By Noel Michaels
Five graded stakes, a pair of Grade 1’s, a pair of Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In’’ races and the Pacific Classic. Put it all together, and it adds up to a highly-playable, 11-race program at Del Mar on Saturday.
The card is filled with a bunch of top contenders in many of the races, with the five stakes included in the day’s jackpot Pick 6, which is expected to have a carryover of nearly $2 million with a mandatory payout on Saturday.
The Pacific Classic (G1) and Del Mar Handicap (G2) are the “Win and You’re In” races. The Pacific Classic and Del Mar Oaks are the Grade 1’s.
Here’s a handful of spot plays:
The main event is the 31st running of the $1 million Pacific Classic at 1 ¼ miles. To illustrate the competitive nature of the field, six of the nine entrants have been set at between 3-1 and 5-1 on the morning line.
The likely horse to beat will be the winner of the San Diego Handicap (G2) at Del Mar on July 17, EXPRESS TRAIN, who drew post 5 and is the 3-1 morning line favorite for trainer John Shirreffs. Express Train will be looking to get over the hump in a Grade 1 race for the first time with regular rider Juan Hernandez aboard after hitting the board in a trio of Grade 1 races dating back to last year, including a second in the Malibu (G1), a second in the Santa Anita Handicap (G1), and a third in the Gold Cup (G1) at Santa Anita. He also finished third in the Oaklawn Handicap (G2) and was the winner of the San Pasqual (G2) in January. Express Train can solidify his standing as a Del Mar horse for the course (he’s 3-for-4 so far) with a win in this race.
The heir apparent in the SoCal handicap division prior to the San Diego seemed to be ROYAL SHIP, a 5-year-old gelding trained by Richard Mandella who earned back-to-back big speed figures winning the Californian (G2) and then running second by a head in the Gold Cup (G1), but he lost as the favorite in the San Diego last time and will need to turn the tables on both Express Train and TRIPOLI, trained by John Sadler. Tripoli was closing and getting to Express Train late in that much shorter race, yet it remains to be seen if he will handle this, his first crack at a distance beyond 1 1/8 miles.
The other contender with a strong chance looks to be DR POST, who ships to California for trainer Todd Pletcher and will be ridden by Joel Rosario. You may remember that Rosario, who is now based in New York, started out on the West Coast and won three riding titles at Del Mar. Dr Post has won two of his three recent starts, including victories in the Westchester (G3) at Belmont followed by the Monmouth Cup, and even though this will be his first try at 1 1/4 miles, he looks like a horse that will benefit from the distance.
The Play: Bet Dr Post to win, and box him in the exacta along with Express Train.
A lot of horses in this field are stepping up in class to try stakes competition for the first time in this 1-mile race for 3-year-old fillies. Several look like they’re up to the task, including PRIVATE MISSION for trainer Bob Baffert, FOREST CAUSEWAY for Peter Miller, and LADY MYSTIFY for Peter Eurton, but the horse they’ll have to beat is the more accomplished Cal-bred I’M SO ANNA going out for trainer Steve Shurman. I’m So Anna owns four career wins ranging from 5 furlongs to 1-mile and is a three-time stakes winner, including two in her last three. She exits a win in the state-bred $175,000 Fleet Treat at 7 furlongs at Del Mar and has improved enough this year to make a victory in this spot against open company look realistic.
The Play: Bet I’m So Anna to win and round out your exacta and trifecta boxes with Private Mission, who must handle this stretchout to two turns for the first time but looked very good last time winning an allowance optional claimer at Santa Anita in her first start back from a long layoff, and Lady Mystify, who also exits an allowance optional claiming win in her last race and seems to absolutely love this 1-mile distance based on two sharp wins in a row.
The big names in the California turf mile division have gathered for this race, including heavyweights like Kilroe Mile (G1) winner HIT THE ROAD, and Shoemaker Mile (G1) winner SMOOTH LIKE STRAIT, and despite the presence of other heavy hitters, the race should come down to that pair. Smooth Like Strait lost to Hit the Road by a neck when the two last met in the Kilroe, but since then Smooth Like Strait has been better and better. He went wire to wire to win the Shoemaker and then last time just missed by a neck to United in Del Mar’s Eddie Read when he got passed in the late stages of that 1 1/8-mile feature. Back at a mile where he owns four of his seven career wins, and here at Del Mar where he has never been out of the exacta in four career outings (two wins, two seconds), Smooth Like Straight trained by Mike McCarthy, has the slight advantage.
Hit the Road, meanwhile, will not be a pushover, as he proved in his Grade 1 win in the Kilroe when his stalking style really came in handy for trainer Dan Blacker. Hit the Road ended his 2020 campaign with a win at Del Mar in the Oceanside and got even better than that earlier this year. He shipped to Keeneland for the Maker’s Mark Mile (G1) last time and suffered a defeat on less than firm turf but should be ready for a strong positive rebound back in SoCal.
The Play: Bet an exacta box with the two principal contenders, Smooth Like Strait and Hit the Road.
The $300,000 Del Mar Oaks at 1 1/8 miles for 3-year-old fillies features a lack of pace in its nine-horse field, and that could spell problems for several talented fillies, including Chad Brown’s eastern invader FLUFFY SOCKS, who will be the likely favorite. While no horse appears to want the lead, there are a couple runners who should benefit from at least an ability to show some tactical speed and stay close up, including probable pace-setter JAVANICA trained by Eoin Harty and stalker CLOSING REMARKS trained by Carla Gaines, who showed plenty of promise earlier this year when finishing a close second in the Providencia Stakes (G3) on the turf at this distance, where she lost by a neck after getting off to a terrible start.
Two horses in this field have run roughshod over this division in southern California this year, GOING GLOBAL for Phil D’Amato and MADONE for Simon Callaghan, with Going Global taking the Honeymoon (G3), Providencia (G3) and China Doll, while Madone won the San Clemente (G3) and the Senorita (G3). Thanks to the dull pace scenario in this race, they should be up to the challenge of the invading Fluffy Socks.
The Play: Bet Closing Remarks to win, and box her in the exactas and trifectas along with Going Global and Madone. You can play some savers using Javanica if you think she can steal the race at an attractive price.
This 1 3/8-mile turf race worth $300,000 is perhaps the toughest handicapping race on the card, and therefore deserves its spot as the last race of the day and the deciding leg of the guaranteed-payoff jackpot Pick 6.
The horse to beat will be UNITED, trained by Richard Mandella, who has been at the top of the west coast turf division for the past couple of years and will be seeking revenge for his upset in this race last year at the hands of RED KING, who is entered but still winless since his win in this race a year ago. United is an eight-time winner who has won stakes at basically every distance between 1 1/8 miles and 1 1/2 miles on the turf. He exits a local win in the Eddie Read (G2), which raised his career record at Del Mar to 3-2-0 in five outings so far. United was beaten two races ago when losing to several of these in the Charlie Whittingham (G2), but that race seems like an aberration based on his strong victories in his other two starts in 2021.
ACCLIMATE is entered in the Del Mar Handicap for trainer Phil D’Amato and always looms a front-running threat in this division in southern California, but he can expect at least moderate pressure from, AWARD WINNER, MEDIA BLITZ, and/or United, which should spoil his wire-to-wire aspirations.
That leaves the invading ARKLOW trained by Brad Cox, and SAY THE WORD trained by D’Amato as the top challengers along with United. Arklow shipped to Del Mar late last year to win the Hollywood Turf Cup (G2) at his wheelhouse distance of 1½ miles, and since then also scored in the Louisville (G3) at Churchill Downs this May. He’s never won at 1 3/8 miles in four attempts, but this distance is within his range. The horse with the best chance at the best price, and therefore a must-use on all your tickets, will be Say the Word, who flopped in the Eddie Read but really wants more distance and should benefit from the added distance. He beat the likes of Channel Cat back in April when winning the Elkhorn (G2) at Keeneland and was even competitive two races ago at 1-mile when second in the Grade 1 Shoemaker.
The Play: Bet United to win, and box him with both Arklow and Say the Word in the exactas and trifectas. If you’re playing the Pick 6, use all three in the final leg of your tickets.
Noel Michaels has been involved in many aspects of thoroughbred racing for more than two decades, as a Breeders’ Cup-winning owner and as a writer, author, handicapper, editor, manager and promoter of the sport for a wide range of companies including Daily Racing Form and Nassau County Off-Track Betting.
He also is regarded as the leading source of news and information for handicapping tournaments and the author of the “Handicapping Contest Handbook: A Horseplayer’s Guide to Handicapping Tournaments”, which made his name virtually synonymous with the increasingly-popular tournament scene.
In addition to contributing to US Racing, he is also an analyst on the Arlington Park broadcast team.