08/18/2016 10:30AM

Star-studded Pacific Classic a must-watch event

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Benoit & Associates
California Chrome (left) enters the Pacific Classic off a victory in the Grade 2 San Diego Handicap last month.

DEL MAR, Calif. – Combine a Kentucky Derby winner, the first- and third-place finishers from the Dubai World Cup, two winners of the Santa Anita Derby, runners who have won five Eclipse Awards, two Breeders’ Cup races, a Horse of the Year title, and 19 Grade 1 races, plus the only female winner of the Pacific Classic, and what do you have?

The race of the year.

Beholder, California Chrome, and Dortmund form the white-hot core of the Grade 1, $1 million Pacific Classic on Saturday at Del Mar. In an era when trainers and owners often look for the softest spot, no one connected with these three blinked. Six others, including Hoppertunity, signed up.

“It’s the best race so far this year,” said Art Sherman, the trainer of California Chrome, who in March annexed a race worth 10 times as much money in Dubai.

“I don’t know how you could make it much better,” said Richard Mandella, the trainer of Beholder. “There’s no shortage of good horses in there.”

The Pacific Classic came out of the gate in 1991 with the likes of Best Pal, that year’s Kentucky Derby runner-up, and the previous year’s Derby winner, Unbridled. Cigar came into the 1996 edition riding a 16-race winning streak, including the Dubai World Cup and Breeders’ Cup Classic.

There have been subsequent editions with Kentucky Derby winners, Breeders’ Cup Classic winners, and Dubai World Cup winners, but in terms of overall accomplishment and current form, Del Mar chief executive Joe Harper can say of this race without exaggeration, “I don’t think there’s been a better lineup since its inception.”

There’s a first prize of $600,000 at the end of the Pacific Classic’s 1 1/4 miles, but even more is on the line. The winner gets a fees-paid berth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 5 at Santa Anita through the Win and You’re In program. And California Chrome will seek to retain his position as the top contender for Horse of the Year, a title he won in 2014, the year he won the Kentucky Derby.

California Chrome, who has preferred to do his running from an outside, stalking position, will have to work out a trip from the rail.

“My horse is better when he has something to run at,” Sherman said.

California Chrome got that trip in the San Diego Handicap, in which he tracked Dortmund – to whom he gave five pounds – before wearing him down. Sherman said he believes California Chrome “will move forward” off that race, his first in four months.

“I’ve seen a big change in his training,” Sherman said. “There’s nothing like a race under your belt. Like in Dubai, after he had the prep there, he was a lot different horse.”

:: PACIFIC CLASSIC: Get PPs, watch Saturday's card live on DRF.com

Mandella believes Beholder will raise her game from the Clement L. Hirsch Stakes three weeks ago, when she was upset by Stellar Wind, ending an eight-race winning streak. Beholder earned the fastest Beyer Speed Figure of her career in last year’s Pacific Classic, and it’s not like Mandella to take on a challenge like this as a flight of fancy. He watched her closely before committing. If Beholder wasn’t giving off every sign that she is going to run big, she’d be in the barn.

Dortmund, plagued by foot troubles earlier this year, got a career-best figure last time out when he was narrowly defeated by California Chrome while making his first start in eight months.

“He knew he was in a fight,” said trainer Bob Baffert.

Dortmund can take it, though. He’s a big, hulking horse, and Baffert has put three works into him since the San Diego. “He’s put on 11 pounds since the race,” said Baffert, who said Dortmund checked in at 1,343 pounds last weekend.

Dortmund has won eight of 11 starts. His three losses have been in races won by American Pharoah and California Chrome, both Derby winners.

Baffert also entered the late-running Hoppertunity after being pleased with his work on Monday.

A win by anyone else would be a significant upset.

Hard Aces comes off a victory in the Grade 3 Cougar II here and nosed out Hoppertunity in the 2015 Gold Cup at Santa Anita.

Win the Space was second in this year’s Grade 1 Gold Cup behind Melatonin and was third last time out in the San Diego to California Chrome and Dortmund.

Dalmore, the only 3-year-old in the field, is seeking his third straight win.

Imperative is winless in 17 starts since capturing the 2014 Charles Town Classic.

War Story has a career-best Beyer Speed Figure of 92 and comes off a win against an allowance field at Thistledown that was so weak that he was 1-20 in the wagering.

The Pacific Classic is the ninth race on an 11-race card that begins at 2 p.m. Pacific. It is preceded by the Grade 1, $300,000 Del Mar Oaks for 3-year-old turf fillies, which goes as race 6, and the Grade 2, $250,000 Del Mar Handicap for long-distance grass horses, which goes as race 8.

The Pacific Classic is also the final leg of a cross-country pick four that includes the Alabama and Fourstardave from Saratoga and the Del Mar Handicap.