08/22/2008 12:00AM

Breaking down the Pacific Classic

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PHOENIX - There's no Heatseeker. No Lava Man, either. Horse of the Year Curlin said "No thanks." Tiago, a Grade 1 winner and force in the division out West, is on the sidelines.

But none of that means Sunday's Grade 1 Pacific Classic at Del Mar isn't full of quality and wagering options. Some familiar names, some upstarts, and some new faces grace a full field at the beach in the 1 1/4-mile Polytrack race.

Let's take the 11, toss them in the hat, shake 'em up a bit, and see what comes out:

Awesome Gem - Second in this race last year and he comes off a perfect prep, rallying to be second on the turf. His big 2007 also included a second in the Grade 1 Goodwood and a third in the Breeders' Cup Classic. Is he as good as he was back then?

Mostacolli Mort - Seems to have found himself on synthetic footing. Big rally for third in the Grade 2 San Diego encourages, particularly since he gets much more ground and should get a nice pace. And that June 26 allowance win at Hollywood looks even better as he beat Zappa, who came back to freak here July 30. Is he good enough to beat this caliber?

Zappa - Soured in the spring, but his Cougar II win at Del Mar on July 30 was a thing of beauty. He looked like a new horse as he opened up early and won in a romp. Obviously, he has no issues with the track or distance, and he beat Well Armed in the Grade 2 San Pasqual in January. Did he fire his best shot last time and does it worry you rider Garrett Gomez, who was up last time, ends up on Go Between instead?

Surf Cat - He's been a constant force in the graded stakes ranks, sprinting and routing, on this circuit the past couple seasons. Kept on well to be second in the Grade 2 San Diego, and Sunday's pace may be more to his liking. Still, for all his success, can he carry it through to 10 furlongs, especially now that he's a bit older and probably not quite as strong as he was a couple years ago?

Barcola - Brings plenty of speed with him from the East. He's handled various surfaces and the long game quite nicely. Can he go out early with the likes of Well Armed and maybe Mast Track, beat them back, and still fend off the closers, particularly in unfamiliar territory in a Grade 1?

Go Between - May well go favored after some strong efforts vs. top-class company. He's proven going this far and just beat many of these - except Mast Track - in the Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup. He has versatility, too. Good as he is, is he simply always going to find someone a smidge better at this level?

Well Armed - His San Diego win here last month was very smart, as he led all the way. But what is he to do when Barcola, Delosvientos, and maybe Mast Track hook/pressure/outrun him early here, particularly since we're tacking on another furlong and a half?

Mast Track - Looked like a new horse when they added blinkers and put him on the lead in the Hollywood Gold Cup, as he led all the way and was never threatened, beating many of these. His connections have said he doesn't need the lead, and he has won from off the pace. But considering his brightest moment came when he was on the lead, can he take back and still beat this caliber?

Delosvientos - Invades from back East in peak form, and you know what he's going to do when the gates open - he's going to go. That's all well and good, but what's he to do when Well Armed, Barcola, and maybe even Mast Track go, too, especially in these new surroundings against tougher foes?

Student Council - The defending champ, though there are those who view that win as somewhat fluky the way last year's surface played. He's maintained good form, though, chasing Commentator when second in the Grade 1 Whitney, running third behind Mast Track and Go Between in the Hollywood Gold Cup, and winning the Grade 1 Pimlico Special in May. Still, that Pimlico Special win came in the slop, something he won't get here, and what if that win last year was a fluke?

McCann's Mojave - Veteran continues to work up a storm. His fourth in the Hollywood Gold Cup behind three of these shows he's not completely outgunned in a spot like this. Then again, his biggest moments have come against weaker foes and going shorter, his last two wins coming in Grade 3's at Golden Gate. Is it fair or reasonable to expect, at age 8, that he can take the necessary step forward to be a real player here?

The skinny

Whether Mast Track is sent doesn't figure to alter the pace picture. Well Armed, Delosvientos, and Barcola all figure to go, so the stalkers/closers figure to get the sharp, contested pace they desire. So the question is, who can take advantage?

As mentioned above, a number qualify, but nearly all come with question marks. The one who looks set to peak is Awesome Gem. Even if you view last year's results (he was second) as fluky the way the track played, you can't ignore his other form. As opposed to 2007 when he had a busy campaign, Awesome Gem's season this year looks designed to get him here ready to vault forward, and that strong turf return run may have done the trick.