Big John B is the only runner in the Del Mar Handicap that has multiple wins on the Del Mar turf.

Big John B is the only runner in the Del Mar Handicap that has multiple wins on the Del Mar turf.

Benoit Photo

D'Amato Trainees Back on Grass for Big Del Mar Weekend

Big John B, Midnight Storm, and Vyjack have all run on dirt in recent starts.

There's a common thread in three of Phil D'Amato's older grass horses running in stakes on TVG Pacific Classic (G1) weekend at Del Mar.

All three have dabbled, with varying degrees of success, on the dirt.

In the Del Mar Handicap Presented by The Japan Racing Association (G2T) Aug. 19, D'Amato has three entrants—including last-out Eddie Read Stakes (G2T) winner Hunt—but one has particularly shown an affinity for the Del Mar grass during his 44-race career.

Michael House's Big John B is the only runner in a 13-horse field that has multiple wins on the Del Mar turf. The two-time winner of the 1 3/8-mile Del Mar Handicap (2014 and 2015) has three wins overall from four starts on the lawn at the seaside racetrack, and his only loss was a second-place finish to multiple grade 1 winner The Pizza Man in the 2015 Hollywood Turf Cup (G2T).

But the 8-year-old Hard Spun  gelding hasn't competed in a graded turf race at Del Mar since the Hollywood Turf Cup, and hasn't raced in a graded turf race since the San Luis Rey (G2T) in March of 2016 at Santa Anita Park.

Instead Big John B has been competing in longer dirt races. He won the 2016 Tokyo City Cup Stakes (G3), ran second by a neck to grade 1 winner Hard Aces in the 2017 edition of that race, and was a far-back sixth in both the Gold Cup at Santa Anita Stakes (G1) and Cougar II Handicap (G3).

D'Amato didn't make a concerted effort to keep Big John B on the dirt, but for a horse who likes longer distances and has performed well on both surfaces, that's just the way things worked out in recent starts.

"It's a huge advantage (that he's been successful on the Del Mar turf)," D'Amato said. "Big John B won the Del Mar Handicap in the past and he's trying to regain his form of old, but he's still training like he has some good races in him, even at 8.

"You take a shot, and the timing was better to run in those (dirt) races. It didn't work out all the time, but the last race at Del Mar was early in the meet, and even a horse like Arrogate  detested the dirt. Big John B didn't like it, either. Big closers packed it up at the quarter pole."

A day later, Aug. 20, D'Amato has a pair in for the Del Mar Mile Handicap (G2T), which features grade 1 grass winner Midnight Storm  and grade 2 turf victor Vyjack.

Midnight Storm, who has five wins from six starts on the Del Mar turf, including four graded wins, hasn't raced on grass since a hard-trying third in the Breeders' Cup Mile (G1T) at Santa Anita. But late in 2016 and early in 2017, it appeared D'Amato might have a newfound force in the handicap division on the dirt when the 6-year-old son of Pioneerof the Nile  won the Native Diver Stakes (G3) by 7 3/4 lengths and the San Pasqual Stakes (G2) by 1 1/4 lengths.

BALAN: Midnight Storm Speeds to San Pasqual Victory

But from there the water seemed to get a little too deep for Midnight Storm. There was nothing wrong with a close second to Shaman Ghost  in the Santa Anita Handicap Presented by San Manuel Indian Bingo and Casino (G1), but he came in third at odds of 1-2 in the Oaklawn Handicap (G2) and fourth in the Gold Cup at Santa Anita before D'Amato freshened him up for a return to the green.

With an eye on the Breeders' Cup at Del Mar, and horses with the class of Arrogate and Gun Runner  likely to opt for the Breeders' Cup Classic (G1), the idea to go in another direction for Midnight Storm was welcome.

"In terms of Breeders' Cup, when you see the body of Arrogate's work and just knowing how the Pacific Classic and Breeders' Cup Classic are going to potentially turn out, we decided to go on the grass, where we know he's just a different horse, especially at Del Mar," D'Amato said. "So we'll shoot for the Breeders' Cup Mile or the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile (both G1)."

D'Amato ran Pick Six Racing's Vyjack in the Las Vegas Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile Nov. 4, when he finished seventh following a score in the City of Hope Mile (G2T) a month earlier at Santa Anita.

BALAN: Vyjack Sets Course Record in City of Hope

D'Amato's willingness to take chances can cut both ways, and he credits his owners for understanding that each risk to try a new dimension is just that—a risk.

"In order to have success in this game, you have to be able to take shots," the trainer said. "Luckily I have owners that know sometimes it's going to work out—a great example is Ransom the Moon, a synthetic and grass horse who took to the dirt (to win the grade 2 Kona Gold and grade 1 Bing Crosby in 2017)—but sometimes it's not going to work out."

Entries: Del Mar H. Presented by The Japan Racing Association (G2T)

Del Mar, Saturday, August 19, 2017, Race 7

  • Grade IIT
  • 1 3/8m
  • Turf
  • $250,000
  • 3 yo's & up
  • 5:13 PM (local)
11Liam the Charmer (KY)Keeneland Sales GraduateVictor Espinoza116Michael W. McCarthy12/1
22Inordinate (KY)Keeneland Sales GraduateRafael Bejarano118Richard Baltas8/1
33Big John B (FL)Corey S. Nakatani118Philip D'Amato12/1
44Editore (BRZ)Tiago Josue Pereira115Paulo H. Lobo30/1
55Itsinthepost (FR)Tyler Baze122Jeff Mullins4/1
66Monster Bea (KY)Joseph Talamo116Mark E. Casse20/1
77Flamboyant (FR)Brice Blanc118Patrick Gallagher15/1
88Ashleyluvssugar (CA)Gary L. Stevens123Peter Eurton7/2
99He Will (CA)Mike E. Smith115Jerry Hollendorfer12/1
1010Up With the Birds (ON)Jamie Theriot117Philip D'Amato20/1
1111Hunt (IRE)Flavien Prat122Philip D'Amato3/1
1212Mr. Roary (KY)Keeneland Sales GraduateSantiago Gonzalez117George Papaprodromou12/1
1313Prime Attraction (KY)Keeneland Sales GraduateStewart Elliott115James M. Cassidy20/1

Entries: Del Mar Mile H. (G2T)

Del Mar, Sunday, August 20, 2017, Race 8

  • Grade IIT
  • 1m
  • Turf
  • $200,000
  • 3 yo's & up
  • 5:33 PM (local)
11Vyjack (KY)Flavien Prat120Philip D'Amato7/2
22Om (KY)Keeneland Sales GraduateGary L. Stevens122Dan L. Hendricks7/2
33Bal a Bali (BRZ)Mike E. Smith125Richard E. Mandella5/2
44Midnight Storm (KY)Keeneland Sales GraduateRafael Bejarano124Philip D'Amato2/1
55Blackjackcat (KY)Kent J. Desormeaux119Mark Glatt6/1
66Le Ken (ARG)Drayden Van Dyke119Ignacio Correas15/1