By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
Through the years, the $1
million Pacific Classic (G1) at Del Mar has been won by some of the best horses
in racing. Just look at the last decade of winners: champions Shared Belief
(2014), Beholder (2015), California Chrome (2016), Accelerate (2018), Maximum
Security (2020), and Flightline (2022) have all won the 1 1/4-mile dirt prize.
Saturday's renewal of the
Pacific Classic lacks a standout star on paper, but the 11-horse field makes
for a great betting race. And who knows? There might be a future champion in
It's been nine years since
Shared Belief became the latest three-year-old to win the Pacific Classic; the
last eight editions have been won by older horses. But that may change on
The older horses in the 2023
Pacific Classic aren't the toughest bunch on paper. #5 Defunded (4-1) is the most accomplished, having won the 2022
Awesome Again S. (G1) and 2022 Hollywood Gold Cup (G1) plus a couple of smaller
graded stakes. But racing 1 1/4 miles seems to stretch the limits of Defunded's
stamina; he's 1-for-3 at this distance and came home slowly each time. In the Hollywood
Gold Cup, he had to work hard to beat #10
Piroli (20-1) by one length, and Piroli returned to finish fourth in an
$80,000 allowance optional claimer at Del Mar.
#4 Tripoli (20-1)
was an upset winner of the 2021 Pacific Classic, but he's hasn't cracked the
trifecta in a graded stakes since then, most recently coming home fifth in the
San Diego H. (G2) at Del Mar. Speaking of the San Diego, Defunded finished a
subpar fourth in that 1 1/16-mile contest behind stretch-running #8 Senor Buscador (10-1), who
previously ran fifth in the Hollywood Gold Cup. The San Diego runner-up was #7 Slow Down Andy (8-1), a capable
competitor with tactical speed, but one possibly unsuited to racing 1 1/4
miles. He's lost ground from the eighth pole to the finish line in each of his
last six route races, and those were all 1 1/8 miles or less.
Former claimer #6 Order and Law (30-1) is on the rise, but his upset victory
in the Cougar II S. (G3) at Del Mar came racing 1 1/2 miles against easier
competition. #2 Katonah (20-1) has
won back-to-back starts, including the Pleasanton Mile racing one mile and 70
yards at Pleasanton, but he's stepping up sharply in class and distance and isn't
bred to relish 1 1/4 miles.
#3 Stilleto Boy (8-1)
offers some appeal at a price, considering he rallied to defeat Defunded in the
1 1/4-mile Santa Anita H. (G1) during the winter. He also boasts excellent
third-place finishes in the Pegasus World Cup (G1) and Oaklawn H. (G2) on his
2023 record. If you're willing to forgive a sixth-place finish against a deep
field in the Stephen Foster (G1) two months ago, Stilleto Boy is playable.
But I'm taking a different
route. Rather than support the older horses, I'm going to back a three-year-old
to take home top honors.
The obvious choice is #1 Geaux Rocket Ride (5-2), the morning
line favorite after pouncing to victory in the 1 1/8-mile Haskell S. (G1) at
Monmouth Park last time out. After settling as many as 3 1/2 lengths off the
early pace, Geaux Rocket Ride forged clear down the homestretch to beat
Kentucky Derby (G1) winner Mage by 1 3/4 lengths, earning a career-best 100
Brisnet Speed rating that stacks up well against the Pacific Classic field.
But can Haskell third-place
finisher #9 Arabian Knight (3-1)
turn the tables? Conditioned by Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert (who has won
the Pacific Classic a record-equaling six times), Arabian Knight started his
career on a high note, smashing a seven-furlong maiden special weight at
Keeneland with a 104 Brisnt Speed rating before wiring the 1 1/16-mile
Southwest S. (G3) at Oaklawn Park by 5 1/2 lengths over future West Virginia
Derby (G3) winner Red Route One.
Knight went to the sidelines after the Southwest and didn't run again until the
Haskell. Stepping into the Grade 1 ranks off a six-month layoff was bound to be
a difficult task, and Arabian Knight wasn't helped by getting caught up in a
speed duel. The opening quarter-mile elapsed in a stiff :22.80, at which point
Arabian Knight was racing in second place by half a length while three lengths
clear of the rest.
Arabian Knight continued to
duel through splits of :47.11 and 1:11.65, all while racing wide. Under the
circumstances, he did well to fight on and finish third, beaten 3 3/4 lengths.
He's trained strongly since the Haskell and capped off his Pacific Classic preparations
with a fast five furlongs in :59 3/5 at Del Mar, so I'm optimistic this $2.3
million auction acquisition will move forward in his second start off the
layoff and turn the tables on Geaux Rocket Ride.
I also have to highlight #11 Skinner (10-1), the final sophomore
in the Pacific Classic field, as a live longshot. After missing a couple of
starts due to illness and disappointing training, the Santa Anita Derby (G1)
third-place finisher came back with a solid run in the 1 1/8-mile Los Alamitos
Derby, rallying from behind a modest pace to finish second by 2 1/2 lengths.
The son of Curlin still has upside and is eligible to rally late and pick up a
piece of the purse.
1st: Arabian Knight
2nd: Geaux Rocket Ride
3rd: Stilleto Boy
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.