08/31/2011 2:30PM

Acclamation hitting peak at age 5


Excuse all of us provincials for enjoying the heck out of the Pacific Classic last weekend, featuring two awfully good racehorses performing at the top of their games before a just-right crowd who showed up mainly for the pleasure of watching the show. Okay, there were T-shirts, too.

The turnstile spinners cradling armloads of freebie-wear were a tiny minority of the 29,267 reported in the house, though, and when Trevor Denman proclaimed, “They’re at the post for the Pacific Classic,” the cheer that welled up from the stands was heartfelt and legit. I mean, can you imagine such an outburst before the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf? I tried, and I could not.

As a bonus, the Classic offered another chance to pause in the hand-wringing over the supposed sorry state of competition among older horses this season. Combined with the validation of Tizway as the No. 1 Beast of the East, the emergence of Classic winner Acclamation as a possible main-track threat at the level of the noble runner-up, Twirling Candy, was a hopeful sign.

The Classic pair, emerging from an old-fashioned stretch battle that came down to a diminishing head, represent throwbacks to an era of all-around Thoroughbreds who had the class to handle a variety of conditions.

Acclamation, a robust 5, is aging like a fine oak barrel. He has joined a select list of characters who have won major West Coast races on both the grass and the main track (even though, in Del Mar’s case, the main track is the most synthetic of synthetic courses), while Twirling Candy already was hands-down the most versatile performer in California as well as one of the fastest.

Buddy Johnston, Acclamation’s breeder and managing owner, pointed out in post-Classic comments that his horse has a medium-sized foot that benefits more from a firm surface than one leaning toward loose or yielding. This was going back to school for a lot of his audience, but it never hurts, and it makes sense that the impact of a smaller hoof print would penetrate soft ground more deeply – and require more energy to extrricate – than one shaped like a salad plate. Where Acclamation runs for the rest of the year will be in large part determined by this anatomical detail.

Unfortunately, the national reputations of California runners continue to suffer from CSS (Changing Surface Syndrome), the symptoms of which include inconsistent form based primarily upon the type of ground offered by the various major ballparks. And while horsemen always have used surface variations as a ready excuse for failure, the verdict is uncompromising now five years into the state’s experiment with engineered tracks.

Look what they’re up against. Santa Anita is stuck with its increasingly expensive conversion back to dirt for now, just as Hollywood Park is standing by its sandy, synthetic hybrid. And Del Mar? It’s called Polytrack, only it is not the same Polytrack found at Woodbine, or Keeneland, or even on opening day of this summer’s season at Del Mar for that matter. Despite the best efforts of track superintendent Richard “The Wizard” Tedesco, there is still a distinct change in the surface from morning to afternoon, with the attendant anxieties.

Gary Jones, the former trainer and Del Mar resident whose name makes frequent appearances on the Hall of Fame ballot, was in attendance Sunday to cheer on the chances of San Diego Handicap winner Tres Borrachos, trained by his son, Marty Jones, and owned by Gary’s longtime friend and business partner, Geroge Hicker. Alas, Tres Borrachos did not run back to his San Diego and finished sixth, about nine lengths astern of Acclamation and Twirling Candy. Jones is retired, but that does not mean he’s not paying attention.

“He loves Hollywood, and Marty was training him up there,” said Jones, who won the first Pacific Classic with Hall of Famer Best Pal. “Then he came here and ran wild in the San Diego off that. But then they had to keep him at Del Mar, because Hollywood closed, and if it’s one thing I think people are learning about this racetrack it’s that it can be so inconsistent.

“A horse can get used to anything, except constant change,” Jones continued. “You take them someplace different, they’ll get used to it as long as things there don’t change. You keep throwing different conditions at them, though, they’ll never do well with that.

“I don’t begrudge Del Mar management for going to the new surface,” Jones added. “I think they’re trying hard to find the answer, and Tedesco will get it if they leave him alone.”

Tres Borrachos had plenty of company in his apparent dislike for the ground he found on Classic Day. There has been no more consistent local performer this year than Game On Dude, and he could do no better than a fading fourth. How good then is Twirling Candy? The narrow loser on synthetics of both the Hollywood Gold Cup and the Pacific Classic also set a track record on the dirt at Santa Anita and ran away with the Del Mar Derby last summer on the grass.

By modern standards, such a record will get a well-bred colt like Twirling Candy a ticket to a choice breeding deal – which it already has – and retirement at the end of this year. That is too bad, because on the racetrack a 5-year-old Twirling Candy would have the potential of being every bit as exciting as what the 5-year-old version of Acclamation is turning out to be.