08/21/2012 12:50PM

Del Mar: Rail Trip, at 7, in the hunt for Pacific Classic’s $1 million

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Benoit & Associates
Rail Trip (center), with jockey Jose Valdivia Jr., wins the San Diego Handicap, earning a berth in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile.

DEL MAR, Calif. – At 7, Rail Trip is good enough to have earned a trip to the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita in November. He secured an automatic berth for the Dirt Mile with a win in the Grade 2 San Diego Handicap at Del Mar on July 28.

His race plans for that autumn day may be subject to change.

Sunday, Rail Trip starts in the $1 million Pacific Classic, three years after he finished third in the race as the favorite. A win would force owner Samantha Siegel and trainer Ron Ellis to reevaluate plans for the autumn. The Breeders’ Cup Classic would become the new goal.

“We’re getting him back in shape,” Ellis said. “Hopefully, he’s ready to make that leap.”

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Getting Rail Trip to the Pacific Classic and planning a start in the Breeders’ Cup would have seemed outlandish last fall. He was at the end of an unsuccessful campaign in New York, and seemed past his prime.

The winner of the Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup in 2009, Rail Trip was beaten a length by Richard’s Kid in the 2009 Pacific Classic. The following year, he was a troubled second in the Hollywood Gold Cup as the 2-5 favorite.

Following that race, Siegel’s late father, Mace, opted to send Rail Trip to New York trainer Richard Dutrow Jr. Rail Trip was winless in five starts in late 2010 and early 2011 while with Dutrow.

Mace Siegel died in 2011. After Rail Trip unseated his rider in a minor stakes at Aqueduct last November, Samantha Siegel wanted the gelding back in California.

“Nothing really clicked back there,” Samantha Siegel said. “When he got back here, he started looking like his old self.”

Rail Trip was back in Ellis’s stable by Christmas, and was in serious training by the spring. Along the way, Ellis mapped a plan focusing on Del Mar’s stakes this summer.

After a fourth in the Grade 3 Los Angeles Handicap for sprinters at Betfair Hollywood Park on May 28 and a close second in an optional claimer there on June 28, Rail Trip rebounded in the San Diego over 1 1/16 miles. He raced near the lead throughout, reached the front in early stretch and won by a half-length over John Scott, a candidate for the Pacific Classic.

“He came out of the race great,” Ellis said. “I see a more confident horse than his last race. He didn’t give up and that was what I was proud of.”

The San Diego ended an eight-race losing streak for Rail Trip, dating back to the Grade 2 Californian Stakes in June 2010. Jose Valdivia Jr. was his jockey then and has ridden Rail Trip this year. He has the mount in the Pacific Classic, seeking his first seven-figure win since Ruler On Ice won the 2011 Belmont Stakes.

For Ellis, naturally guarded by nature, the win was encouraging, but he insists he needs to see more from the Jump Start gelding to be convinced he’s at his best.

“He was a Grade 1 horse when he left and now he’s a Grade 2 horse,” Ellis said. “It’s a process.”

The Pacific Classic will be a tough race for Rail Trip to win.

The field is led by Hollywood Gold Cup winner Game On Dude and Richard’s Kid, the winner of the 2009 and 2010 Pacific Classic. Richard’s Kid won the Grade 3 Cougar II Handicap here in late July.

“We could run a decent third and he’d be building back to his form,” Ellis said.

With his running style of racing near the front, Rail Trip may be close to the speedy Game On Dude for the first half of the race. Ellis and Siegel are hopeful he is competitive enough to offer a threat in the stretch.

A winner of 9 of 20 starts and $1,253,790, Rail Trip may need a career-best effort. Even getting back to this level – a million-dollar race – is gratifying, Siegel said.

“This is the crown jewel of Del Mar,” she said. “We don’t run in many million-dollar races.”