08/26/2011 2:26PM

Del Mar Handicap: Imponente Purse a horse on the rise

Benoit & Associates
Imponente Purse, with Chantal Sutherland riding, wins the Sunset Handicap.

DEL MAR, Calif. – Bourbon Bay may ruin trainer A.C. Avila’s weekend.

A four-time graded stakes winner on turf, Bourbon Bay was entered for Sunday’s $1 million Pacific Classic on Wednesday and then entered on Thursday for Sunday’s $200,000 Del Mar Handicap over 1 3/8 miles on turf. Since horses are allowed an entry in only one race on the same day, trainer Neil Drysdale chose the Del Mar Handicap for Bourbon Bay.

Avila will start Imponente Purse in the Grade 2 Del Mar Handicap, but was banking on Bourbon Bay starting in the Pacific Classic. Bourbon Bay won the Cougar II Handicap on the Polytrack synthetic surface last month.

“I’m so mad at Drysdale,” Avila said, with a wry smile. “He won big on synthetic and he decided to go on turf.”

The presence of Bourbon Bay will not scare away Imponente Purse, who won the Grade 3 Sunset Handicap over 1 1/2 miles on turf at Hollywood Park in his last start on July 17. Avila said he has seen gradual improvement in Imponente Purse as the year has progressed.

“Last winter, he was 80 percent, 80 percent and 80 percent in his races,” Avila said. “Since Hollywood, he’s looked good.”

If there is a time to challenge Bourbon Bay, Avila said Sunday’s race is ideal. “He beat me twice at Santa Anita, but my horse is better now,” Avila said.

Avila said that Imponente Purse is finishing his workouts with more enthusiasm, particularly a seven-furlong gallop out of a six-furlong workout here on Aug. 20. “He galloped out in 25 and change and he didn’t do that before,” Avila said.

Bourbon Bay will be a strong favorite in the Del Mar Handicap, which is part of the Breeders’ Cup Challenge program, offering a fees-paid berth to the winner for the Breeders’ Cup Turf at Churchill Downs in November.

BREEDERS' CUP CHALLENGE: Racing schedule, replays, and past winners »

Owned by David and Jill Heerensperger, Bourbon Bay, 5, is winless in four starts on turf since the Grade 2 San Marcos Stakes at Santa Anita in January. In the Cougar II Handicap over 1 1/2 miles on July 29, Bourbon Bay quickened noticeably in the final furlong to win by 2 3/4 lengths.

Respect for Bourbon Bay is widespread among participants, which is why trainer John Sadler thinks a runner-up finish may be all that Celtic New Year can accomplish. Expected to set the pace, Celtic New Year was second behind Pacific Classic hopeful Acclamation in the Grade 1 Charles Whittingham Handicap in June and third behind Imponente Purse in the Sunset Handicap.

“Bourbon Bay is pretty tough, but I think I can be second,” Sadler said. “The Avila horse has beaten us a couple of times.”

The distance will pose no issues for the other remaining runners – Medici Code, Make Music for Me, or Soul Candy. Make Music for Me won an optional claimer over 1 1/16 miles on turf here on July 30 and was fourth in the 2010 Kentucky Derby.

“I love him going a mile and three-eighths,” trainer Alexis Barba said of Make Music for Me. “It’s a natural for him.”