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Looking back on two decades of the Pacific Classic
John Mabee and several other California horsemen founded the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club and began running summer racing meets at the track by the Pacific Ocean in 1970. Attendance and handle showed steady growth, but in 1988 off-track betting was introduced in California, and tracks were challenged to avoid the erosion of on-track customers.
Mabee, a self-made businessman who built his fortune in the supermarket and insurance businesses after migrating west from Iowa during World War II, thirsted for a race that would draw national attention to Del Mar. The track, just north of San Diego, had been in business since Bing Crosby and some of his show-business cronies opened it in 1937.
Del Mar’s biggest race going into the late 1980s arguably was the Del Mar Futurity, which had become a closing-day feature and was actually run on a weekday. Tomy Lee, a future Kentucky Derby winner, won the Futurity in 1958 to give it some cachet, but another Futurity winner wouldn’t go on to win the Derby until Gato Del Sol in 1982.
Some of Del Mar’s other top stakes had a way of marginalizing themselves. There was a Del Mar Derby, but it was run on grass, as was the Del Mar Oaks. The Eddie Read Stakes, another grass race, eventually reached Grade 1 status, but it was a prep for the Arlington Million. The San Diego Handicap, for 3-year-olds and up on the main track, was won by the great Native Diver three straight times in the 1960s, but it was run at the less-than-classic distance of 1 1/16 miles and rarely drew horses from out of state.
*DRF WEEKEND: Handicapping roundups, Q&A with Shug McGaughey
Mabee, who was 80 when he died in 2002, went to Del Mar’s CEO, Joe Harper, with the idea the track should run a million-dollar showcase race for 3-year-olds and up on dirt.
“I think it might have been 1988 when it first came up,” Harper said. “It was all John’s idea. He thought that we couldn’t compete with the other tracks until we had a race worth a million. He pushed me for it for more than three years until the money became available.”
According to Harper, it was Dan Smith, Del Mar’s director of publicity, who came up with the name Pacific Classic for the race. Saturday, Del Mar will run the Pacific Classic for the 20th time, and Harper said he believes the race has indeed landed the track on the map.
“John Mabee was right when he talked about recognition,” Harper said. “We’ve gotten a touch more respect from the media.”
Smith, now senior media coordinator at Del Mar, said he thought the Pacific Ocean, with its proximity to the track, was a natural idea to build a race name on.
“I wanted to add weight to the name by using the world ‘Classic,’ ” Smith said. “There were no other races that used the word ‘Pacific,’ so Pacific Classic seemed a natural. Some also had suggested we call it the Del Mar Million, like the Arlington Million, but that seemed too pat and unimaginative, and what if the day came when the purse had to be reduced? The Del Mar 750 just wouldn’t have the same ring to it. Anyway, the name caught on immediately, and the rest is racing history.”
Best Pal takes Pacific Classic I
The first Pacific Classic, on Aug. 10, 1991, was the first race at 1 1/4 miles at Del Mar in 41 years. A second finish line, 87 feet beyond the regular line, had to be installed.
“I’m going to tell my rider to ride out to the seven-eighths pole, just to be sure,” said trainer Gary Jones, who was running the house horse, Best Pal, in the Classic.
Best Pal was bred and owned by the Mabees, who raced under the Golden Eagle Farm banner. Gelded early on, as John Mabee did with many of his California-breds, Best Pal had a sparkling 2-year-old season, winning the Del Mar Futurity, the Norfolk at Santa Anita, and the Hollywood Futurity, but he was a dismal sixth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Belmont Park, after Mabee had supplemented him for $120,000.
At 3, Best Pal finished second to Dinard in the Santa Anita Derby and once again couldn’t win on the road, finishing second to Strike the Gold in the Kentucky Derby and running fifth in the Preakness. In California, he won the Swaps at Hollywood Park as Jones replaced Ian Jory as trainer. Mabee thought the Pacific Classic would be made to order for his horse, since Best Pal had won three times there in six weeks the year before.
But the heavy artillery showed up for the inaugural. The eight horses who ran had earned more than $11 million. They included Unbridled, winner of the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic; Itsallgreektome, a grass champion; and Farma Way and Festin, whose rivalry in the American Championship Racing Series had stretched from California to New York and now had come back again.
Best Pal, the only 3-year-old in the field, got in with 116 pounds, eight fewer than the seven others. With a quarter-mile to go, Twilight Agenda looked like money in the bank. He had a 2 1/2-length lead, but Best Pal and Pat Valenzuela caught him in the stretch to win by one length. Unbridled finished third. John Mabee thumbed his nose at the experts after the race.
“He would have been 15-1 instead of 9-2 if they had paid any attention to the handicappers in the papers,” Mabee said.
Best Pal tried twice more to win the Pacific Classic but ran third and second. The only multiple winners of the stakes, Tinners Way in 1994-95 and Skimming in 2000-01, were not household names. Both were trained by the late Bobby Frankel, who won the four runnings after Best Pal and the two with Skimming. Out of 19 starters, Frankel also had three seconds and three thirds.
Cigar goes down in defeat
Richard Mandella saddled three Pacific Classic winners, the most renowned being Dare and Go, who pulled off one of racing’s greatest upsets with his victory over Cigar, by 3 1/2 lengths, in 1996.
Cigar’s loss, at 1-10 odds before a record crowd of 44,181, prevented him from passing Citation, who had also racked up 16 straight wins. Mandella’s other horse, Siphon, who had won the Hollywood Gold Cup, was a dangerous front-runner at Del Mar, and Jerry Bailey, riding Cigar as usual, couldn’t afford to let Siphon get away.
“Bill Mott, who’s one of my best friends, tried to overtake Siphon with a horse named Geri in the Gold Cup,” Mandella said recently. “I think Bill and Bailey had this on their minds when they kept Cigar close to Siphon at Del Mar. I wish I could take credit for softening up Cigar with Siphon, but that wasn’t my intention.”
The crowd booed Dare and Go and Alex Solis as they returned to the winner’s circle, and Mandella got hate mail, plus an anonymous fax that “threatened me,” Mandella said. “It said that I better not go out at night, in language that you couldn’t use in your article.”
Mott thought a third horse in the pace scenario, Dramatic Gold, contributed to Cigar’s defeat.
“Being lapped by [Dramatic Gold] on the outside forced the issue,” Mott said. “Dramatic Gold made Siphon and Cigar run too damn fast. That was the deciding factor. Our plan was to make sure Siphon didn’t get away and then take a chance that nobody could catch us late. Now that I look back, this was an error in judgment on my part. We didn’t intend to go the first mile in [1:33 3/5]. But I can’t cast the blame. I was as responsible as anybody for the way the race played out.”
Mandella had planned to run a third horse, Soul of the Matter, against Cigar, but he suffered a career-ending foot injury a few days before the race.
“That was life in the big city,” Mandella said. “I was fortunate to have so many good horses that we could still run the two we did. For a while, I thought about taking the easy route with Dare and Go and put him in a little stake. But there didn’t seem to be much gain in that, considering the way he had been training. He was always a capable horse. It was hard to get the unsoundness out of him. But anybody who saw him train the last couple of weeks before the race would have seen him bloom and get better and better every day.”
Krone wins aboard Candy Ride
Mandella’s other wins in the Pacific Classic were with Gentlemen in 1997 (Siphon was second) and Pleasantly Perfect in 2004. Del Mar had to run the race seven times before Gentlemen became the first favorite to win. Bailey rode Pleasantly Perfect, his only Classic win. Garrett Gomez has ridden four winners, two more than anyone else. He had the pair with Skimming, Borrego in 2005, and Go Between in 2008.
Bailey finished second with odds-on favorite Medaglia d’Oro in 2003, the year Candy Ride and Julie Krone won by 3 1/4 lengths in what is still the stakes-record time of 1:59.11.
Candy Ride, trained by Ron McAnally for Sid and Jenny Craig, won for the sixth straight time without a loss and because of injuries never raced again. Krone, the only female jockey to win the Classic, was a replacement for Gary Stevens, after McAnally had considered hiring David Flores or Mike Smith. Stevens was seriously injured in a spill at the end of the Arlington Million a week before the Classic. But he was on hand the day of the race to give Krone some insights into riding the Argentine-bred.
They met in the jockeys’ room.
“Gary told me that that was our ‘Seabiscuit’ moment,” said the 46-year-old Krone, speaking from her home in Carlsbad, Calif. She retired from the game in 2004; gave birth [dad is Daily Racing Form columnist Jay Hovdey] to a daughter, Lorelei, who will be 5 next month; and is in the final stages of rehab after suffering a broken femur in an accident at a riding facility in March.
In the movie “Seabiscuit,” in which Stevens played George Woolf, there was an 11th-hour meeting in a hospital between the injured Red Pollard, played by Tobey Maguire, and Woolf, the substitute rider, before the Seabiscuit-War Admiral match race in 1938. Pollard told Woolf what quirks Seabiscuit had.
“Gary was very confident that Candy Ride would win,” Krone said. “I worked him once before the race and looked at tapes of his other races. He was a push-button horse, especially responsive. He was so pure and so fast. I was very happy to win, because the race meant so much to the Craigs. That race will have to go down as one of the five best I ever won. But it’s hard to make a true comparison of Candy Ride with the other good horses I rode, because I only got the chance to ride him that one time.”
Nobody knows how many times the Argentine-bred Candy Ride ran in South America before the late Sid Craig bought him. The record shows only three starts down there, but there were widespread reports at the time that he raced often at bush tracks and the results were never recorded. McAnally saw tapes of some of Candy Ride’s races and said to Craig: “Sid, if you’re ever going to win the Pacific Classic, it will be with this horse.”
Craig, who lived near Del Mar with his wife, paid $900,000 for Candy Ride. In a prep for the Classic, Candy Ride won the American Handicap at Hollywood Park on the Fourth of July. Stevens’s advice to Krone on Classic race day was fairly simple: “If a horse gets to the front of him, don’t hit him, just stay busy on him to keep him from getting bored.”
Candy Ride pulled away from Medaglia d’Oro at the top of the stretch. Sid Craig could finally hold a party that wasn’t a sick joke. In 1992, he scheduled a soiree after the Classic, in anticipation of Paseana winning. The Argentine-bred mare finished fifth. The party went on, but the booze tasted more like hemlock. In 1999, Craig thought Smile Again was his Classic horse, but they don’t give prizes for who’s ahead after six furlongs. Smile Again finished sixth. In 1996, Cigar’s year, Allen Paulson, his owner, told friends that he couldn’t schedule a victory party because it would be bad luck. Craig told Paulson that he would host the party and they could beat the superstition that way. The party, if that is the word, went on, but somebody forgot to order the black crepe.
Where underdogs take centerstage
Winning it is ambrosia, but the Pacific Classic is as fickle as the race is old. Bobby Frankel, who died in November, may never have realized how extraordinary it was to win the race four times with just two horses. The list is lengthy with horses who won as non-favorites and then came back and failed even though the betting public now liked them. Lava Man’s winning effort in 2006 was sandwiched by two losing tries at short prices. The year he won, it was the jockey, not the horse, who was lucky to make the starting gate. A week before the race, Corey Nakatani was in intensive care, a victim of food poisoning. His potassium levels hit the floor, and he lost about 12 pounds.
After the race, Nakatani thought about how providence played a part: “I thought I was looking at the pearly gates.”
Nakatani, who has had 13 Pacific Classic mounts, has never won another one, before or after Lava Man. He was aboard Gentlemen when he led for a mile but was no match for Free House’s stretch drive in the 1998 running. Saturday, Nakatani is scheduled to ride Crowded House, an English import with a synthetic-track history who ran fourth in the Eddie Read, a grass stakes, in his only U.S. start. Crowded House, winless since 2008, is not expected to get much of a boost at the windows, but non-support has never stopped a winner of the Pacific Classic before. The average win price for the 19 winners is more than $19. Four times the winner has gone off at 23-1 or more. The Pacific Classic is capable of putting horses as well as a track on the map.
Christine's five best Pacific Classics
The first one was easy: Dare and Go beats Cigar. The second one was easy: Julie Krone wins with Candy Ride. After that, let the arguments begin.
Overall, picking the five best runnings of the Pacific Classic is not an easy assignment. Two horses, Tinners Way and Skimming, have won the race twice, but only one of them made the list. Only one winner out of the last six runnings made the list. Borrego and Student Council, horses that beat Lava Man, did not make the list.
1. Cigar’s Streak Burns Out, 1996
Cigar, winner of 16 in a row and one win removed from moving past Citation and his streak, brought Del Mar some rare national media attention. But a record crowd of 44,181 was stunned when Dare and Go, a 39-1 shot, rallied from the middle of the pack for a 3 1/2-length win. It was Dare and Go’s stablemate Siphon who softened up Cigar by running fast fractions of 45 4/5 and 1:09 1/5. Cigar, ahead at the quarter pole, received his death sentence when the timer read 1:33 3/5.
2. Candy Ride Can, 2003
Julie Krone, inheriting the mount after Gary Stevens was injured the week before, rode undefeated Candy Ride to a 3 1/4-length win over Medaglia d’Oro, who was the 3-5 favorite in a four-horse field. Candy Ride’s time of 1:59.11 set a track record for 1 1/4 miles.
3. The Best of Best Pal, 1991
Best Pal, one of the most popular horses to ever race in California, notched a one-length win over Twilight Agenda, who was a $30,000 supplementary nomination. Best Pal was the only 3-year-old in a field of eight. Farma Way, the 3-2 favorite, led for almost a mile before finishing fifth.
4. Sweet Sweep for an Ex-Claimer, 2006
Lava Man, winner by 2 1/2 lengths over the longshot Good Reward, became the first horse to sweep the Classic, the Santa Anita Handicap, and the Hollywood Gold Cup in the same year. Trainer Doug O’Neill claimed Lava Man for $50,000 at Del Mar two years before.
5. Frankel’s Four-Bagger, 1995
Tinners Way wasn’t favored in either of his back-to-back wins, though this time his win price as second choice shrank to $7.40. Tinners Way’s second win gave his trainer, the late Bobby Frankel, four straight wins in the stakes. Concern, a Breeders’ Cup Classic winner and the 8-5 favorite, broke slowly and finished fifth in a six-horse field.