09/02/2009 11:00PM

Big finish at Del Mar

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Through many previous seasons, the final five days at Del Mar always have featured some of the best racing cards of the annual summer meet.

Traditionally, there would be the Grade 2 Del Mar Derby, the Grade 1 Del Mar Debutante, and Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity among a few other stakes during an action-packed rush to the finish line. This year, Del Mar is set to outdo itself, offering those three graded stakes, plus two other Grade 1 events on the Labor Day weekend - the $300,000 Pat O'Brien, a Grade 1 for 3-year-olds and up at seven furlongs, and the $1 million Pacific Classic, a Grade 1 for 3-year-olds and up at the Breeders' Cup Classic distance of 1 1/4 miles.

Both the Pat O'Brien and the Pacific Classic have been moved from their usual August dates to this first Sunday in September as Del Mar tries to give the 2009 meet a notable climax, just as Saratoga is expected to experience with the filly Rachel Alexandra meeting older male rivals in the $750,000 Woodward Stakes on Saturday.

In all, Del Mar will offer 13 stakes during the final five days, including seven graded stakes, beginning with Friday's $200,000 Rancho Bernardo Handicap, a Grade 3 for fillies and mares at 6 1/2 furlongs.

The smorgasbord of graded events will continue through Saturday's $300,000 Darley Debutante, a Grade 1 for 2-year-old fillies at seven furlongs, and Sunday's blockbuster card that will include the $350,000 Del Mar Derby, for 3-year-olds at nine furlongs on the turf; the Pat O'Brien; and the Pacific Classic. Then on Labor Day Monday, Del Mar by the sea will offer the $300,000 Del Mar Futurity, for 2-year-olds at seven furlongs. Following a dark day on Tuesday, the meet will conclude Wednesday with the $200,000 Palomar Handicap, a Grade 2 for fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles on the turf.

Here below are the horses expected to compete in each of these graded events, with a few notes on the most logical contenders and upset possibilities.

Friday, Sept. 4

* $200,000 Rancho Bernardo: Stretch-running Evita Argentina, a 3-year-old filly who packs a good late wallop, will try to run down another talented 3-year-old, Carlsbad, who has repeatedly set the pace in longer stakes this year and may now have the stamina needed for the task. Among other dangerous contenders are Ashley's Kitty and Golden Doc A, who were first and second in a stakes-class allowance race over the track on Aug. 16.

Saturday, Sept. 5

* $300,000 Darley Debutante: Trainer Eric Guillot probably has this field of juvenile fillies over a barrel with the speedy Mi Sueno and, possibly, the recent maiden graduate Champagne d'Oro in the Debutante. Champagne d'Oro's status is up in the air pending the split-sample results of her recent positive test for a banned steroid.

Among the juvenile fillies under consideration for this annual fixture are Punctual and Ridemetothemoon, plus three trained by Doug O'Neil: Necessary Evil, Octogarian, and Repo. None of these five would give Mi Sueno much of a battle without significant improvement. Earlier in the meet, Mi Sueno made short work of the best 2-year-old fillies on the grounds in the Sorrento Stakes.

Sunday, Sept. 6

* $350,000 Del Mar Derby: Shapes up as an intriguing three-way matchup between stretch runners Meteore and Battle of Hastings versus the speedy Afleet Eagle, who won the Oceanside Stakes here on opening day, July 22.

Meteore was an impressive winner of the La Jolla Stakes over this course Aug. 15, and Battle of Hastings is considered by many to be the leading 3-year-old turf horse in America, having won three of his last four, including the Virginia Derby at Colonial Downs.

Obviously, the above pair of stretch-running turf pros cannot be taken lightly, but Afleet Eagle's good overall speed makes him a dangerous rival on a course that can be quite favorable to front-runners and near-the-pace types. Other quality horses in this prospective field may include Papa Clem and Chocolate Candy - fourth and fifth, respectively, in the Kentucky Derby - who will be trying grass for the first time in their careers, and Oil Man, fourth to Take the Points in the Grade 1 Secretariat at Arlington on Aug. 9.

* $300,000 Pat O'Brien Stakes: Bob Baffert's exceptionally gifted 3-year-old sprinter Zensational will be tough to catch here, having already defeated older horses in the Triple Bend at Hollywood Park in July and the Bing Crosby here last month. Baffert, who touted this colt earlier this year, believes Zensational is destined to be the one to beat in the Breeders' Cup Sprint at Santa Anita. Those who may attempt to knock him down a peg in this race include Noble Court, Big Bad Leroybrown, Nikki'sgoldensteed, and the oddly named Talkin to Mom Roo, who was second to Zensational in the Crosby last time out.

* $1,000,000 Pacific Classic: While undefeated Zenyatta's presence in this race would have served as a spectacular counterpoint to Rachel Alexandra's Woodward bid at Saratoga, the field does include the versatile and classy Einstein; 2008 Travers winner Colonel John; Hollywood Gold Cup winner Rail Trip, who has 6 wins from 8 lifetime races; the improving 3-year-old Misremembered; Informed, Mast Track, and Song of Navarone, the 1-2-3 finishers in the San Diego Handicap here Aug. 2; Parading, a Shug McGaughey-trained graded stakes winner with Polytrack experience at Keeneland; and possibly the persistent purse nibbler Awesome Gem. In a tight fit, I slightly prefer Rail Trip to continue his winning ways.

Monday, Sept. 7

* $300,000 Del Mar Futurity: The Bob Baffert-trained Lookin at Lucky - winner of the Best Pal Stakes here in August - seems poised to take another step forward at this seven-furlong distance. Other logical contenders may include Make Music for Me and Smiling Tiger, who were second and third, respectively, behind Lookin at Lucky in the Best Pal; plus local maiden graduates Sterling Outlook, Joyful Success, and Sidney's Candy.

Wednesday, Sept. 9

* $200,000 Palomar: While this race will replace the Del Mar Futurity as the closing-day feature, it was not known at press time which fillies and mares are likely to participate.

But of the six other graded stakes that have been profiled above, the most likely winner would seem to be Zensational in the O'Brien, while in my judgment the most likely upset threats are Carlsbad in the Rancho Bernardo and Afleet Eagle in the Del Mar Derby.