Racing is slated to return at Del Mar after a 1-weak hiatus due to COVID-19, and with it comes the rescheduled Grade 2 San Diego Handicap. The leading local prep to next month's Grade 1 Pacific Classic, the San Diego offers a 1-1/16 miles tune-up for the 1-1/4 miles main event. It has lured one of the most controversial horses of recent times in MAXIMUM SECURITY, disqualified from victory in the 2019 Kentucky Derby and set to make his debut for his new trainer Bob Baffert. An 11-race program where the turf meets the surf also includes the co-featured Grade 2 San Clemente for turf fillies.
Half of this 6-pack are Grade 1 winners, led by MAXIMUM SECURITY, who is high-weighted at 127 pounds. HIGHER POWER and COMBATANT are Grade 1 winners of key SoCal fixtures, while MIDCOURT and SHARP SAMURAI are Grade 2 winners. Certainly the quartet of MAXIMUM SECURITY, HIGHER POWER, COMBATANT and MIDCOURT are on equal planes in terms of class.
Longshot AX MAN could be the pace player if the Bob Baffert trainee is sent to the front, though stablemate MAXIMUM SECURITY is the race's only other pace player. When barnmates are the entirety of an early pace scenario, it's tricky to predict just how aggressive they'll be vs. one another. If AX MAN was to scratch, MAXIMUM SECURITY would have a massive pace advantage in this race.
MAXIMUM SECURITY returns for his first start since winning February's $20 million Saudi Cup in the Middle East. But he's in new digs with Bob Baffert following the federal indictment against his former trainer Jason Servis. It is an impossible barometer to measure the impact of that trainer change. MAXIMUM SECURITY never tested positive for a banned substance, but his trainer's alleged wrongdoings and the horse's meteoric rise from obscurity to superstardom fairly raised eyebrows. Will his performance be diminished? Or, could he even be better on the Baffert program? Saturday will tell us a lot. Whereas Servis barely put serious morning workouts into MAXIMUM SECURITY in the past, Baffert is much harder on his horses in the a.m. XBTV was on hand for his Del Mar drill last Saturday when MAXIMUM SECURITY worked a fast 6 furlongs in 1:11.60, but it was apparent to this observer that he was asked for run through and beyond the wire while working with listed stakes-placed stablemate Leading Score. The prior Saturday at Del Mar, he was pumped on a bit late to finish past maiden claiming grad Dark Prince. To his credit, the workout tab since coming to Baffert this summer has been perfect since early June in terms of spacing. He's right on cue at least. I don't recommend betting MAXIMUM SECURITY off his 2 Del Mar works, even if the times were quick. But I also don't recommend leaning solely on his morning activity as this horse has never tipped his hand in training before winning races like the Florida Derby, Haskell, Cigar Mile and more. Abel Cedillo picks up the mount for Luis Saez, who had been quarantined by COVID-19 in recent weeks.
HIGHER POWER won last year's Pacific Classic in his coming-out party at Del Mar. The former Mike Stidham trainee had been bounced around between dirt and turf by John Sadler upon his move to California, but took to the sometimes-tricky Del Mar footing with great success. This can be a horse-for-course venue, and the 2019 Pacific Classic romp by more than 5 lengths remains this horse's signature effort. Jockey Flavien Prat remains his steady pilot and HIGHER POWER carries 122 pounds, 5 less than favorite MAXIMUM SECURITY. I liked the way he skipped over the ground in his July 18 work at Del Mar, as seen at XBTV.com.
Just as Baffert has 2 in the San Diego, John Sadler also doubles down with COMBATANT. The upset winner of the Santa Anita Handicap will try Del Mar for the first time. He exits a dreadful effort on the road for the Oaklawn Handicap, a spot where he figured to fare much better. But he's trained right on cue since returning to California. COMBATANT appears to be compromised by what looks to be a more controlled pace with quality speed horses in front of him. He's just 1-for-7 at the distance and will need the pace to come back to him at this trip.
MIDCOURT was my tab to win the Hollywood Gold Cup in June at Santa Anita, and he tossed in a dreadful effort with the removal of blinkers. Trainer John Shirreffs may not err often, but it certainly appears that was a bad move as MIDCOURT was clunky from the gate, never involved and essentially eased home. But he was back on the workout tab 16 days after that misfire and has had 3 modest drills at Del Mar, where he's 2-for-2 lifetime. MIDCOURT won last year's Native Diver during the Del Mar autumn stand. His best running style is on the lead, though those races have come with softer paces. It's hard to envision AX MAN and MAXIMUM SECURITY conceding him the front. MIDCOURT likely has to sit third in this race and punch past, something he's struggled to do.
SHARP SAMURAI has made about 95% of his hay on the turf, making this a curious placement by trainer Mark Glatt. The 1-1/16 miles distance should suit him, but it's a stretch to like him in this spot against such high-quality dirt horses. He had a lot of head movement and didn't look as smooth as I'd like to see in his Del Mar dirt workout at XBTV.com.
Most Certain Exotics Contender: HIGHER POWER has finished in the trifecta in 6 of his last 7 starts, has a recent start on his form and a win over the Del Mar surface.
Best Longshot Exotics Contender: AX MAN would be the 'other' Baffert if he stays in the field and could enjoy a more moderate pace scenario if the stablemates go easy on each other. MAXIMUM SECURITY has been training behind rivals in the morning for some patience practice, so it's not impossible to think that could be the gameplan and we'll see how brave AX MAN might get while carrying a feathery 118 pounds.
Sending it in ($100 bankroll): $100 win HIGHER POWER. If you're going to bet against MAXIMUM SECURITY, now might be the time, especially if you can get 5-2 or 3-1 on last year's Pacific Classic champ.