Looking for a Longshot in the Pacific Classic

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman

Since this article is a preview of the $1 million Pacific Classic (gr. I) at Del Mar—arguably the most anticipated and prestigious race of the weekend—I suppose it would make sense for me to begin with an explanation of why #5 Accelerate is clearly the horse to beat.

Then again, isn't it obvious? Just look at his record—he's already won the Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) and the Gold Cup at Santa Anita (gr. I) this season, and if he adds the Pacific Classic to his resume, he'll join Lava Man and Game On Dude as only the third horse to sweep those three races in the same year. In terms of speed figures, Accelerate posted a career-best 111 Beyer in the Gold Cup at Santa Anita, which marked the third time he's cracked the 110 plateau. For good measure, he's won three of his five starts over the occasionally tricky Del Mar main track.

I could also take time to expound on the virtues of #7 Pavel, but these should also be clear from even a cursory glance at his past performances. He's kept top-class company throughout his career and stepped up his game quite nicely to win the Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I) at Churchilll Downs two months ago with a sharp rally from just off the pace.

But what if you want to oppose Accelerate and Pavel in the Pacific Classic? It's a risky proposition, but I can't blame anyone for trying. While Accelerate is clearly the horse to beat if he brings his A-game, it's worth noting that he hasn't run in nearly three months. Such a lengthy break is a relative rarity for the consistent and durable Accelerate, who seems to benefit from frequent racing. On the few occasions when he has run off layoffs, the results have been a bit disappointing—for example, he was beaten at even-money in a May 2017 allowance while returning from a three-month layoff, and he was never a threat while ending a 2 ½-month layoff in the 2017 Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile (gr. I), finishing ninth of ten.

As for Pavel, his win in the Stephen Foster came on a very hot evening when some of his main rivals failed to fire, and from a Beyer speed figure perspective, many of his Pacific Classic rivals have run just as fast. Does that mean he can't win on Saturday? Of course not, but I'd want a better price than his 7-2 morning line odds.

I could just take the easy way out here and pick Accelerate at 8-5—obviously, I respect his chances and won't be surprised if he wins—but instead, I'm going to take a shot with #3 Prime Attraction. That might seem like a stretch since Prime Attraction hasn't won in nine months and is 8-1 on the morning line, but hear me out—I think he's sitting on a big race this Saturday.

First, let me point out that the main track at Del Mar can be a bit tricky at times—some horses love it, while others prefer Santa Anita. Prime Attraction seems to fall into the "loves it" category, considering that he's 2-for-2 over the Del Mar main track. In November 2016, he broke his maiden by 4 ½ lengths going a mile at Del Mar, and one year later he crushed a quality field in the 1 1/8-mile Native Diver Stakes (gr. III), triumphing by 2 ½ lengths while earning a career-best 104 Beyer speed figure.

Since then, Prime Attraction's form has been less consistent, though he's shown flashes of his talent. After finishing fifth without an obvious excuse in the San Antonio Stakes (gr. II), he rebounded sharply in the San Pasqual Stakes (gr. II) going 1 1/8 miles at Santa Anita, finishing just 1 ¾ lengths behind Accelerate while easily defeating the talented Grade 1 winner Mubtaahij for the runner-up sport. Subsequently, Prime Attraction was soundly beaten by Accelerate and Mubtaahij in the Santa Anita Handicap, finishing some twenty lengths back after getting rank early over a wet-fast, sealed track that he might not have cared for.

Given more than four months off, Prime Attraction returned to the races on July 22nd at Del Mar, but a dirt race was not his target—instead, he turned up in the 1 1/8-mile Eddie Read Stakes (gr. II) on turf. Facing a deep and talented field, Prime Attraction set the pace and fought on gamely in the homestretch to finish third, beaten just a neck while leaving the graded stakes winners Bowies Hero, Multiplier, True Valour, Itsinthepost, and Hunt behind him.

With that race under his belt, I think we could see Prime Attraction take a step forward, and the return to the Del Mar main track could also help his chances in a big way. The 1 ¼-mile distance of the Pacific Classic is still a bit of a question mark, but it should be noted that Prime Attraction was beaten just a head over this distance in the John Henry Turf Championship Stakes (gr. II) on turf last fall, and his pedigree (he's by Unbridled Song out of an A.P. Indy mare) suggests that he can run this far.

Is Prime Attraction the most likely winner of the Pacific Classic? Perhaps not, but aside from Accelerate, I think his form stacks up favorably against any other horse in this race. At 8-1, he would be a great candidate for inclusion in the exotics, and if Accelerate does misfire off the three-month layoff, Prime Attraction could very well find himself in the winner's circle at a nice price.

I should also mention #4 Roman Rosso, a three-time Group 1 winner in South America making his U.S. debut for new trainer Bob Baffert. There's really no way to know how Roman Rosso might stack up against this field, but all three of his top-level wins came going 1 ¼ miles or farther, and Baffert is showing some confidence by tossing Roman Rosso into the deep end of the pool for his first start in North America.

At 5-1, I don't think Roman Rosso necessarily offers any wagering value, but he's certainly an intriguing candidate for the exotics and could be worth using in that regard. The same goes for #1 The Lieutenant, runner-up behind Diversify in the 1 ¼-mile Suburban Stakes (gr. II) last time out. This half-brother to Triple Crown winner Justify is bred to relish classic distances and demonstrated that quite clearly in the Suburban, which was arguably his best effort to date. He seems to be on the rise and should factor again in the Pacific Classic.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Pacific Classic?


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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.

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