Playing Against the Pacific Classic Favorite

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

If you ask me, Saturday's $1 million Pacific Classic (G1) at Del Mar is one of the most intriguing top-level handicapping challenges we've seen in a while.

Short fields have been prevalent in many Grade 1 races this year, but the Pacific Classic presents a much different picture. Nine horses have been entered in the 1 1/4-mile event, which serves as a track-and-distance prep for the Nov. 6 Breeders' Cup Classic (G1). And there isn't anything resembling a standout favorite in the field.

The tentative morning line choice is #5 Express Train (3-1), a horse I've liked ever since his runner-up effort on debut at Del Mar two summers ago. Under the patient care of trainer John Shirreffs, Express Train has slowly developed into a graded stakes star, picking up victories in the 1 1/8-mile San Pasqual S. (G2) and 1 1/16-mile San Diego Handicap (G2) this season. His victory in the latter race was particularly encouraging, as Express Train showed impressive tenacity to dig deep when challenged and win by half a length.

But is Express Train cut out for racing 1 1/4 miles? That's a tough question. He's tackled this distance twice in the past, with somewhat mixed results. In the Santa Anita Handicap (G1), Express Train held a two-length lead at the eighth pole, only to falter late and finish second by half a length. Then in the Hollywood Gold Cup (G1), Express Train never really got untracked when rallying from last place and finished third beaten 4 1/4 lengths.

My gut feeling is that Express Train might be better over slightly shorter trips than 1 1/4 miles, so I'm tempted to oppose him—at least for win purposes—in the Pacific Classic. Instead, I'll favor the horses who finished second and third in the San Diego Handicap: #1 Tripoli (5-1) and #4 Royal Ship (7-2).

Royal Ship needs no introduction and looms as a logical alternative to the slim favorite. The Richard Mandella trainee was on a roll during the spring, scoring a narrow victory in the 1 1/8-mile Californian S. (G2) before finishing second by a head in the Hollywood Gold Cup (G1).

True, Royal Ship faltered a bit in the San Diego Handicap, coming home third by 1 1/4 lengths while attempting to rally up the rail. But the inside didn't appear to be the best part of the track on San Diego Handicap day, and the distance may have been shorter than Royal Ship prefers. I'm optimistic he'll produce a much-improved effort in the Pacific Classic.

Tripoli brings similarly promising form to the table. A son of leading grass sire Kitten's Joy, Tripoli understandably began his career on turf, proving to be a capable but generally unremarkable allowance performer.

However, Tripoli has improved by leaps and bounds since switching to dirt. After winning a 1 1/16-mile allowance optional claimer at Santa Anita (earning a strong 106 Brisnet Speed rating), Tripoli stepped up in class for the San Diego and ran a strong race in defeat. After settling back in sixth place, the chestnut four-year-old rallied wide to finish second by just half a length.

Tripoli has trained up a storm since then, clocking five furlongs in :58 2/5, five furlongs in 1:00, and six furlongs in 1:12 4/5. All three workouts came at Del Mar, suggesting Tripoli has an affinity for this oval. Trainer John Sadler has won two of the last three editions of the Pacific Classic, and if Tripoli improves while stretching out over 1 1/4 miles—which his pedigree suggests he will—he can up Sadler's Pacific Classic record to three wins from the last four years.

#2 Tizamagician (5-1), a two-time graded stakes winner racing 1 1/2 miles, is one of the only obvious pace players in the Pacific Classic field and thus looms as a contender for the exotics. #3 Dr Post is another logical candidate to hit the board while shipping in off a sharp victory in the Monmouth Cup S. (G3) at Monmouth Park.

But for the top of my Pacific Classic tickets, I prefer the chances of Tripoli and Royal Ship. If forced to choose between them, I would give the narrow edge to Royal Ship, who may only need a clean run over a fair track to produce a career-best effort. But boxing Royal Ship with Tripoli in the exacta also sounds like an appealing strategy.

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, videographer, voice actor, 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.

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