The Pacific Classic

It’s time for the Grade I Pacific Classic, a 10-furlong dirt race from Del Mar. Along with the Del Mar Futurity, it’s one of the high points of a terrific, loaded meet. The race is a “Win and You’re In” race for the Breeders’ Cup Classic and it’s likely that a couple will point in that direction based on today’s performance. We have a competitive field of 6, with a clear, but not unbeatable favorite. That favorite is Accelerate, trained by John Sadler and ridden by Joel Rosario for the first time. He has a speed edge over the field and he is at his best at 10 furlongs. He loves this distance. He’s 3 for 4 this year overall; and while he lost this race last year, he still ran a 110 Beyer. If he runs his race, it’s his. On the downside, he has been off since the end of May — although some of this has to do with avoiding a confrontation with barn-mate San Diego Handicap (GII) winner Catalina Cruiser.

Dr. Dorr flirted with the possibility of being a top-of-the-division horse earlier this year, especially with his 7 1/4 length win in the GII Californian and accompanying 108 Beyer Speed Figure. He was well-beaten by Catalina Cruiser last time out. He’d need a form reversal — and while there are some factors that hint at that — it’s always tough to bank on a return to a horse’s best in order to win. He is trained by Bob Baffert and ridden by Joe Talamo. Bob Baffert has another horse in the race in Roman Rosso. Ths horse has been running in Argentina and Uruguay and gobbling up GI’s. Baffert doesn’t have great first start with trainer records and he’s certainly ambitious with this one. Ultimately, this horse is very hard to gauge, although I’d err on the side of devaluing those South American GI’s and consider this horse for minor placings only. He’s ridden by Flavien Prat.

Prime Attraction is interesting. He’s never run fast enough to win this race and his last dirt campaign never got close to the 104 Beyer again. He comes off a strong performance in the GII Eddie Read on the turf, which is the surface this horse likely needs to be at his best. He could win today, but I’d be more confident if it were on turf. He’s trained by James Cassidy and ridden by Kent Desormeaux. Pavel finally broke through and won the GI Steven Foster at odds of almost 7-1. He had been flirting with being a GI winner since running a 97 Beyer on debut, the GIII Smarty Jones by open lengths, and finishing only 1 3/4 lengths behind Diversify in the GI Jockey Club Gold Cup. The placings this year were ambitious — and he lost to several of these here in the GI Gold Cup at Santa Anita and GII San Pasquel already. If he improved, he’ll still have to improve more to turn the tables on the others. But, as it stands right now, I don’t think he’s fast enough to win. Pavel is trained by Doug O’Neil and ridden by Mario Gutierrez.

The Lieutenant isn’t fast enough to win here, although he has improved as of late. He captured the GIII All American at Golden Gate and then finished second behind Diversify in the Suburban. He’s also the half-brother to Justify, which has helped his breeding value, but hasn’t made him faster.  He could close into an underneath spot, but the top spot seems too ambitious. The horse is trained by Michael McCarthy and ridden by Drayden Van Dyke. Two Thirty Five has climbed from the claiming ranks into a multiple allowance winner.  Racing in routes has made a significant difference for the team of trainer Richard Baltas and jockey Franklin Ceballos. If he likes the added distance and continues at his best form, he’s a longshot contender to win.



The Gold Cup at Santa Anita

It’s the 79th running of the race that was the Hollywood Gold Cup until 2014. Yes, a short field of 7 will go to the starting gate at Santa Anita in this GI affair. But in that field are three horses who should be considered leaders of the Classic division and who may duke it out again in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill in early November (It’s a “Win and You’re In” race for the Breeders’ Cup.) The horses will run the classic distance of 10 furlongs.

Accelerate had been a nice horse, but he burst on the scene when he beat superstar Arrogate in the San Diego Handicap at Del Mar last summer. He then finished 3rd in the Pacific Classic and had a subpar performance at a mile in the Breeders’ Cup. This year, he’s 2 for 4, with a dominating performance in the GI Santa Anita Handicap — at today’s 10f distance — and a useful win in the G2 San Pasqual. All 4 of his starts have yielded Beyer figures over 100, topping out at 110 in the Santa Anita Handicap. His two losses are to Giant Expectations and by a neck to City of Light who lines up two posts away from him today.

City of Light burst on the scene with an impressive performance sprinting 7f against fellow 3YO’s in the year-end GI Malibu and followed it up again with a 7f win against older in the Triple Bend. The former sprinter then stretched out in the Oaklawn Handicap and, as mentioned, defeated Accelerate by a neck. All three performances (including the Malibu) have brought triple-digit Beyers, topping out at 107 at Oaklawn, where he established himself as a router. He’s never gone 10f — only going the 9 at Oaklawn — which raises a bit of a question.

Dr. Dorr is new on the scene. It took him a while to pass his conditions, but he’s been a different horse this year. He passed his N2X in March over a wet track at odds of almost 12-1 and then won the Santana Mile convincingly as the favorite. He made his graded stakes debut in the prep for this race — the G2 Californian — where he received a Beyer of 108 and decimated the field at 9f. Like City of Light, he’s a former sprinter and has never gone the 10f distance of today’s race. But he’s passed every test given to him this year.

The rest of the field is behind the top 3, although there are some upset contenders. Pavel finished 4th in the GI Dubai World Cup and has some useful finishes in top level races. His best win to date is in the G3 Smarty Jones and his best Beyer came in the GI Jockey Club Gold Cup, where he finished 4th. He seems best used underneath. Full of Luck was soundly beaten by Dr. Dorr in the Californian and would need to improve significantly to reach the top 3. The same goes for Prince of Arabia, who appears outclassed by the top of this field. Little Scotty has risen through the claiming ranks and had a nice performance at the optional 40K level at 10f. But, again, he’d need to improve quite significantly to catch the top 3 in this field.

Analysis: It’s a hard race to make money unless you really like one of the top 3 and combine him with an upset finisher in the exacta. I don’t expect that to happen as the top 2 will likely come from Accelerate, City of Light or Dr. Dorr. I like Accelerate to win because he’s proven at the 10f over the track and has shown he’s a fan of the distance with his two best Beyers at 10f.

Good luck at the races!

Pegasus World Cup

We’ll take a break from 3YO to look at the world’s richest race, the $16 million Pegasus World Cup. Held at Gulfstream, it uses a novel approach to entries, which has created a deep, layered field (with one standout favorite in Gun Runner.) I picked Gun Runner to win the 2016 Kentucky Derby, but that turned out to be a bit early on this horse, who has now won 5 Grade I races, including the top races in the division and the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Today — win or lose — will be his last race as he’s set to retire to stud after the race. He’s the 4/5 favorite and well-deserving. The biggest knock on him is his outside post (10 of 12) — it’s viciously hard to win from the outside at the 9 furlong distance at Gulfstream. Only Big Brown has done it since the renovation of Gulfstream created the difficult conditions.

The rest of the field has some solid horses. Toast of New York reappears after a Classic try against Shared Belief, California Chrome, and eventual winner Bayern. But he only has one race since then — and there’s not a ton of stats on the second start after a 3-year layoff. Still, he showed class in his US races years back, and if he recaptures that form, he could find himself on the board, and maybe even the winner’s circle. Collected beat last year’s winner, Arrogate, in the Pacific Classic, and, when on his game, he can be fast enough to win — not an easy thing to say in this field. Sharp Azteca has been great at a mile and Jorge Navarro always finds a way to get the most out of his horses. Distance is a question, but he loves Gulfstream. Stellar Wind is a great mare, running for new connections in Chad Brown. This seems over her head, but you have to remember that’s plenty of money for finishing well (but much more for winning — $7 million). West Coast won the Travers and continued on to have a good rest of his campaign. He loves to win and is making his first 4YO start. Seems overmatched — surprising for the Travers winner — but he’d need a bit of improvement. The rest appear overmatched or likely to finish underneath, such as Gunnevera. 


I’m intrigued by Toast of New York, as I remember vividly his performance against Shared Belief. He might not be the same horse after the layoff, however, but he’s clearly worth a flyer. I’m also interested in Sharp Azteca, who will take the lead and not give it up. That final furlong may not matter — 8 to 9 furlongs can allow a bit of coasting home with the right pace. And, as much as I respect Gun Runner, who has to be on horizontal tickets, he’s a value-killer throughout the betting unless upsets occur elsewhere. He’s the most likely winner, but there’s value to be found elsewhere, starting with the two mentioned here.


Will Bayern fool the public again?

I love Bayern. Why? Not because he’s an all-time great racehorse, even though he did win a competitive installment of the Breeders’ Cup Classic last year. Instead, I like him because he befuddles the public — never winning as the favorite and winning several times at high odds.

This year, he’s continued his pattern, at least on the losing end of the spectrum. Tomorrow, he may present an opportunity to fool the public once again. He races at Del Mar in the Pacific Classic — and will likely be a decent price. His morning-line is 6-1 and he is facing the great mare Beholder, who is certain to take a disproportionate share of public money due to her reputation and popularity.

Here’s Bayern’s complete PP for reference.

Screenshot 2015-08-21 16.24.48

Last year is covered in depth here, so let’s take a look at his three races this year.

Screenshot 2015-08-21 16.32.22

He was the 4/5 favorite in the GII Churchill Downs, a 7 furlong sprint on Derby Day. He broke slow — compared to his blistering starts of last year — and faded to finish last.

In the Met Mile, he was the 7/2 second-choice behind Tonalist, who had been 4 for 4 over the Belmont surface, including 2 G1 victories over the track. He broke slow again, was rushed to the lead, and faded to finish last once again behind 6-1 winner Honor Code.

He raced at Del Mar in the prep for this week’s Pacific Classic in the G2 San Diego Handicap. Favored once again at 7/5, he ran his best race of the year, but still significantly below his best efforts of the past. He broke better, but eventually lost a protracted battle with Appealing Tale (who has nabbed at the wire by Catch a Flight).

All three of these races have been shorter than the Pacific Classic distance of 10 furlongs (the longest was 8.5f in the San Diego). Bayern has shown that he excels at longer distances, running a career-best 113 in the 10f challenge of the Breeders’ Cup Classic. In contrast, last year’s debacle at Saratoga in the Travers was based on over-optimism following his impressive Haskell — he was originally targeted for the King’s Bishop — and is not representative of what he can do at the distance. With the public likely believing that Bayern has lost a step and not considering the distance question, he should offer value on Pacific Classic Day. And with his past record of fooling the public, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him win at juicy odds once again.

Image: Scott Ableman, Copyright 2014.

The Pennsylvania Derby (GII)

This isn’t the same old Pennsylvania Derby. In fact, it hasn’t been the same old Pennsylvania Derby for the past 5 years. In 2010, after bouncing around the calendar, it landed in its current spot on the racing calendar, the third Saturday in September, which has proven to be very successful. The race is now positioned as a key prep race for the Breeders’ Cup, which is just six weeks out. In addition, the Pennsylvania Derby is four weeks removed from the Travers Stakes and a reasonable seven weeks from the West Virginia Derby, which has helped to secure good fields.

Since this change, the race has a stellar recent record of producing future G1 stars. For example, in 2013, Will Take Charge continued his roll that began in the Travers with a strong win here. He went on to finish second to Mucho Macho Man in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and then went on to win the Grade I Clark against older horses, including Game on Dude, at Churchill Downs in November. In 2011, To Honor and Serve, a two-time Grade II winner as a two-year-old, returned to the winner’s circle with an decisive win in the Pennsylvania Derby. He would go on to be a two-time Grade I winner against older horses, capturing both the Cigar Mile at Aqueduct and the Woodward at Saratoga. Finally, in 2010, Morning Line won the Pennsylvania Derby. A late developing 3-year-old, he would later go on to win a Grade I against older horses in the Carter Handicap at Aqueduct.

This year’s race is no exception to the current trend. It has drawn the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome, who makes his much anticipated return to the races. It also brings in the Haskell winner in Bayern as well as the top two finishers from the West Virginia Derby in Tapiture and Candy Boy.  It should be a competitive race, with many storylines.  On paper, it looks like a three horse race between Chrome, Bayern, and Tapiture, and I expect that it will come down to these three. I see the race coming down to three questions:

1. How will California Chrome (1-1) run off the layoff? 

If he’s at the top of his game, he should be the class of this group. He’s worked well for Sherman, who doesn’t excel at bringing them back (that said, California Chrome is very different than his normal horse). But, it’s a long layoff after a grueling campaign, and he’ll need to bring his best to find the winner’s circle here.

2. Which Bayern (7-2) will show up?

He’s an enigma. His Travers performance wasn’t unexpected, given the history of the Haskell/Travers double, but it wasn’t his first flop as the favorite. He also took tons of money and failed in the Arkansas Derby and the Derby Trial (although he did cross the line first in the Trial). He very well could re-break at the top of the lane, but, in my view, it’s still a significant if.

3. Will Tapiture (5-1) find trouble?

Tapiture, an immensely talented colt who is already a millionaire, has had a knack for trouble finding him. It happened at Oaklawn in the Rebel Stakes –and then it re-appeared again in West Virginia. That said, his performance to get up at Mountaineer in the West Virginia Derby was superb, especially given all the trouble he had in the stretch. He’s run several terrific efforts, and on pure talent alone, could be the best of this bunch


Here’s Tapiture’s Rebel Stakes and West Virginia Derby:

After a brief diversion to second-level stakes with the Matt Winn and the WV Derby, Tapiture has earned the right to take on the best again. This is something that I love to see, and combined with what I’ve seen visually on the track, I think the best value bet will be Tapiture to win at 7-2 or better. I’ll take the chance that he’ll put forth a grown-up effort today and earn a solid win on his way to the Classic.

Listen to the podcast all about the PARX P4, which includes the PA Derby. Check back later for the final P4 tickets from Jason and I.

Image: Shinya Suzuki, Copyright 2011.

On Casual Fandom, the World Cup, and the Importance of Story

I’m never been terribly sure why mainstream media coverage of horse racing essentially disappears post-Triple Crown.  As someone who did not grow up around horse racing (a very suburban, generation X’er, Midwestern childhood — my father is a law professor and my mother writes about macrobiotic foods and healthy living), I too once inhabited the limited place known as the”Triple Crown-only” horse racing world. In comparison to my now deep involvement in the sport of horse racing, I  am very much a casual sports fan for another of America’s part-time sports, soccer.  Like many, I only really pay attention to the World Cup, and I’m enjoying the current one.

So, I ask myself — what keeps me from turning on an MLS game or even the highest-level football, such as the Champions League?  I actually really enjoying watching soccer, and it’s fun to watch the action and opportunities develop so deliberately. I don’t watch outside the World Cup because I don’t know the stories. And knowing the stories — the personalities, the histories, the sentiments —  is essential to the enjoyment of sports.  It’s why rivalries are always compelling theater — the history is known and  usually angry — and its why seven-game series and championship rematches can develop an epic quality.

Yes, the Triple Crown is compelling, but not any more so than other dramatic arcs of racing. Wise Dan’s and Palice Malice’s recent campaigns have been astonishing, and Moonshine Mullin’s rise to grade I winner has been sensational. He is a horse in simply amazing condition. Mucho Macho Man‘s triumph in the Breeders’ Cup Classic is a testament to life after the Triple Crown. Furthermore,  the racetrack and its community tend to be deeply intermingled in ways not typically found in contemporary life.  Rich stories are found in these settings everyday.

We’ve seen recently how much a good story can move the needle.  The American sport-viewing public (and, perhaps, the public in general) has a constant desire for drama and story.  Horse racing — year-round, from all levels — has the ability to provide it.