08/16/2004 11:00PM

Classic enters its adolescence

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DEL MAR, Calif. - Compared with the handful of significant main-track races open to all comers at 1 1/4 miles, the Pacific Classic is a toddler. Or, technically, a teen, this being the 14th running of the million-dollar race coming up on Sunday.

The Gulfstream Park Handicap commenced in 1946, giving the winter months an Eastern companion to the Santa Anita Handicap, which was first run in 1935. Of the major Gold Cups, Hollywood (1938) followed Hawthorne (1928) and the Jockey Club (1919). But the real graybeard is the Suburban Handicap, run for the first time in 1884 and in all but three of the 120 years since.

The Suburban has been won by 24 horses who have been elected to the Racing Hall of Fame, including the most recent member, Skip Away. At least, this gives the Pacific Classic something to shoot for. Of the 11 different Classic winners so far, the only one with bona fide Hall of Fame credentials would appear to be Best Pal - but try telling that to the proud owners of Bertrando, Dare and Go, Missionary Ridge, Gentlemen, Free House, General Challenge, Came Home, and Candy Ride, and two-time winners Skimming and Tinners Way.

The Classic began as a mandate from Del Mar chairman John Mabee, who instructed track president Joe Harper to establish a signature race that would attract national attention. This was not as easy as it sounds, since summertime is a tough time to attract national attention if you are any place other than Saratoga.

The million-dollar purse put the Classic on an immediate par with its California counterparts, the Santa Anita Handicap and the Hollywood Gold Cup. The weight-for-age conditions mirrored the best of the late-season races, including the Jockey Club Gold Cup and the Breeders' Cup Classic. And the 10-furlong distance required the race to be taken seriously in terms of condition and pedigree.

But first, they had to move the finish line.

For decades, Del Mar management had been content with their "Crosby Course," which was a fancy name for a main-track race run at 20 yards less than 1 1/4 miles. A perimeter road behind the frontside chute conspired with the traditional placement of the finish line to create the bastard distance, but Mabee knew no one would take the race seriously unless it was run at the proper number. So the finish was moved, temporarily, for the '91 running of the Classic, then made permanent the following year when construction on the new grandstand reached its halfway point.

No one begrudged Mabee winning that first running of the Pacific Classic with Best Pal. Age 3 at the time, he was already an established star after finishing second in Eclipse Award balloting the year before and then finishing a close second in the Kentucky Derby. In addition, Best Pal had to be at the top of his game to handle the field assembled for the 1991 Pacific Classic, which included such champions and major stakes winners as Unbridled, Twilight Agenda, Farma Way, Festin, and Itsallgreektome.

Top to bottom, the 1991 Classic field remains the finest collection of runners ever assembled at Del Mar, although the presence of Cigar in the 1996 edition tended to trump all the rest in terms of precious "national impact." Cigar's defeat that day - ending his 16-race win streak - put the Classic on the map for good.

In the second running, Missionary Ridge took the lead under Kent Desormeaux and never looked back. If he had, he would have seen Eastern invader Jolie's Halo running loose after stumbling at the start and throwing Edgar Prado. Bob Camac, the trainer of Jolie's Halo, later became known as the man who recommended that the mare I'll Get Along be bred to the young stallion Elusive Quality. The result was Smarty Jones.

Cigar was not the only Horse of the Year to appear in the Pacific Classic. Tiznow, then 3, faced older horses for the first time in the 2000 running and was a solid second, tipping the form that would result in his first Breeders' Cup Classic victory later that year.

Defending champ General Challenge finished fourth in 2000 as the odds-on favorite under his last-minute substitute rider, Laffit Pincay, after Corey Nakatani went down hard in a grass race earlier in the day. Always playing the angles, Bob Baffert attempted to have Victor Espinoza switched to General Challenge from the trainer's other entry, River Keen. The stewards found nothing in the rules to allow such a move, but it never hurts to try.

Ecton Park ran third in that 2000 Classic, continuing the trend of losses by horses shipping into Del Mar for the race. The list is long and impressive, led by Cigar and including such stalwarts as Defensive Play, Valley Crossing, Pistols and Roses, Touch Gold, Bonus Pack, and last year's runner-up, Medaglia d'Oro.

But in horse racing, that is ancient history, and meaningless in the face of a fresh challenge. This year, Perfect Drift and Colonial Colony have come west from Kentucky to take their chances against the home team. They woke up Wednesday morning looking at palm trees and sniffing Pacific Ocean air, and if that doesn't inspire them to run their best races, nothing will.