Updated on 09/16/2011 8:04AM

Classic coming-of-age ritual

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DEL MAR, Calif. - The challenge of facing older horses is a rite of passage that top 3-year-olds face every fall, one that both Came Home and War Emblem are scheduled to undertake Sunday at Del Mar in the $1 million Pacific Classic.

Only six times in the 11 previous runnings of this Grade 1, 1 1/4-mile race have 3-year-olds faced their elders, but the strike rate among them is quite good, with two victories, by Best Pal and General Challenge, and two other in-the-money finishes.

That it has happened so rarely in this race specifically, and because handicappers generally find the initial meeting across age groups so difficult to decipher, makes for one of the enduring and fascinating questions of fall racing: What does it take for a top 3-year-old to beat his elders?

Bob Baffert, the trainer of War Emblem, already has pulled off this feat, with General Challenge in 1999.

"It takes a superior 3-year-old," Baffert said. "General Challenge was superior. And that seven pounds really helps, too."

The Pacific Classic is run under weight-for-age, not handicap, conditions. At this time of year, 3-year-olds are in receipt of seven pounds from their elders, so they carry 117 pounds, compared with 124 for older horses. That is the one concession they get.

This year, the older horses in California are not considered a cast of superstars. That is another reason to take a shot in this race this year. Bobby Frankel, who has won the Pacific Classic six times, will run the Santa Anita Handicap winner, Milwaukee Brew, but has great respect for War Emblem.

"He's got a great chance," Frankel said from Saratoga. "There's not a real good bunch of older horses out there. He's fast. He's got the right style."

In addition to raw ability, a 3-year-old must, according to trainer Paco Gonzalez, be mentally equipped to face elders this early in the year. Gonzalez, the trainer of Came Home, said he believes his colt fits that criterion.

"It's all right if your horse is mentally ready," Gonzalez said. For Came Home, Gonzalez said, "It's time."

Both Baffert and Gonzalez had the option of going to Saratoga for major races this weekend that would have been against 3-year-olds only. War Emblem could have run in Saturday's Travers Stakes, which also is at 1 1/4 miles. Came Home could have run in the Travers, too, but more serious consideration was given to the seven-furlong King's Bishop Stakes. In the end, though, both decided to keep their colts in California.

"This race is the same distance as the Travers, but he doesn't have to travel," Gonzalez said. "The King's Bishop - he had been running long, and I didn't want to back him up. He's been going 47 seconds, 46 and change for the first half-mile. At seven-eighths, you go 44. Plus, by staying here, you get a weight break, and that's important."

Baffert said that the Travers, on balance, was an easier spot, because of the smaller field and lack of top challengers, save Medaglia d'Oro. But he was reluctant to send War Emblem across the country for the second time in three weeks after running in hot, humid conditions in the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth.

"If he didn't have to ship, the Travers is the softer spot," Baffert said. "That's the place to be. But shipping him twice, that would be a little taxing on him."

The Pacific Classic offers Came Home and War Emblem far more upside from the standpoint of public perception. If either beats older horses, it is a significant accomplishment in their quest for a division title. Yet if they lose, they likely will not be discredited nearly as much as they would had they lost in a field of 3-year-olds.

Still, for War Emblem, the Pacific Classic figures to have more pace pressure than the Travers. Gonzalez is running Bosque Redondo, who probably can't keep up with War Emblem, but will at least try, and the presence of Sky Jack adds significant speed to the race. War Emblem is faster than those horses, but they are of more quality that what War Emblem faced in the Haskell.

"We're taking a chance. If he runs into a speed jam, and gets beat, they'll say he couldn't beat older horses," Baffert said. "Sky Jack, he's one-dimensional. Came Home can rate. But our horse can't rate. He's just a run-off."

Three years ago, Baffert had little doubt General Challenge would win the Pacific Classic, especially, he said, "after Mazel Trick got hurt" earlier in the week.

"I was very confident," Baffert said. "He was a true athlete. He was a very good horse."

Baffert has no doubt as to War Emblem's quality - "He's an athlete, a very gifted animal," he said - but he fears a pace duel could play to one of the late runners.

"After the first quarter or half, I'll know what's going to happen," Baffert said. "I think Frankel stayed here with Milwaukee Brew trying to pick up the pieces. War Emblem's going to have to run hard the whole way. After he disposes of the front-runners, he's going to pick up the second wave."

3-YEAR-OLDS IN PACIFIC CLASSIC

Here is how 3-year-olds have fared against older horses in Del Mar's Grade 1 Pacific Classic, which was first run in 1991. Of the six horses who faced their elders, two have won:

YEAR 3-YEAR-OLD TRAINER ODDS TO $1 FINISH
2001 Until Sundown L. de Seroux $14.40 5th
2000 Tiznow J. Robbins 4.00 2nd
1999 General Challenge B. Baffert 2.60 1st
1994 Dramatic Gold D. Hofmans 3.90 3rd
1994 Silver Music W. Dollase 3.80 5th
1991 Best Pal G. Jones 4.90 1st