Will a Sophomore Win the Pacific Classic?

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 the entries.

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 Saturday.

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.

Unfortunately, Arabian 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
4th: Skinner

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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