Go ahead and call this a mini Golden Age for the sport of horse racing.
For years an ongoing complaint among fans was that, due to the economics of the breeding industry, racing’s brightest equine stars often didn’t stay on the track long enough. Saturday’s 26th edition of the Grade I Pacific Classic at Del Mar is a perfect counterpoint to that argument, an example of what happens when sporting nature and enduring talent collide.
Instead of being retired following her championship campaigns at age 2, 3 or 5, defending Pacific Classic heroine Beholder is back at age 6 ready to swing away at the boys once more in the race she won by 8¼ lengths a year ago. Instead of taking up residence in a breeding shed when bone bruising cut short his 2015 season, 2014 Horse of the Year California Chrome has returned stronger than ever at age 5 and now has the title of Dubai World Cup winner and North America’s richest ever racehorse on his résumé. And instead of letting Dortmund’s niggling issues get the best of the horse who was already a multiple Grade I winner, trainer Bob Baffert has patiently brought the 4-year-old back this season —almost knocking off California Chrome last time out in the San Diego Handicap.
What has resulted is a race that is already being hailed as the best assembly of horses in the history of the Pacific Classic and one that could go down as the most outstanding test the handicap division will see in 2016. That alone makes this weekend a can’t-miss one for any racing fan. Add to it the fact that unbeaten champion filly Songbird will try for her 10th straight win in Saturday’s Grade I Alabama Stakes at Saratoga and the collection of talent on display is bursting at the seams.
“I think it is a Golden Age right now,” said Frank Taylor of Taylor Made Farm, which co-owns California Chrome. “In the past, Chrome would have been retired. Beholder would have been retired, you know. But fortunately, things have worked out for us where they have kept them in training and … I’m hoping that we see more stars hang around here for another couple more years. It really makes for great matchups and great racing and puts a lot more eyes on our sport.”
Here is your weekend cheat sheet to the biggest racing action:
Grade I, $500,000 Fourstardave Handicap for 3-year-olds and up going one mile on the turf at Saratoga Race Course.
Post time: 5:40 p.m. EDT
Key contender: Grade I winner Grand Arch is the defending winner of the Fourstardave but is still trying to get back to his best form in what will be just his third start of 2016. The Arch gelding was most recently sixth in the Grade III Poker Stakes at Belmont Park on June 18 after running third in the Grade II Dixie Stakes during his season debut at Pimlico on May 21. Trainer Brian Lynch said Grand Arch will likely benefit from the extra week of preparation after the Fourstardave was rescheduled from last Saturday when severe weather forced Saratoga to cancel the brunt of its card.
Others to watch: Ring Weekend finished a brave second, beaten just a neck by fellow Fourstardave entrant Takeover Target, in the Grade II Dixie Stakes. That race was the first start for Ring Weekend in more than a year after the Tapit gelding was sidelined with a terrible foot abscess. Takeover Target is another with proven form over the Saratoga turf, having won the Grade II National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame Stakes last August, and no barn is ruling turf racing at the Spa the way trainer Chad Brown is.
Grade I, $600,000 Alabama Stakes for 3-year-old fillies going 1¼ miles at Saratoga
Post time: 6:18 p.m. EDT
Key contender: Undefeated champion Songbird took her already impeccable form to yet another level last time out when she was engaged by Carina Mia in the Grade I Coaching Club American Oaks and still put that one away handily en route to a 5¼-length win. Having won her nine career starts by a combined 47¾ lengths, Songbird has yet to face a challenge beyond her scope though she will be trying the 10-furlong distance for the first time Saturday.
Others to watch: Grade I winner Weep No More was a non-threatening fifth in the Coaching Club American Oaks but the Alabama, with its 1¼-mile distance, has been the summer target for the late-running daughter of Mineshaft. Go Maggie Go has shown flashes of brilliance in winning the Grade II Gulfstream Park Oaks and Black-Eyed Susan Stakes but was most recently fourth in the Grade I Acorn Stakes at Belmont Park on June 11.
Grade I, $300,000 Del Mar Oaks for 3-year-olds fillies going 1 1/8 miles on the turf at Del Mar
Post time: 7:43 p.m. EDT
Key contender: A runner-up in the Grade I Santa Anita Oaks this April, Mokat returned to the turf last time out to score a 3¾-length win in the Grade II San Clement Handicap at Del Mar on July 23.
Others to watch: Harmonize, who was a graded stakes winner as a 2-year-old, comes in off a fifth-place run in the Grade I Belmont Oaks while trainer Graham Motion dispatches Tin Type Gal, winner of the Grade III Boiling Springs Stakes at Monmouth Park on July 24.
Grade I, $1 million Pacific Classic for 3-year-olds and up going 1 1/4 miles at Del Mar
Post time: 9:15 p.m. EDT
Key contenders: This race is a come-to-life fantasy bringing together 2014 Horse of the Year California Chrome, a three-time Eclipse Award winner in Beholder and a multiple Grade I winner in Dortmund. The post position draw did California Chrome no favors, however, landing him in the No. 1 slot. It’s well documented that the dual classic winner much prefers to race on an outside path. He ran sixth when he drew the rail in the 2014 edition of the Grade II Pennsylvania Derby but did prevail when he landed in the rail slot for his prep race in Dubai on Feb. 25. “I know that if (jockey Victor Espinoza) rides the right race the No. 1 post isn’t going to be a problem,” trainer Art Sherman said.
Others to watch: How good is this year’s Pacific Classic? Grade I winners Hoppertunity and Hard Aces are barely getting mentioned given the strength of the big three. They line them up in the gate for a reason, though, so don’t be super shocked if one of these factors into the late running.