08/25/2011 12:15PM

Acclamation ready for something different in Pacific Classic

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Benoit & Associates
Acclamation may be a grass horse, but a Pacific Classic win would not be a shock after three straight one-sided wins.

There is no good reason anyone should think that Acclamation could win the $1 million Pacific Classic on Sunday at Del Mar, except for the fact that he is a proven stayer with speed to spare and he’s in the best form of his life.

I mean come on. He’s a grass horse, right? When’s the last time a dedicated grass horse won the Pacific Classic? Answer: never. He’s also 5, a heckuva time in this day and age to kick a career into high gear, and if Acclamation was any kind of a serious prospect for a world-class, 10-furlong main track event like the Classic, where was he when they ran the Hollywood Gold Cup, or the Santa Anita Handicap, either this year or last?

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Acclamation was bred and raised in the San Joaquin Valley of Central California, known more for its billions in agricultural production than its Thoroughbred output. He hails from a barn that tends to fly under the radar, despite the fact that their horses carry the oldest active set of silks in California. His jockey is hungry and battle-tested, and the good news is that he has won the Pacific Classic before. The rest of the news? It was 20 years ago.

Still, it will be shame on anybody truly shocked if Acclamation comes through Sunday after his consecutive, one-sided victories in the 12-furlong Jim Murray, the 10-furlong Charles Whittingham, and the nine-furlong Eddie Read since May. If nothing else, it will be an historically satisfying sight to see the red and white colors of Old English Rancho worn by Pat Valenzuela aboard Acclamation in the post parade.

Valenzuela, 48, won the first Pacific Classic in 1991 aboard Best Pal, which is not nearly as long ago as Ellwood B. Johnston, the father of Old English Rancho owner Buddy Johnston, began breeding horses in Southern California shortly after the end of World War II. Through the 1950s and into the ’60s, there seemed to be no end to the classy colts and fillies who came off the farm, including such nationally recognized stakes stars as Ruth Lily, Real Good Deal, Fleet Treat, and June Darling.

The breeding of Thoroughbreds, for all its pretense to diligent analysis and application, can be mostly a wacky crapshoot. It is comforting, therefore, that every once in a while you can stand at the stall of a good one and be able to say, “Hey kid. I know where you came from.”

This reporter was first dazzled by a Johnston horse in 1973 when Impressive Style, 4 at the time, was one of the best female sprinters in the West. By then, she’d already won the Del Mar Debutante. Her younger sister, the unraced Lady With Style, was 14 when she produced the filly Winning in Style, who in turn was 18 when she produced Acclamation to the cover of Unusual Heat. This would qualify, in arboreal terms, as an old growth forest.

Don Warren, 59, is a second-generation horseman who went to work galloping horses for the Johnston family more than 40 years ago. Warren’s younger brother Ron was a successful jockey, primarily in Northern California, but Don always held to the path of a trainer. He eventually got his wish, and one of his first good horses was the Johnston’s grass colt Something Lucky, winner of the 1987 Will Rogers and Cinema Handicaps.

“He was a good one, but he got injured and ended his career early,” Warren recalled. “Like Bruce Headley says, ‘It’s not how fast. It’s how long they last.’ Luckily, this guy has lasted quite a while already.”

At that particular moment, “this guy” was drawn to the front of his Del Mar stall by arriving visitors. Crumbs of grain from his feed tub still dotted Acclamation’s muzzle as he nosed his hay rack for attention. In a population of equine inmates, he seemed like one of the happy ones. What was Warren’s secret?

“Grain,” the trainer replied with a chuckle. “Food. He eats more a day than any horse I’ve ever had. He can handle 15 to 16 quarts. Sometimes you worry about him carrying a little too much, but he burns it off pretty good. And he’s perfect right now.”

Whatever Acclamation was eating before the Eddie Read at Del Mar on July 23 ought to be just about right. Going a distance shorter than he usually prefers, he cruised through a half in 48.56 seconds and blasted home to win by 3 1/4 lengths over the solid middle-distance athletes, Jeranimo and Caracortado.

“Maybe he’ll like the Poly as much as he liked the turf that day,” Warren said, referring to the synthetic surface. “When he worked the other day, he came home in 23 flat, so he was moving across it pretty good. I suppose we could have run him in the Del Mar Handicap on the grass the same day. But what the heck – we beat those horses already. Let’s try something different.”

While Acclamation is the best horse he’s ever handled as a trainer, Warren never has been too far away from a good one, although some of them were sold by Old English Rancho before they made their lasting marks, including stakes winners Journalism, Above Perfection, and Disturbingthepeace.

More recently, the trainer has been battling a bad back that has grounded him from galloping and made every step an adventure. Surgery to fuse four vertebrae gave Warren four fused vertebrae but little relief, although he’s not the kind of guy to complain.

“It must be congenital,” Warren said. “My dad’s an old horseman with a bad back, and he keeps apologizing for mine.”

“Don’t let him fool you,” said Buddy Johnston. “Don’s been in a lot of pain. But if we should win on Sunday, I think you’ll see him floating down to the track.”

Warren had other ideas, inspired by the centerpiece of the track’s Plaza del Mar.

“If he wins,” the trainer promised, “we’re all jumping in the fountain.”