08/24/2012 3:19PM

Del Mar: Baffert-O'Neill rivalry at a boil for Pacific Classic

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Shigeki Kikkawa
Game On Dude, trained by Bob Baffert, is the likely favorite for Sunday's Grade 1 Pacific Classic at Del Mar.

DEL MAR, Calif. – The rivalry between the barns of trainers Bob Baffert and Doug O’Neill has been the focal point in the days leading up to the Grade 1, $1 million Pacific Classic at Del Mar on Sunday, but the steel-cage match has been several months in the making.

This spring, O’Neill knocked off Baffert numerous times in significant 3-year-old races. I’ll Have Another beat Liaison in the Robert Lewis Stakes. I’ll Have Another defeated Paynter in the Santa Anita Derby. And then in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, it was I’ll Have Another first, Bodemeister second. Four of a kind will win a lot of poker hands.

Then this past week, Richard’s Kid, heretofore trained by Baffert, was sold to an ownership group aligned with O’Neill, whose barn is being overseen by assistant Leandro Mora while O’Neill sits out a 40-day suspension. Everybody made nice initially, but the feelings apparently laying under the surface were betrayed at a draw party Wednesday night, most notably between Mark Verge, one of the new owners of Richard’s Kid, and Baffert and his wife, Jill, who exchanged unpleasantries in front of numerous witnesses.

Baffert still has the favorite for the race in Game On Dude and a worthy longshot in Jaycito – ironically a horse transferred to Baffert in a move that rubbed raw former trainer Mike Mitchell – but Richard’s Kid, who is seeking an unprecedented third win in the Pacific Classic, is unquestionably the strongest threat to Game On Dude.

And now he’s in another barn, with another rider, as Rafael Bejarano, the leading jockey at the meet, was flushed for Victor Espinoza. Bejarano wound up on Jaycito, furthering the scope of this soap opera.

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But this Pacific Classic is more than a two-horse match. There are 10 entered in the 1 1/4-mile race, including Suggestive Boy, a hotshot South American import who is attempting to follow in the footsteps of Candy Ride for trainer Ron McAnally, and Rail Trip, back in top form since being reunited with his original trainer, Ron Ellis.

Toss in Blue Grass winner Dullahan, a 3-year-old taking on elders for the first time, and the accomplished Chilean filly Amani, and this Pacific Classic is one of the deepest, and most intriguing, in its 22 runnings.

Game On Dude has won four of his last six starts, including consecutive victories in the Californian and Hollywood Gold Cup in his last two outings. He was fourth in last year’s Pacific Classic, but Baffert maintains he is a better horse this year, and his works on Polytrack have been terrific. He drew post 9.

“He’s filled out more, gotten a little bit stronger,” Baffert said. “I like that he’s on the outside there. I just didn’t want to be on the inside, in case he didn’t break. Outside, you’ve got maneuvering ability.”

Chantal Sutherland, who rides Game On Dude, is trying to become the second female jockey to win this race, following Julie Krone, who won on Candy Ride in 2003.

Richard’s Kid was second to Game On Dude in the Hollywood Gold Cup, and since then won the Cougar II over this track. He won the 2009 and 2010 runnings of the Pacific Classic.

“He’s been completely a professional,” Mora said when asked what he’d learned of Richard’s Kid in the short time he has had him. “He has so many gears. When he trains, he waits for the rider to tell him what to do.”

In yet another subplot to the week of drama, Richard’s Kid has been ridden in the mornings by Jonny Garcia, who was I’ll Have Another’s exercise rider this spring.

Suggestive Boy, a four-time Group 1 winner on turf, is making his first start on a synthetic surface, but he has turned in a series of good works for this.

“I couldn’t be happier with the way he’s doing,” McAnally said. “Most Argentineans handle any kind of track.”

Rail Trip was third to Richard’s Kid in the 2009 Pacific Classic. He won the San Diego Handicap here July 28. Because of Ellis’s emotional attachment to Rail Trip, he said a victory would be “my biggest win ever.”

“Not judging by the money,” he said. “That said, I don’t feel any pressure. I’m just enjoying this whole thing.”

A victory by Jaycito would be a welcome salve for owner Ahmed Zayat, whose Paynter had to skip the Travers because of a recent illness and whose Bodemeister was retired this past week. Jaycito has largely underachieved since a win in the Norfolk Stakes nearly two years ago, but he comes off a win over this surface.

“He’s doing pretty good, but he’s going to have to step it up,” Baffert said.

Amani was third in her first start in this country earlier this month, but was a three-time Group 1 winner in her native Chile, including a win against males. She has won 10 times in 12 starts.

Dullahan’s two biggest wins, the Blue Grass and Breeders’ Futurity, were on Polytrack. Akkadian won an allowance race on Polytrack on July 21. Riveting Reason failed against softer company last time. Florida invader Where’s Sterling won his last two starts at Calder, but was no match for Game On Dude when jumping in to his workout Monday.

The Pacific Classic is the ninth race on an 11-race card that begins one hour earlier than usual, at 1 p.m. Pacific time. Admission gates open at 10:30 a.m. Post time for the Pacific Classic is at 5:18 p.m. It will be shown live on TVG, which is the title sponsor of the race.

The Pacific Classic is a Breeders’ Cup Win and You’re In race, offering the winner a fees-paid berth in the BC Classic and a $10,000 travel allowance.

Preceding the Pacific Classic are two excellent supporting stakes, the Grade 2, $250,000 Pat O’Brien for sprinters, featuring Camp Victory and Coil, and the Grade 2, $200,000 Del Mar Mile Handicap, for grass stars such as Jeranimo and Mr. Commons.