The early juvenile stakes in California can bring entrants with wide-ranging backgrounds, but the field for the $200,000 Best Pal Stakes (G2) Aug. 12 is a unique hodgepodge.
The 6 1/2-furlong dirt stakes by the beach at Del Mar not only has local standouts, but imports from Puerto Rico, England, and Florida.
The standout on paper is Kaleem Shah's undefeated Run Away. Trained by Simon Callaghan, the Run Away and Hide colt won his debut at 4 1/2 furlongs in May at Santa Anita Park then came back to win the Santa Anita Juvenile Stakes at 5 1/2 furlongs by 1 1/2 lengths July 3.
What most impressed Callaghan in the Juvenile was the mettle Run Away showed to outduel Argosy Fleet and pull away late.
"He's already battle hardened," Callaghan said. "He showed last time that he has some good fight. We're going to go in as probably the horse to beat, and obviously we wouldn't have picked the (inside post), but he's a fast horse with good gate speed, so tactically he'll be wherever he needs to be."
The farthest trek to Del Mar for the Best Pal since his last race goes to Arawak, owned by Coolmore connections and trained by Wesley Ward. Although he has trained for the Best Pal at Keeneland, the Uncle Mo colt last raced in the Coventry Stakes (G2) June 20 at Ascot, where he finished 12th. Arawak broke his maiden by seven lengths in a sloppy, off-the-turf debut going five furlongs at Belmont Park May 26.
Also in the field is M Racing Group's Master Ruler, an Overdriven colt who will make his first start for trainer John Sadler. He won his first two starts in Puerto Rico—both at the allowance level—and Sadler admitted he's taking a wait-and-see approach with the colt who was a $10,000 yearling purchase at the Ocala Breeders' Sales August sale in 2016.
"The owner is from Puerto Rico, so he saw the horse over there and bought him," Sadler said. "He's done fine (training) for me, but you don't know how to gauge the races over there. Obviously the competition isn't as strong, but that doesn't mean a good horse can't come out of there. (Graded winner) Tonito M. came out of there and I think a good horse can come from any region."
With the lack of allowance races early in the year for winning juveniles, connections are often put in a sink-or-swim scenario against stakes competition, which often makes the early stakes in the 2-year-old ranks compelling.
"It's either run in a stakes or don't run," Sadler said.
Trainer Bob Baffert is in a similar boat with Oklahoma-bred Serengeti, who is owned in partnership by his wife Jill Baffert and Peachtree Stable. The Algorithms colt is arguably the most visually impressive last-out winner in the group, as he broke through for an 11-length score in his second start at Santa Anita June 25.
"He's a fast horse, but there's other quick horses in there, so the trip is important," Baffert said. "This time of year, especially at Del Mar, you just don't know, but he's training well. You're just looking for something positive and there's a couple horses in here that nobody knows about."
Beyond the trainers somewhat forced into stakes competition, Keith Desormeaux will send out maiden Fleetwood, a Munnings colt he owns in partnership with Big Chief Racing and Rocker O Ranch, the same group that owned three-time grade 1 winner Exaggerator before others bought in.
Desormeaux isn't shy about running maidens against open company, as he did Aug. 5, when Dancing Belle finished 5 1/4 lengths behind winner Spectator but 4 1/2 ahead of the rest of the field in the Sorrento Stakes (G2). He's also hoping experience over the main track at Del Mar will be beneficial. One of just two entrants with a race over the track, Fleetwood finished second in his debut July 22. (Entrant An Ocala Ten won a maiden claimer on the same day at Del Mar).
"I just think it's a pattern that's developed over the years. There's no doubt that it's part of my program," Desormeaux said of his willingness to enter maidens against stakes company. "I let horses develop through racing, instead of pounding them (with training) in the morning.
"Horses that have races over this track have a distinct advantage and (Fleetwood) ran too well first time out."
The field is completed by two other relative unknowns in Holly and David Wilson's Dia de Pago, who won his debut at Gulfstream Park June 18, and Peter Redekop's Armour Plate, who broke his maiden at a mile on the Santa Anita turf July 1.
Armour Plate, an Into Mischief colt trained by Eddie Truman, debuted in the same race as Serengeti (second) on the dirt at Santa Anita and finished fourth.
Del Mar, Saturday, August 12, 2017, Race 9
PP Horse Jockey Wgt Trainer M/L 1 1Run Away (KY) Flavien Prat 123 Simon Callaghan 8/5 2 2Dia de Pago (KY) Corey S. Nakatani 118 Vladimir Cerin 20/1 3 3Master Ruler (FL) Evin A. Roman 118 John W. Sadler 15/1 4 4Armour Plate (KY) Rafael Bejarano 120 Eddie Truman 10/1 5 5Serengeti (OK) Mike E. Smith 120 Bob Baffert 9/5 6 6Fleetwood (KY) Kent J. Desormeaux 118 J. Keith Desormeaux 10/1 7 7Arawak (KY) Tyler Baze 123 Wesley A. Ward 4/1 8 8An Ocala Ten (FL) Victor Espinoza 118 Peter Miller 15/1
Del Mar, Saturday, August 12, 2017, Race 9