How the Pacific Classic came to have four stakes on its undercard

How the Pacific Classic came to have four stakes on its undercard
Photo: Eclipse Sportswire

If the bars in Del Mar were fully open and heavily patronized as usual this Pacific Classic Week (oh, would that they were!) there might be money to be made with one trivia question: How many times has the Pacific Classic, the signature event of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club’s summer meeting, been the only stakes race on that day’s program?

The answer, given away by the headline on this piece, is never.

From its start, the race that DMTC founding father John C. Mabee envisioned, championed, prodded and pushed to existence — and then won the 1991 inaugural with his Best Pal — has always had stakes company on the card.

But if, as the saying goes, ‘Two’s company, three’s a crowd,’ the 30th running on Saturday goes beyond a crowd to a throng. In addition to the $500,000 Classic, there are four other stakes, with purses totaling $650,000, on an 11-race program.

How did it come to this?

For the first 16 years, officials carded one other stakes race on Classic Day. Then, in 2007-2009, three besides the Classic were included on the program. A cutback to Classic-plus-two was the formula from 2010 to 2018. Then, last year, the envelope was pushed to the plus-four that will be continued on Saturday.

The stakes escalation, says Tom Robbins, DMTC executive vice president, racing and industry relations, is both practical and in keeping with a nationwide trend.

“The thing I like about it, and I think David (racing secretary David Jerkens) would agree, is that if you’re going after a horse or horses on the East Coast, it’s sometimes easier to sell them on the idea of coming out here if they can send more than one out and all travel at the same time on the same day. It has that advantage.

“And from the financial/business side, it certainly attracts the players. We want to be attractive to our customers, to have quality programs, and this is our signature race surrounded by others that will also attract national attention.”

Craig Dado, executive vice president and chief marketing officer, not only echoes those sentiments but turns up the volume.

“I’m a big fan of it (stakes stacking),” Dado said. “In an era where you’re trying to not only compete with other tracks but stand out, it makes sense. We’re hoping to get a lot of eyeballs from around the country on the program Saturday. I’m not standing at home plate and pointing to the centerfield fence, but we’re hoping to break the handle record.”

The highest single-day handle total in track history, except for the two days the Breeders’ Cup was hosted in 2017, is $25,870,431 on Pacific Classic Day in 2018.

With Del Mar, like nearly every track in the country, racing sans all but a limited number of on-track spectators and relying on internet wagering to provide the lifeblood handle money totals, the notion that "less is more" becomes an absurdity.

“We look at how those (other stakes) would fit on our schedule, but also how they would fit on the national calendar as well,” Robbins said. “We really want to highlight the Pacific Classic, but we want to have a really big day. A lot of tracks do the same thing.”

There were five graded stakes, three of them Grade 1s, of 12 races on the Travers Day program at Saratoga on Aug. 8. Churchill Downs’ adaption to the COVID-19 circumstances was a basic relocation of the multiple undercard stakes on the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby day programs, many of them Grade 1s and Grade 2s, along with the marquee events to the first weekend of September instead of May.

“We could feel the heat (of lured-away horses) in some ways, but the good news is there were not a lot of conflicts there,” Robbins said. “No question, the Pacific Classic is going to be the strongest day of the year, and that’s what it’s designed to be.”

The San Clemente Stakes for 3-year-old fillies was on the inaugural Pacific Classic card and hasn’t been a big day invitee since.

In the next 15 years when one additional stakes was included on the menu, the most frequent Classic partner was the Rancho Bernardo Handicap, a 6 1/2-furlong sprint for older fillies and mares (7 times). The Pat O’Brien, a 7-furlong sprint, was co-featured four times, the Del Mar Oaks three times and the Del Mar Debutante once.

The O’Brien, Oaks and Debutante all were, or eventually became, Grade 1 events.

Robbins on the Rancho Bernardo as Classic companion: “It was a race that we wanted to give a little strength to at that time, and it fit well on the calendar.

“This year we’re running it this Friday because it still fits on the calendar. It came up strong this year, so with that on Friday and the Del Mar Mile on Sunday, we have a good feature Friday, good feature on Sunday and a lot of strength on Saturday with what many consider the best horse in the country (Maximum Security) running in the Classic.”

The Rancho Bernardo has K M N Racing’s Sneaking Out, a 4-year-old filly fresh from victory in the Grade 2 Great Lady M Stakes on July 4, as the 8-5 morning-line favorite in a competitive field of eight.

The O’Brien and the Oaks have been Classic complements, though never as a duo, every year since 2005. The Del Mar Mile or the Del Mar Handicap have, separately, served to provide a major event on the turf every year since 2010.

Interest of racing fans nationally figures to be piqued by Saturday’s Grade 1 Oaks and Grade 2 Handicap. The Oaks, at 1 1/8 miles on the turf, features Gary Barber’s Laura’s Light, trained by Peter Miller, who seeks to take the final step up the graded stakes ladder after winning the Grade 3 Honeymoon at Hollywood Park on May 30 and the Grade 2 San Clemente here on July 25.

The Del Mar Handicap is alluring because of the presence of United. The 5-year-old son of Giant’s Causeway was narrowly beaten by 2019 Horse of the Year Bricks and Mortar in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Turf and has won three straight graded stakes, most recently the Eddie Read at Del Mar on July 26.

“We’re always aware of the schedule at the tracks before and after us on the calendar,” Robbins said. “It used to be Hollywood Park, now Santa Anita. The Bing Crosby and the Pat O’Brien have moved around to (align) with the Triple Bend at those places.

“We try to figure out what works best, starting with Southern California and then looking at the other parts of the country.”

When it comes to the day of the Pacific Classic, Sunday holds a 16-13 lead over Saturday. That’s mainly attributable to a streak of nine straight Sunday presentations from 2001 to 2009 and four in a row starting in 2011. Saturday, however, is on a six-year streak.

“That’s not just a racing department decision,” Robbins said. “We do analysis and we work together. Every department has input on something like that. We bounced around with it on those years we had it on Sunday. I think it was even held the day after Travers Day (at Saratoga) one year.

“But now, we’ve kind of found this niche. You’ve got to factor in things from a racing and also from a business standpoint. We’ve found that Saturdays are typically stronger than Sundays.”

The numbers for the past decade don’t lie. Over the span when the Classic was staged on Sunday from 2011 to 2014, the handle averaged $19.5 million. On Saturdays the last five years, the average is $23.9 million.

“All the big race days have moved to Saturday,” Dado noted. “You get more eyeballs on the races and bigger handles.”

Procrastination is not an option when it comes to pinpointing the spot on the calendar for the Pacific Classic.

“That decision is usually made early,” Robbins said. “At the end of one calendar year or early the next. It’s a day that people want to know about well in advance. The switchboard will start getting calls about it early in the year.

“We work hand in hand with the Thoroughbred Owners of California, and we try to give them a stakes schedule in March. So we’ll know well before that, but we don’t generally announce anything until we have their approval.”

In the year of COVID-19, the squandering of a potential bar bet is but a speck of loss in the overall picture. Consider this, racing fans:

“We had a Breeders’ Cup 2021 hat giveaway planned for Pacific Classic Day this year,” Dado said, a reference to Del Mar’s second time to host the two-day fall championship event.

It’ll keep until next year.

2020 Pacific Classic (G1)

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