Updated on 09/17/2011 11:14AM

'Lesser' stakes offer greater value


DEL MAR, Calif. - A $1 million purse buys a lot of publicity. Unfortunately for bettors, it attracts only a handful of horses. That is the only trouble with the Pacific Classic on Sunday at Del Mar and the Travers Stakes on Saturday at Saratoga.

Medaglia d'Oro and Candy Ride offer an interesting match, but with only five starters, the Pacific Classic is not much of a race on which to gamble. It certainly offers less value than the supporting feature, which is the Grade 1 Del Mar Oaks. An evenly matched field entered the 1 1/8-mile grass race for 3-year-old fillies, and it is reasonable to expect the $2 win payoff in the Oaks - even with only six wagering interests involved - to exceed the $2 exacta payoff in the Classic.

It's the same thing regarding the Travers and the King's Bishop Saturday at Saratoga. Defections of Empire Maker and Funny Cide would make the Travers a six-horse field and leave handicappers with a choice between front-runners Peace Rules and Strong Hope or late-runners Sky Mesa and Ten Most Wanted. The short Travers field is one reason the supporting feature, the Grade 1 King's Bishop Stakes for 3-year-old sprinters, may be the most attractive betting contest Saturday. It's easier to find value in a 13-horse field - even if you like the favorite - than it is finding value in a field with six runners.

A closer look at each of the four stakes is in order, starting with Del Mar.

Pacific Classic

Candy Ride may yet turn out to be a superstar. He sure acts like one. He has never lost, and continues to train like a beast. Further, Candy Ride's victory in the American Handicap last out was flattered when runner-up Special Ring returned to set a Del Mar turf course record in the Grade 1 Eddie Read.

But if Candy Ride has a flaw, it will be exposed by Medaglia d'Oro, whose front-running style rips out the hearts of lesser rivals. Candy Ride may be up to the challenge. Yet the pace on Sunday will be unlike any Candy Ride has seen. Though he pressed fast fractions winning his U.S. debut at Hollywood Park, it was over a lightning-fast track. And, in fact, the Quirin-style pace figures Candy Ride earned in two North American starts are well below Grade 1 par.

In order for Candy Ride to win the Pacific Classic, he must do something he has not done yet - cope with a hot pace and still provide a finishing kick. It is something Medaglia d'Oro has done time and time again. On the other hand, if Candy Ride does not win the Pacific Classic, it means he will have done something else for the first time - lose a race.

Del Mar Oaks

The circuit's five turf route stakes for 3-year-old fillies since April produced five different winners: Star Vega (Providencia), Makeup Artist (Senorita), Quero Quero (Honeymoon), Dimitrova (American Oaks), and Katdogawn (San Clemente). The Oaks is the first Grade 1 for the division, and raises the question - whose turn is it this time?

Most likely it will be someone new. The 1 1/8-mile Oaks offers a betting angle similar to one that pops up only a few times each summer - imports from France making their U.S. debut in a Del Mar turf race. Over the past 17 seasons, the "Easy Hellerstein Spot Play" has produced 30 winners from 150 starters (20 percent), and $405.60 in win mutuels. It's an outstanding $2.70 return on investment for each $2 win bet.

While that angle, named after the retired schoolteacher who recognized the trend in the late 1980's, specifically applies to French imports, the idea can be extended to fresh faces from the whole of Europe.

In two of the last three years, the Oaks was won by a European making her first U.S. start - U.K. shipper Golden Apples ($44) in 2001; No Matter What ($34.80) in 2000.

This year, two fillies - Cassis and Well Done My Love - are European imports making their U.S. debuts in the Oaks. On the merry-go-round assumption that there is no division leader, and that a new face is the best face, the Oaks wagering strategy mandates a win bet on both Cassis and Well Done My Love.

Travers Stakes

Conventional wisdom is that Sky Mesa is rounding up to a career best. He may be. But similar to Candy Ride in the Pacific Classic, in order for Sky Mesa to win the Travers he must exceed his best previous effort. Peace Rules, meanwhile, enters as an established colt proven this year to be among the best of his generation. He will not have the same easy lead as when he defeated Sky Mesa in the Haskell, but Peace Rules does not require the front end.

Strong Hope is likely to set the pace, with Peace Rules lapped outside. Going 1 1/4 miles, neither is likely to employ aggressive strategy. Instead, the pace should be moderate. Both colts should be strong for the drive. In order for Sky Mesa or Ten Most Wanted to win, they must catch two front-runners who are more likely to stay out of each other's way than they are to duel head and head.

King's Bishop

If speed can win the 1 1/4-mile Travers, then it also should win the seven-furlong King's Bishop. It is not Zavata's ideal distance, but the issue is negated by the dearth of pace in the King's Bishop. When he won the Amsterdam, Zavata put away speedball Trust N Luck. In the King's Bishop, Zavata faces no such heat. He should have an easier time setting the pace. Posse was a top seven-furlong colt in spring, but his closing style is dependent on fast fractions. It's tough to see that happening Saturday. The prediction is for Zavata to race gate to wire in the 13-horse field.