08/23/2013 2:55PM

Jay Hovdey: Pacific Classic a different kind of animal in Polytrack era

Benoit & Associates
Kettle Corn, by Candy Ride, would be the first Pacific Classic winner to be sired by a Pacific Classic winner.

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Give the Pacific Classic credit. In a racing world increasingly dominated by Triple Crown preps, casino track jackpots, and the two top-heavy days of the Breeders’ Cup, Del Mar’s marquee event still clings to a semblance of relevancy.

The Classic is California’s only million-dollar event. At 1 1/4 miles under conditions of weight-for-age, it answers the questions most often asked in terms of stamina, quality, and speed. The weather’s always good, and the crowd comes out to play. More than 30,000 should be in the house Sunday when the Classic is presented for the 23rd time.

[PACIFIC CLASSIC: Get PPs, watch Sunday's Del Mar card live]

The first 22 runnings have been replete with vivid moments. Best Pal won the first Classic in front of a new, half-built Del Mar grandstand on his way to the Hall of Fame. Cigar put the Classic on the national map in 1996 when he tried, and failed, to win his 17th race in a row. Pleasantly Perfect added the 2004 Classic to his earlier wins in the Dubai World Cup and the Breeders’ Cup Classic. And in 2006, California icon Lava Man completed an unprecedented season sweep of the West’s best events by adding the Classic to wins in the Santa Anita Handicap and the Hollywood Gold Cup.

Beginning in 2007, however, the Classic’s momentum as one of America’s premier main-track races came to a screeching halt when the Del Mar dirt course was replaced with a particular version of the Polytrack synthetic surface then in use at Keeneland and Turfway Park. All intentions were good – Del Mar’s old dirt course had begun to take a terrible toll in terms of racehorse fatalities – but it soon became apparent that the new technology did not come with a set of operating instructions.

The first Polytrack Classic, won by Student Council, was run in a befuddling 2:07.29. The most recent, won last summer by 3-year-old Dullahan, went in a lickity-split 1:59.54. In between, the surface was flooded, fluffed, packed, waxed, and prayed over, while elsewhere in the state Hollywood Park developed a synthetic-dirt hybrid and Santa Anita Park went from synthetic nightmares back to sand and loam.

With the Classic already isolated in terms of geography, continuing to draw deep fields of quality became even more challenging for the racing department of secretary Tom Robbins. Prior to 2007, the race regularly lured accomplished main-track runners from points East and Midwest, including Unbridled, Touch Gold, Medaglia d’Oro, Concern, Jolie’s Halo, Ecton Park, Perfect Drift and, of course, Cigar. Since 2007, that pipeline has gone cold, replaced by runners with out-of-state form over synthetics, such as Go Between, Stately Victor, Dullahan, who has returned, along with the Woodbine ace Delegation.

“We’ve found that trainers seem willing to take a shot with a little different kind of horse,” Robbins said. “Fortunately, you still get the very best available out here.”

Ideally, the Pacific Classic can identify that rare horse for all courses, which is why Sunday’s solid favorite, Game On Dude, looks so tough to beat. He was much the best of the rest last year, when Dullahan beat him a half-length, and this year he already has won the Santa Anita Handicap on dirt, the Hollywood Gold Cup on semi-synthetic, and the Charles Town Classic around a bullring.

But with a dozen in against him Sunday, Game On Dude did not exactly scare the opposition blind. In addition to synthetic specialists Dullahan, Richard’s Kid, and Delegation, the favorite must face a rejuvenated Kettle Corn, fresh from a dead game victory over Paynter in the San Diego Handicap. Victor Espinoza will be back in the saddle for trainer John Sadler.

Owned by Lee and Susan Searing’s CRK Stable, Kettle Corn comes from the same 2007 Kentucky foal crop as Game On Dude. Their paths have occasionally crossed, with Game On Dude regularly getting the best of Kettle Corn.

The last time they met was in the Hollywood Gold Cup, on July 6, when Kettle Corn ran the race of his life to fall just a length short of catching Game On Dude at the end of the 1 1/4 miles. Sadler shuffled the cards for that race and equipped the 6-year-old veteran with a set of blinkers for the first time since Kettle Corn was 3.

“I think he was getting smart, and maybe a little lazy,” Sadler said. “His races have seemed to come up without much pace, and he was dropping too far out of it to be effective. The blinkers kind of woke him up, got him interested again.”

On the Thursday before the Classic, Kettle Corn was waiting patiently in his stall for his turn on the track with a set of Sadler runners. He is a well-made bay stallion with black trim, possessed of a keen head and an air of calm anticipation. His stats read 24 starts, 8 wins, and 10 placings.

“He hasn’t changed all that much physically over the years,” Sadler said. “He’s just a harder, more solid version of the horse he’s always been.”

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Kettle Corn will try to become the first Pacific Classic winner sired by a Pacific Classic winner. He is by Candy Ride, who defeated Medaglia d’Oro in an epic 2003 running of the race. Sadler nearly won the 2011 Pacific Classic with Twirling Candy, also a son of Candy Ride, who was beaten a desperate head by Acclamation, winner of the Eclipse Award that year as champion older male racing for the Johnston family’s storied Old English Rancho.

“I suppose it was nice that Old English Rancho was able to win the Classic after they’ve meant so much to racing in California,” Sadler said. “But of all the tough beats in my gallery of tough beats, that one tops the list. It’s one photo I’d like to get back.”

Or replace with a better one.