By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
Two weeks ago, the best older males on the East Coast squared off in a battle for supremacy in the Whitney Stakes (gr. I) at Saratoga. This Saturday, the best older males on the West Coast will engage in a similar battle in the $1,000,000 TVG Pacific Classic (gr. I), but this race offers even greater intrigue thanks to the presence of two-time champion filly Beholder, who seeks to become the first filly or mare to win the Pacific Classic. Best of all, this race offers great appeal from a wagering perspective as well, with plenty of good prices to be found on talented horses. Let’s take a look at who’s running!
Pacific Classic (gr. I)
||3rd Michael G. Schaefer Memorial Stakes (VIDEO)|
||2nd Cougar II Handicap (gr. III) (VIDEO)|
||3rd San Diego Handicap (gr. II) (VIDEO)|
||1st Gold Cup at Santa Anita (gr. I) (VIDEO)|
||2nd Salvator Mile Stakes (gr. III) (VIDEO)|
||2nd Charles Town Classic (gr. II) (VIDEO)|
||Catch a Flight
||1st San Diego Handicap (gr. II) (VIDEO)|
||4th San Diego Handicap (gr. II) (VIDEO)|
||1st Clement L Hirsch Stakes (gr. I) (VIDEO)|
||5th Eddie Read Stakes (gr. I) (VIDEO)|
Much of the attention in this race will be focused on Beholder, the morning line favorite at odds of 5-2. The remarkable mare has won grade I races at age 2, 3, 4, and 5—a very rare and amazing accomplishment!—and she’s shown no signs of slowing down this year. Last time out, she romped to a seven-length victory in the Clement L. Hirsch Stakes (gr. I) at Del Mar, winning easily under a hand ride from Gary Stevens. Still, she does have a couple of questions to answer. For one, she’s never run further than nine furlongs, and while she seems like a mare that won’t mind an extra furlong, we won’t know for certain that she can handle it until she tries. For another, her recent Beyer speed figures—ranging from 97-99—are a bit on the slow side for a race of this caliber. Of course, it’s very important to note that she has been winning with complete ease as of late, and could probably respond with a faster effort if asked for her best run.
One advantage Beholder will have is that there isn’t much early speed in the Pacific Classic, and she should be able to work out a great trip stalking Bayern and possibly Midnight Storm through the early stages of the race. That should put her in the position to win turning for home, and from there, it’s simply a question of whether she’s good enough.
But is it a good bet to take 5-2 on a horse facing a field of this caliber—while attempting a distance she’s never tried before—when she needs to take a step forward on paper? If we’re talking Zenyatta in the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic, the answer would be yes, but is Beholder capable of doing the same as Zenyatta? In the end, although I am a huge fan of Beholder and will be cheering for her to win, I’m going to side with a horse offering better value as my top selection.
One horse that really jumps out at me is Bayern at 6-1. Winner of the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) and three other major stakes races last year, he has been beaten in all three of his starts this year, but showed signs of returning to form when third by 1 ¼ lengths in the 8.5-furlong San Diego Handicap (gr. II) last time out. During the early stages of the Del Mar meet, the new main track was very slow and tiring, conditions that Bayern doesn’t care for and probably didn’t relish in the San Diego. However, in the weeks since that race, the main track at Del Mar has sped up dramatically, and might play in Bayern’s favor this Saturday. Additionally, the ten-furlong distance of the Pacific Classic should help Bayern get out in front while setting a modest pace, as his only challengers for the early lead are Beholder—who seems more likely to settle just off the lead—and the turf miler Midnight Storm, who hasn’t shown the same early speed on dirt as he has on turf. In my opinion, Bayern is poised to get an ideal setup for the first time this year, and I think he’s going to respond by rebounding with a very big performance.
Two other horses that I will strongly consider are Catch a Flight and Red Vine. The former has won three of his last four starts with sharp late rallies, including the San Diego Handicap, and while he could only finish third in the Gold Cup at Santa Anita (gr. I), I think he moved too soon into a fast pace that day and will have no trouble handling the distance of the Pacific Classic with a more patient ride. He looks to be the main threat from off-the-pace. Red Vine will likely be a bit of a longshot after finishing second in the Salvator Mile (gr. III) at Monmouth, but the winner that day—Bradester—came back to win the Monmouth Cup (gr. II) with a 105 Beyer, and Red Vine’s last two figures of 105 and 106 put him right in the mix against this field. Furthermore, Red Vine’s pedigree strongly suggests that he’ll have no trouble with the distance of the Pacific Classic, and his respectable form at ten furlongs on turf is also a positive. He should be able to work out a great trip from post five, likely settling two or three lengths off the lead before rallying in the homestretch.
Two horses I’ll play against, at least to some extent, are Hard Aces and Hoppertunity. True, they did run 1-2 in the ten-furlong Gold Cup at Santa Anita (gr. I), but that was after getting great trips rating far behind a fast pace. Of the pair, I prefer Hoppertunity, who was beaten just a nose by Hard Aces after a much wider trip. He has since come back to finish fourth by 1 ½ lengths in the San Diego Handicap, gaining four lengths in the final furlong despite the modest pace, and while I don’t think he’s going to win on Saturday, I think he could definitely get involved for the trifecta. But Hard Aces, who received an almost perfect trip in the Gold Cup at Santa Anita, might find it harder to get into the mix if a less ideal setup unfolds in the Pacific Classic.
Now with all of that said, all that’s left to do is choose my official selection! This is a tough race to handicap, and I could see this race going several different ways, but in the quest for value, I’ll side with Bayern for the top spot. Red Vine is another that I really like, and would definitely use in multi-race wagers, but the fact that 21 of the 24 Pacific Classic winners prepped in California suggests that this East Coast-shipper could be facing a tough task. I would also strongly consider Catch a Flight for any multi-race wagers, and possibly the top of the exotics (as a hedge in case Bayern disappoints), but keep an eye on his odds—I have a feeling that he’ll go off at lower than his 9-2 morning line price.
Now it’s your turn! Who do you like in the Pacific Classic?
To help keep track of all the Breeders' Cup prep races, here is the link to Bloodhorse.com's Breeders' Cup news page. To keep track of all the races for two-year-olds at Saratoga and Del Mar, here is the link to my "Diamonds in the Rough" column on The Turf Board. Also, here is the link to the currrent standings, entries, rules, and schedule for our "Road to the Breeders' Cup Classic" Handicapping Challenge. Enjoy the racing, everyone!
J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, blogger, videographer, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He is the founder of the horse racing website www.theturfboard.com.