08/26/2011 2:47PM

Plenty of good story lines in Pacific Classic

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“I’m getting a little anxious,” said John Sadler. “I wish it was Sunday today. He’s ready.”

Instead it was Friday morning, with about 58 hours to go until post time for Sunday’s $1 million Pacific Classic at Del Mar, and Sadler was perched at the top of a backstretch guinea stand. The horse in question was Twirling Candy, the morning-line Classic favorite, just as he was favored earlier this year in the Santa Anita Handicap, and then in the Hollywood Gold Cup.

He lost them both, and while you get only so many excuses before losing your audience, there is no question Twirling Candy was bounced around pretty good at Santa Anita. And when he was third at Hollywood, beaten a nose and a neck, he was conceding four and six pounds to the horses who beat him. End of excuses.

Since the Handicap and the Gold Cup are run at the same 1 1/4 miles as the Pacific Classic, Sadler has had to steel himself against the growing chatter that Twirling Candy, a son of 2003 Classic winner Candy Ride, can’t get the distance.

“I don’t know how you can say that,“ Sadler noted. “But if that’s what they want to say, I’m not going to say nothing. Let’s see what happens at level weights and with a better draw.”

After landing the rail in his last two, Twirling Candy will break from post nine of 10 entered.

“He’s a big, free-running horse,” Sadler noted. “And you know the other jocks are trying to trap him all the time. Breaking from the outside hopefully will give him a chance to be in the clear from the start.”

Of course, the great ones are able to give weight and take a pounding. Based on his breakthrough performances at Del Mar last summer, Twirling Candy had the look of a true star on the rise. He went on to win the Malibu, the Strub, and the Californian with flair, but that is where his reputation has stalled. And since high-profile breeders William Farish and Marty Wygod bought in last spring, Twirling Candy’s retirement is imminent. He’s got only a few more races to make a lasting impression.

Without a doubt, 1 1/4 miles is a nasty, demanding mistress. It can dull the luster of the brightest nine-furlong star and elevate the horses he had beaten for fun. Both the Santa Anita Handicap and the Hollywood Gold Cup were barroom brawls this year, and it would surprise no one if the three horses who have shown up in all three major races for the division are right there at the end of the Classic.

Yes, that means Setsuko, that gorgeous hunk of horseflesh who also boasts a sire, Pleasantly Perfect, who won the Classic. (There is one other in the field, Quindici Man, whose sire Came Home won in 2002.) Setsuko dropped the Santa Anita Handicap by a nose to Game On Dude, then was fourth in the Gold Cup, about two lengths behind the three-horse cluster on the wire.

Richard Mandella, Setsuko’s trainer, will apologize for Setsuko’s 1-for-15 record if you insist, but he doesn’t see the point. Besides his near-miss in the Santa Anita Handicap, he was second to Twirling Candy in the Californian.

“You saw what happened when I ran him in that allowance race,” the trainer said, referring to a dalliance with lesser beasts last winter. “He was fourth. I think he felt insulted.”

The 1 1/4 miles is clearly Setsuko’s game, and as the man who ended Cigar’s 16-race winning streak in the 1996 Pacific Classic with Dare and Go, Mandella likes to think just about anything can still happen in a horse race.

“This track is a puncher’s track,” Mandella said of Del Mar’s synthetic surface. “It rewards the horse that just keeps coming at you.”

Mandella might have had Setsuko in mind, but this also describes Game On Dude, who sits uneasily at the head of the local older horse division. After winning the Santa Anita Handicap – on both the track and in the stewards’ stand – he followed the money east but lost shorter races in the Charles Town Classic and the Lone Star Park Handicap. Back at 1 1/4 miles, he was nipped at the wire in the Gold Cup by his Bob Baffert stablemate, First Dude.

“He also ran great at Charles Town,” said Bernie Schiappa, part of the Game On Dude partnership. “Three races earlier and he would have won, but the rain hit, and there was water coming up from the bottom of the track it was so soaked. The winner, Duke of Mischief, is a mud freak.”

Game On Dude, a son of Awesome Again, will have his favorite jockey aboard Sunday in Chantal Sutherland, who has discovered that the key to Game On Dude is to place him in the front ranks and just keep pedaling. For what it’s worth, Game On Dude also will have a healthy dose of karma in his corner as well, since this will be his first start since the death of Terry Lanni, one of his owners, in July at the age of 68 after a long battle with cancer.

Lanni was the pioneering CEO of MGM Resorts International who, besides being a tireless philanthropist, never hid the fact that he was a die-hard horse racing fan. He not only owned a number of top runners – including Breeders’ Cup Mile winner Silic – he also fostered lucrative casino sponsorships of major racing events, including a short-lived $2 million bonus that linked the 1996 runnings of the Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup, and Pacific Classic.

Lanni was also a member of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club board of directors.

“You never know if it’s easier to lose a loved one like Terry quickly, as in an accident, or after a long illness,“ Schiappa said. “In the end, all of us were glad that we had a chance to say goodbye. And it was time, because Terry was only going to get worse.

“So the race on Sunday means a lot to us,“ Schiappa added. “I guarantee there will be a lot of emotion in our corner for Game On Dude.”

MORE: Full Coverage of the 2011 Pacific Classic »