What a difference a horse makes. Or three. Or four.
Medina Spirit, the hanging-by-a-urine-test winner of the Kentucky Derby, will not be there. Rombauer, the thrilling winner of the Preakness, will not be there. Hot Rod Charlie, the valiant runner-up in the Belmont Stakes, will not be there.
The Pacific Classic, the biggest race of the California summer, had just been restored to its shiny old $1 million status. Then what do you know? One by one, word came that that high-profile trio of colts stabled in the race’s Southern California backyard would not be running in it Saturday.
The good folks in charge of Del Mar were hoping Rock Your World might show up rather than return to the turf that he found so welcoming before his sneaky victory in the Santa Anita Derby. Who knew at the time it would become fool’s gold? By the time Rock Your World was finished with the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes, he had finished a 46¼ lengths up the tracks. Alas, he was not entered. If he had been, his familiar name would have made him an underlay.
The whereabouts of these nascent Triple Crown participants should not be a big deal in a race for open company that has been won by 3-year-olds only three times in the 21st century. But the older division of horses is much thinner in California than it is back east. If only the state’s Major League Baseball teams were eligible for the Pacific Classic.
Saratoga has been a perfectly good place this summer for Knicks Go and Mystic Guide and Maxfield and Happy Saver to stay put rather than go west. If this were a poker game with a $1 million minimum, the New York Racing Association could see Del Mar’s Pacific Classic with the Whitney — and raise it with the Saratoga Derby, the Travers and the Jockey Club Gold Cup.
Even with the generational shrinkage of field sizes in California, the Pacific Classic had come up big lately. Five of the last seven runnings were won by Eclipse Award winners. It seems like 100 years ago when Maximum Security finished first in the pandemic summer of 2020 for Bob Baffert, who has trained a record-sharing six winners of the race.
Instead of Medina Spirit, Baffert is keeping what has been a summer-long low profile, entering long shot Magic On Tap. He was one of nine names, and one of five who were in the same race last month, that went into the entry box before Tuesday’s 1 p.m. ET deadline. The order of those names as shown here was determined by story flow, not the morning-line odds in parentheses.
Express Train (3-1): The 4-year-old Union Rags colt from the John Shirreffs barn got the better of a tight stretch duel last month to win the San Diego Handicap, the traditional prep for the Pacific Classic. He has been in the money in his last eight starts on dirt, winning three.
Tripoli (5-1): Graduating from allowance company, the 4-year-old by Kitten’s Joy lost that battle with Express Train in the San Diego Handicap. This colt is trained by John Sadler, who also looks after Rock Your World and has won two of the last three Pacific Classics. In his last start Tripoli went without Lasix, and that drug is not allowed on race day in the Pacific Classic.
Royal Ship (7-2): He finished third as the 8-5 favorite in the San Diego Handicap when his late run along the rail came up short for jockey Mike Smith and trainer Richard Mandella. The last time the 5-year-old Midshipman gelding raced 1¼ miles was May 31, when he ran big and finished a close second to Baffert’s Country Grammer in the Hollywood Gold Cup at Santa Anita.
Magic On Tap (20-1): Who knew this guy that finished fifth as an 11-1 shot in the San Diego Handicap was in the Baffert barn? The lightly raced 5-year-old horse by Tapit was a debut winner at age 2. Then came 2 1/2 years of what owner Summer Wind Farm on its Facebook page called “niggling problems.” A steadier 2021 campaign has followed, highlighted by a May 29 victory in the Grade 2 Triple Bend at Santa Anita.
Sheriff Brown (30-1): He stumbled out of the gate and finished next to last among the eight horses in the San Diego Handicap. The 5-year-old Curlin gelding had been shipped in from Texas for trainer Todd Fincher and taken off Lasix. He has since gotten acclimated to the surf neighborhood, but he probably will be the longest shot on the board Saturday just as he was last month, when he went off at 52-1.
Tizamagician (5-1): The 1¼ miles represents a cutback for the Tiznow colt that won the 1½-mile Cougar II last month by 2¼ lengths. The 4-year-old trained by Mandella was favored in his last three races and won twice. The exception was a glaring 11¼-length loss to Lone Rock in the Grade 2 Brooklyn on the Belmont Stakes undercard.
Cupid’s Claws (15-1): Also cutting back, this 6-year-old had blinkers added, came off Lasix and finished second in the Cougar II after a credible duel with Tizamagician. Not bad for a Kitten’s Joy gelding that was in and out of claim boxes in California last year, finally settling with trainer Craig Dollase. Now 6 and regularly in stakes company, he has not won since he beat Tizamagician last fall in the Grade 3 Tokyo City at Santa Anita.
Dr Post (4-1): At last, a shipper. The addition of blinkers, Lasix and jockey Joel Rosario helped make this 4-year-old Quality Road colt a winner for trainer Todd Pletcher last month in the Grade 3 Monmouth Cup. Bettors will no doubt remember — or be reminded in past performances — that he was second to Tiz The Law in last summer’s one-turn, 9-furlong, COVID-reduced Belmont Stakes. This would be his first time racing west of the Mississippi.
Independence Hall (5-1): He was once the futures favorite for the 2020 Kentucky Derby. That was months before COVID. He started 3-for-3 for trainer Mike Trombetta, but when the pandemic stopped races back east, he was moved west to Michael McCarthy. Since an allowance win at Del Mar in November, the 4-year-old Constitution colt went 0-for-3 in Grade 1 starts before finishing third in the Grade 2 Californian on April 17 at Santa Anita.
Considering the shallow waters for California’s older division, Dr Post should be the favorite, although there will be good reason to play the course-horse angle with Express Train. Tizamagician feels like a wise-guy play, especially since he might be the only speed on display early in the race.
Right now Tripoli feels like a strong value bet, and Cupid’s Claws could be the bomber to throw into deep exotics. But a poring over of the past performances late this week could alter that thinking.
Too bad this seven-digit race came up so short, even with its one automatic berth into the Breeders’ Cup Classic that will be contested over the very same course and distance in 2½ months. Still, it is a Grade 1, a nice label for the winner to put on his resume. And, yes, there are 600,000 other good reasons to finish first.
For horseplayers, though, this feels more like a Grade 3. That is something to remember both Saturday and when tracking all these horses in their immediate racing future.
In addition to this weekly report, 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 Saez talks about his rise to the top of the jockey standings at Saratoga. 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.