By Margaret Ransom
The $150,000 San Diego Handicap (G2) at Del Mar on Saturday has been the traditional prep for the track’s signature race, the $600,000 Pacific Classic (G1), and has consistently featured some of the West Coast’s best handicap horses.
This year, six will go postward for the 1 1/16-mile San Diego, including Grade 1 winners Higher Power, who won last year’s Pacific Classic, and Santa Anita Handicap winner Combatant. But all eyes will no doubt be on the return of Gary and Mary West’s multi-millionaire Maximum Security in his first start for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert as well as his first race in California.
First run in 1937, the race has grown in prominence and stature on the national racing scene in recent years.
The great Cal-bred gelding Native Diver was the first to put the race on the national map, winning it three times from 1964 to 1966. Bates Motel, the champion older horse of 1983, Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) winner Skywalker, millionaire Skimming, 2006 Kentucky Derby (G1) winner Giacomo, Dubai World Cup (G1) winner Well Armed, Derby winner and Horse of the Year California Chrome, BC Classic and Pacific Classic winner Accelerate are just a few of the names to have won the San Diego in years past.
With but one blemish, Maximum Security’s career has been on par with those who claim the San Diego on their resumes. The son of New Year’s Day broke his maiden while wearing a $16,000 price tag at Gulfstream Park and picked up two more wins in optional claimers before going postward as the fourth choice in the Florida Derby (G1), winning in handy fashion.
Sent off as the second choice in the Kentucky Derby, Maximum Security took a right-hand turn nearing the five-sixteenths pole before straightening out and hitting the wire 1 3/4 lengths in front of Country House. After a lengthy inquiry and objection from jockey Flavien Prat, who was aboard runner-up Country House, the Churchill Downs stewards lowered the first DQ boom in Derby history and Maximum Security was placed 17th.
He skipped the Preakness (G1) and Belmont Stakes (G1) due to cuts suffered in the Derby, then successfully battled a minor bout with colic before finishing second in the Pegasus Stakes at Monmouth, then won the Haskell Invitational (G1) at his home track of Monmouth Park before cruising out of 2019 by skipping the Breeders’ Cup and winning the Cigar Mile (G1) at Aqueduct.
His saga continued with a victory in the inaugural $20 million Saudi Cup at the end of February, which he won rather easily. However, then trainer Jason Servis was federally indicted with several others in early March for “widespread, corrupt scheme by racehorse trainers, veterinarians, PED distributors and others to manufacture, distribute, and receive adulterated and misbranded PEDs and to secretly administer those PEDs to racehorses under scheme participants’ control.”
After several months of rest, in late winter, the colt was transferred to the care of Baffert in California and, despite the repercussions from the COVID-19 pandemic, has been on track training and is ready to resume his career.
The San Diego will be contested a week after Del Mar canceled last weekend’s races when 15 jockeys tested positive for the coronavirus. The races were redrawn assuming the riders will all now test negative.
And finally, there is the horse’s latest bit of drama is his COVID-19-related jockey shakeup, which means he will have his first new rider in 16 months as regular rider Luis Saez, who tested positive for the virus, will be replaced by local rider Abel Cedillo.
(Jockeys from jurisdictions outside of California will not be allowed to ride at Del Mar and until further notice, local jockeys who leave the track to ride at other venues will not be allowed to ride again at Del Mar for the remainder of the summer racing meeting.)
Looking at his past performances, Maximum Security deserves his role as the favorite. He likely will go right to the front after the break and if he gets comfortable, it’s going to take a big effort from his rivals to run him down, especially at this distance, though he clearly prefers more ground.
Last year’s Pacific Classic winner Higher Power will have regular jockey Flavien Prat aboard and even though the well-bred son of Medaglia d’Oro hasn’t won since last year’s race at Del Mar, he was a strong third in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and second last out in the Hollywood Gold Cup (G1) last month. He’s been hit-and-miss throughout his career, but he likes Del Mar and has been training great, and also has a good running style to sit off of a fast early pace. The powerful John Sadler/Hronis Racing trainer/owner combination seeks a third consecutive win in this race and if this horse delivers his top performance, it’s easy to see it happening.
Combatant, who carries the same connections as Higher Power, won the Santa Anita Handicap (G1) in March before shipping to Arkansas for the Oaklawn Handicap (G2) and finishing a dismal 10th after a somewhat bumpy trip. He’s back after a break but has been working steadily for the past two months. He probably prefers more distance, but he has a win at 1 1/16 miles and several placings from seven starts. He’s a good horse, but how good? Drayden Van Dyke rides.
Midcourt, who is trained by John Shirreffs and owned by CRK Stable, had a terrible trip in the Hollywood Gold Cup last out and was a well-beaten fifth out of six. He’s better than that, but how much better and is he as good as he’d need to be to win against his rivals here is the question. He has beaten and been beaten by Combatant and rode a four-race win streak late last year, including his maiden and two stakes, and began 2020 with a win in the nine-furlong San Pasqual (G2) at Santa Anita. He has some tactical ability, which he’ll need in chasing the favorite, and while a win may be a bit of a stretch he’s a solid bet for any exotics. Regular jockey Victor Espinoza, who tested positive for the coronavirus two weeks ago and was one of the few riders to have experienced symptoms, will be back aboard.
Ax Man won an optional claiming race by a nose at this distance at Santa Anita last month and while he’s been a good horse at the lower graded levels, he’s had some issues when bumped up into this type of company. Bob Baffert, who has one San Diego winner in Fed Biz six years ago, trains this son of Misremembered, who is owned by Hal and Patti Earnhart. Mike Smith has accepted the call.
Sharp Samurai returns to dirt after a long time on the turf. He is a graded winner on grass and a good miler, but this is an awfully ambitious spot to test the older dirt/Classic division. Jorge Velez gets the call for trainer Mark Glatt.
The San Diego is the 10th race on Saturday with an approximate post time of 6:30 p.m. PT.
California native and lifelong horsewoman Margaret Ransom is a graduate of the University of Arizona’s Race Track Industry Program. She got her start in racing working in the publicity departments at Calder Race Course and Hialeah Park, as well as in the racing office at Gulfstream Park in South Florida. She then spent six years in Lexington, KY, at BRISnet.com, where she helped create and develop the company’s popular newsletters: Handicapper’s Edge and Bloodstock Journal.
After returning to California, she served six years as the Southern California news correspondent for BloodHorse, assisted in the publicity department at Santa Anita Park and was a contributor to many other racing publications, including HorsePlayer Magazine and Trainer Magazine. She then spent seven years at HRTV and HRTV.com in various roles as researcher, programming assistant, producer and social media and marketing manager.
She has also walked hots and groomed runners, worked the elite sales in Kentucky for top-class consignors and volunteers for several racehorse retirement organizations, including CARMA.
In 2016, Margaret was the recipient of the prestigious Stanley Bergstein Writing Award, sponsored by Team Valor, and was an Eclipse Award honorable mention for her story, “The Shocking Untold Story of Maria Borell,” which appeared on USRacing.com. The article and subsequent stories helped save 43 abandoned and neglected Thoroughbreds in Kentucky and also helped create a new animal welfare law known as the “Borell Law.”
Margaret’s very first Breeders’ Cup was at Hollywood Park in 1984 and she has attended more than half of the Breeders’ Cups since. She counts Holy Bull and Arrogate as her favorite horses of all time. She lives in Pasadena with her longtime beau, Tony, two Australian Shepherds and one Golden Retriever.