in the Dubai World Cup Sponsored by Emirates Airline (UAE-I).
"He's doing well," said Baffert, who sent the 5-year-old gelded son of Awesome Again through an Aug. 20 breeze at Del Mar, seven furlongs in a handy 1:24 3/5. "He just seems like a stronger horse this year. He's handled everything really well since Dubai; he looks great right now."
Last year Game On Dude and Sutherland won the Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) and Goodwood Stakes (gr. I) and finished second in the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I). Sutherland will attempt to become the first female rider in history to pull off the Southern California "triple" of victories in the Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup, and Pacific Classic.
Baffert also shores up his chances at victory with Jaycito, Zayat Stables' 4-year-old son of Victory Gallop who took the Norfolk Stakes (gr. I) as a 2-year-old but has yet to return to winning ways in graded company. Runner-up in the Strub Stakes (gr. II) at the beginning of the year, Jaycito next finished a disappointing sixth in the Mervyn LeRoy Handicap (gr. II). He returned to winning form last time out July 22 when he took a 1 1/16-mile optional claimer at Del Mar by a length. Rafael Bejarano rides from post 7.
"We're taking a shot with him but it's a million dollar race and we're right here," Baffert said. "He's training good and he likes this track."
Richard's Kid, who will be saddled by Mora while O'Neill is serving a suspension, is the 7-2 second choice on the morning line. Breaking from the 3 hole under Victor Espinoza, the son of Lemon Drop Kid will try making history of his own with an unprecedented third Classic tally. He recently won the July 27 Cougar II Handicap (gr. III) after running second to Game On Dude by 1 3/4 lengths in the Hollywood Gold Cup. Before winning an overnight stakes at Betfair Hollywood Park at the beginning of June, the bay horse started the year unsuccessfully with a trio of off-the-board finishes in Dubai (actually going winless in five starts there from the end of 2011 to mid-2012).
"It's no lie that Richard's Kid made a big move on me in (the Hollywood Gold Cup), so I've got to make sure I've got fuel in the tank to fight him off if he comes at me," Sutherland said. "I've just got to be aware of everything, still ride my race, still do what I do on Game on Dude, but I've just got to be really focused."
Outside of horses trained formerly or currently by Baffert, Kentucky-based Dullahan makes an intriguing addition to the Pacific Classic lineup. The Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) winner has been ambitiously placed but is still seeking his first victory since his Keeneland score; he ran third in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), seventh in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I), and fifth last time out in the Haskell Invitational (gr. I). Dale Romans trains the 3-year-old son of Even the Score for Donegal Racing. He won the Dixiana Breeders' Futurity (gr. I), also at Keeneland, in 2011.
"He's won two grade I races, both on synthetic tracks, and he's run monster races doing it," Romans said. "Obviously he runs good on synthetic, and what big race would we go to in order to run on synthetic right now? The Classic seems to be the only one."
Romans will be at Saratoga Race Course when his 6-1 starter breaks from post 5 under Joel Rosario against older horses.
"It's time for the 3-year-olds to start transferring over to run against older horses," the trainer remarked. "He's developed and he's a lot more mature than he was first of the year. If he likes that racetrack and he moves forward, he should fit. We were trying to make him a dirt horse and we haven't necessarily given up on that, but his synthetic form is proven, there's no way to look past it."
Amani gives the Pacific Classic a feminine flair. The 4-year-old Morning Raider filly beat the boys in her native Chile and made a strong impression in her U.S. debut when she ran third in the Aug. 4 Clement L. Hirsch Stakes (gr. IT) for the Sumaya U.S. Stables of Oussama Aboughazal. She was beaten just 1 3/4 lengths after bobbling at the break, swinging three wide into the lane, and closing with a strong rally. It was her first outing since a Dec. 17 victory in the St. Leger Cristal (Chi-I) at Hipodromo Chile, where she won 10 races and finished second once from 11 starts in a one-year span. Trainer Neil Drysdale will give a leg up to four-time Pacific Classic winner Garrett Gomez, who rides from post 2 at odds of 5-1.
Sharing 5-1 morning line odds and the recent import status is Suggestive Boy, a four-time group I winner in San Isidro. The Ron McAnally-trained runner was second in the June 30 Shoemaker Mile (gr. IT) in his U.S. debut, and comes off a victory in the July 25 Wickerr Stakes going a mile on the Del Mar lawn.
Recent San Diego Handicap (gr. II) victor Rail Trip leaves the rail spot at 10-1 under Jose Valdivia Jr. Reunited this year with trainer Ron Ellis after an unsuccessful stretch with Rick Dutrow Jr., in New York, the 2009 Hollywood Gold Cup winner returned from the sidelines to run fourth in the May 28 Los Angeles Handicap (gr. III). He progressed to a runner-up effort by half a length in a 1 1/16-mile optional claimer in June, and won the San Diego by the same margin July 28. The 7-year-old Jump Start gelding races for Jay Em Ess Stable.
Grade III winner Where's Sterling, off a pair of overnight stakes victories at Calder, recent allowance winner Akkadian, and Riveting Reason, who is multiple graded stakes-placed but only a maiden winner, complete the field.
Where's Sterling, a 5-year-old son of Northern Afleet, breaks from the 4 hole under Paco Lopez at odds of 15-1 for Frank Calabrese and trainer Luis Ramirez. Akkadian, a 4-year-old Tiznow gelding trained by Julio Canani for Gary Broad, drew post 6 and will be ridden by Martin Garcia at 20-1. Riveting Reason, a 4-year-old by Fusaichi Pegasus owned and trained by Myung Kwon Cho, leaves post 10 under David Flores at 30-1.
$1 Million TVG Pacific Classic (gr. I, Race 9, approximate post 5:05 p.m. PST), 3YOs & Up, 1 1/4 Miles (All Weather)
PP., Horse, Jockey, Trainer, Odds
1. Rail Trip (KY), J. Valdivia Jr., R W Ellis, 10-1
2. Amani (CHI), G. K. Gomez, N Drysdale, 5-1
3. Richard's Kid (MD), V. Espinoza, L Mora, 7-2
4. Where's Sterling (KY), P. Lopez, L M Ramirez, 15-1
5. Dullahan (KY), J. Rosario, D L Romans, 6-1
6. Akkadian (KY), M. Garcia, J C Canani, 20-1
7. Jaycito (KY), R. Bejarano, B Baffert, 12-1
8. Suggestive Boy (ARG), J. Talamo, R McAnally, 5-1
9. Game On Dude (KY), C. Sutherland, B Baffert, 5-2
10. Riveting Reason (KY), D. Flores, M Kwon Cho, 30-1