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Best Pal Was First Pacific Classic Champ

Patrick Valenzuela was up on Best Pal, returning to the winner’s circle. But he was well aware of what was going on in the Del Mar grandstands.


“The crowd was going crazy,” Valenzuela recalled of the moments after the inaugural running of the Pacific Classic on August 10, 1991. “It was an honor just to be a part of the first Pacific Classic, and then to win it, for Mr. and Mrs. Mabee,  on a 3-year-old … The race was Mr. Mabee’s baby and Best Pal was San Diego’s horse.”

The most vivid memory of Gary Jones, Best Pal’s trainer, is heading down to the winner’s circle and seeing his stable crew, already on the track, in joyous celebration that their horse had won the first $1 million race in Del Mar history.


The most vivid memory for anyone else, especially those who happened to be in the vicinity of the stairway that led from the second level of the grandstand to the tarmac and then the winner’s circle, has to be this:


A parting of the masses that had gathered on the steps seeking a better view of the race.


John and Betty Mabee, the Chairman of the Board of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club and his wife, the owners of Golden Eagle Farm in Ramona, as well as Best Pal, smiling while descending through a gauntlet of high-fives, handshakes and pats on the back.


The grandstand crowd rising to provide a standing ovation.


“I’d never seen anything like that before or since, not at a racetrack, not for an owner,” Jones recalled. “It was an unbelievable moment.”


The Pacific Classic was, as Valenzuela said, John Mabee’s baby.  It was Mabee’s idea that Del Mar should join the then-expanding ranks of tracks presenting a race with a seven-figure purse.  The vision encompassed attracting top handicap division horses from all over the country and creating an atmosphere, as he said, “like a Kentucky Derby on the West Coast.”


“John said ‘We’re going to have a $1-million race here, and we’re going to have it at the classic American distance of one and one-quarter miles,” then-DMTC president and general manager Joe Harper said in the build-up during the first Pacific Classic Week.  “Of course, if I’d known then that John would be running a horse in the very first one, I might have taken him a little more seriously.”


The field included 1990 Eclipse Award winners Unbridled and Itsallgreektome, top candidates for 1991 Horse of the Year honors at that point Farma Way and Festin, Kentucky Derby runner-up and local favorite Best Pal and three others with strong credentials.


The week didn’t start well for the Best Pal connections, however.  Shortly after the start of his final pre-race workout, a stirrup broke, limiting Valenzuela’s ability to control the headstrong gelding, who ran off to a too-fast clocking of seven furlongs in 1:23.00.


“John and I were both sick,” Jones said. “I looked at John, and he looked at me, and I said, ‘There goes the Pacific Classic.’ ”


But the work had been scheduled early in the week, giving Best Pal time to recover. And with a superbly positioned and timed ride by Valenzuela, they surged past Twilight Agenda in the stretch and won by a length in 1:59 4/5.


“I remember being just off the lead, then going to the left hand (whip) and when I did Best Pal really responded and accelerated,” Valenzuela said.


“I just didn’t want to get disgraced, and he certainly didn’t disgrace us, did he?” John Mabee said after the race. “This horse was the choice of the public today. The handicappers did not pick him, but the public sent him off at 9-2 (second choice in the race behind 3-2 Farma Way).”


Recently, Gary Jones experienced feelings that he said approached those of that inaugural Pacific Classic.  It came watching Tres Borrachos, trained by his son Marty, win the San Diego Handicap, the major stepping stone to the Pacific Classic.


Marty Jones was 19 and working in the stable crew for his father for the first Pacific Classic. When the 21st running of the Classic is staged on August 28, Gary Jones plans to be watching from a suite with members of the Tres Borrachos entourage and pulling hard for Marty’s horse.


Valenzuela might be riding in his sixth Pacific Classic that day.  The 48-year-old, in his 33rd year of riding, has the call on Acclamation if the Eddie Read Stakes winner’s connections opt for the Classic over the Del Mar Handicap on the same day.


Even if they don’t, 20 years later, Valenzuela still will have the memories of that inaugural Pacific Classic.


 

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