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Don't miss blinkers in Pacific Classic

By Ron Flatter  (VSiN.com) 

Express_Train_Benoit_photo
Express Train, shown winning last month’s San Diego Handicap with jockey Juan Hernández, is the 3-1 morning-line favorite for Saturday’s $1 million Pacific Classic. (Del Mar / Benoit photo)

Louisville, Ky.

Handicapping horses can be like swinging a golf club. There is so much to remember, and it is all so easy to forget, one thing at a time.

Sliced one into the woods, eh? Oh, yeah. Forgot to quit opening the club face.

Why are those putts still off target? That’s right. Got to remember to use less backswing.

Keep betting on pacesetters that cannot hold their speed in the stretch? Quit reading Twitter gossip about track bias.

It can be that basic. Little things become big things. Simple factors can be confounding, especially when they are taken out of context.

Take Saturday’s $1 million Grade 1 Pacific Classic at Del Mar, a race full of horses that have had medication and equipment changes throughout their careers. That is just the start of it.

Each horse will carry 124 pounds Saturday. They include morning-line favorite Express Train (3-1), who adds just one pound after he won last month’s 8½-furlong San Diego Handicap, and Tripoli (5-1), who adds a whopping six pounds after he finished a close second in that race.

All nine starters were at one time or another on and off Lasix. That is forbidden from this automatic qualifier for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, which will be run over the same dirt and same 1¼-mile distance Nov. 6. The only horse in Saturday’s field that was on Lasix in his most recent race was Dr Post (4-1), the winner of last month’s Grade 3 Monmouth Cup.

Speaking of Dr Post, he gets an unpublished equipment change Saturday. His jockey Joel Rosario will be allowed some limited use of the crop. That was not the case at Monmouth Park. Remember, the New Jersey Racing Commission made like a government dummy sitting on the lap of extreme animal-rights ventriloquists by banning the crop “except when necessary for the safety of horse or rider.”

“He was able to win, without any encouragement at all, via hand riding,” said XBTV’s Millie Ball Yakteen, herself a former professional jockey who still works horses for her husband, trainer Tim Yakteen. “He could in a sense move up lengths due to being able to use a whip here in southern California.”

Dr Post is also among the five Pacific Classic horses that have had blinkers on and off at some points in their careers. Trainer Todd Pletcher added them for the Monmouth Cup victory.

“We’d been contemplating putting blinkers on him for a little while,” Pletcher said right after that race. “We worked him in (blinkers) and thought it made a difference.”

For so many handicappers, the instinctive reaction to a horse getting blinkers is to think it will move forward and maybe even try to set the pace. That was anything but the case with Dr Post. He was next to last for most of the 1⅛ miles at Monmouth before Rosario shook the reins and made a wide trip to victory.

So what good or otherwise did the blinkers really do?

“Sometimes it just sharpens them up, puts them in the bridle and gets them to get into that rhythm,” Ball said. “It gets a little bit more attention about them.”

How will they work on Independence Hall (5-1)? The enigmatic 4-year-old colt gets them for the first time from trainer Michael McCarthy. Rarely closer than third place on any given backstretch, perhaps he will go forward early in a Pacific Classic that on first blush looks void of obvious pacesetting speed.

“I saw him actually work,” Ball said, referring to a five-furlong, 1:00.8 clocking with stablemate Calrissian on July 30 at Del Mar. “It was in the thick fog. We only got about three-sixteenths of the work, because that’s all you could see of the horse. But he was wearing blinkers that morning. He left his company (by six lengths), and he looked sharp. Then he came back with what I would call blue-collar works with blinkers. I do expect Independence Hall to show more pace.”

This is not to ignore Tizamagician (5-1), drawn into post 2 with past performances that scream lone speed. He was never more than a length off the lead last month when he won the 1½-mile Cougar II Handicap. Will Flavien Prat, southern California’s best jockey, try to outrun Independence Hall to the first turn in this shorter race?

“It’s so different a pace going a mile-and-a-quarter on the lead vs. a mile-and-a-half,” Ball said. “I think he’s going to find that pace a little bit sharper. I don’t expect him actually to be on the lead.”

If there may be a surprise horse moving forward early, Ball thinks it could be 5-year-old Magic On Tap (20-1). The under-the-radar horse for recently under-the-radar trainer Bob Baffert stumbled out of the gate and finished fifth in the San Diego Handicap. Since he was weaned from Lasix, he is 1-for-3 with his two losses being out-of-the-money finishes.

“He’s coming off of seven-furlong and mile-and-a-sixteenth races,” Ball said. “Is he going to sit closer?”

Suddenly, a race that appears to be lacking in early speed may be full of it, and that might set up for an off-the-pace horse like Royal Ship (7-2). Foaled in Brazil five years ago this month, he finished a late-charging third with Mike Smith rail-riding the 8-5 favorite in the San Diego Handicap for Richard Mandella, who also trains Tizamagician.

Last winter Royal Ship had what Al Michaels used to call “the ultimate equipment change,” something that may have helped him go from no better than third in his first four American races to hitting the board in his last three dirt starts, including a Grade 2 victory in April at Santa Anita.

“Since they’ve gelded that 5-year-old, he’s raced fluidly,” Ball said.

So much for being a simple race to handicap. Thought Tizamagician might lead from gate to wire? Well, he might not set the pace. Figured Tripoli would benefit from the added distance? Maybe not carrying that added weight 330 more yards. Could blinkers make all the difference for Independence Hall? Could some legal urging from Rosario and more pace than meets the eye benefit Dr Post?

Or could the Pacific Classic be as simple as playing the course horse with the hot trainer and the hot jockey? Since he lost his debut in 2019 at Del Mar, 4-year-old Express Train has won his last three starts there. Juan Hernández is tied for second in the jockey standings with 21 wins. Trainer John Shirreffs, who picks his spots, has won at an 18 percent clip this year.

“It’s amazing that John Shirreffs has not won a Pacific Classic,” Ball said. “Of all the races that he has won, it surprised me that he is still looking for his first Pacific Classic.”

Chalky though it may be, could this race be as simple as backing the course horse with the hottest connections? That is the lean right now – unless there is a deeper analytical dive between now and 9:33 p.m. EDT on Saturday.

If only horseplayers could find a swing coach.

Racing notes and opinions

Wet weather has descended on Saratoga again this week, and there is a 50 percent chance of more rain Saturday for the $600,000 Grade 1 Alabama Stakes. There are seven fillies and mares in the 1¼-mile race, but the focus is almost completely on the rematch of Kentucky Oaks winner Malathaat (1-1) and upstart 3-year-old Maracujá (7-2). In a 14-1 upset last month on a fast track, Maracujá prevailed by a head over previously undefeated and odds-on favorite Malathaat in the Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks. A sublime ride by Ricardo Santana Jr. allowed Maracujá (the Portuguese word for passion fruit) to stay out of a speed duel and have enough left to pounce on Malathaat late. That was going 1⅛ miles. With three more rivals and another furlong, that is a tougher task this time. Crazy Beautiful (6-1) comes in with a head of steam, having won three of her last four races for trainer Kenny McPeek. The question is whether her 10th-place exception in the Kentucky Oaks was one of those “draw a line through it” circumstances – or a warning sign. It says here it was the latter; Crazy Beautiful has lost her three previous Grade 1 starts by a combined 23 lengths. If the track is sloppy, why not take a chance on a frontrunner that will not get mud in her eyes? Give me Played Hard (15-1), an allowance graduate that will have leading Saratoga rider Luis Sáez riding for Philip Bauer. If the track is not a bog, then count me in on Malathaat – but only horizontally.

I did not know B. Wayne Hughes outside of the occasional news conference that he was healthy enough to attend. That was unfortunately often enough in recent years. The head of Spendthrift Farm died Wednesday at his home in Kentucky. He got rich creating Public Storage and American Homes 4 Rent. He made $400 million in what were anonymous donations to his alma mater USC. He was also a fiercely loyal friend to O.J. Simpson, who paid tribute to him in a video message Thursday on Twitter. In racing circles, Hughes was remembered for buying the once-floundering Spendthrift Farm and building its racing and breeding around stars like Malibu Moon, Into Mischief, Beholder and more recently Authentic. That is his legacy – an equestrian haven that he left behind in better shape than he found it. Hughes was 87.

In addition to this weekly article, Ron Flatter’s racing column is available every Friday at VSiN.com. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is also available every Friday morning at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week’s episode zeroes in on Del Mar and Saratoga. Millie Ball Yakteen of XBTV previews Saturday’s $1 million Pacific Classic. Luis Sáez talks about his rise to the top of the jockey standings at Saratoga, doing so in an interview that was also featured at Horse Racing Nation. Chris Andrews from the South Point handicaps races at both tracks. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is available for free subscription at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify and Stitcher. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.

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