A quarter-century later, Best Pal's win at Del Mar still a classic
The two behemoths of 20th century racing in California have undoubtedly been usurped. In a mere quarter-century, the Pacific Classic (G1) has turned from new kid on the block to the most important race run in California on an annual basis.
Saturday's California Chrome vs. Beholder showdown is sure to create a lasting memory, and there have been plenty already for such a relatively young race as the Pacific Classic.
Ones that struck a chord with me include the speedy Bertrando in 1993 proving he could indeed get 1 1/4 miles (stylishly in fact), and Gentlemen four years later confirming his status, in my mind anyway, that he was the best older horse in the country (sorry Skip Away and Formal Gold).
Came Home grinding out a narrow win against his elders in 2002 while conceding them a pound on the scale remains an underrated performance. The late and sorely-missed Shared Belief, another three-year-old winner, scintillated just two years ago, and Beholder's shattering of the glass ceiling last season might have only been the beginning, pending Saturday's outcome.
Asked to name my favorite of the 25 Pacific Classics, it would probably be the very first in 1991. The three-year-old Best Pal had disappointed as my Kentucky Derby (G1) selection, remained winless on the year in two subsuquent efforts, but a trainer switch to Gary Jones ahead of the Swaps (G2) seemed to help as the gelding romped by four lengths over a mile and a quarter at Hollywood.
The inaugural Classic also featured the tough Farma Way and Festin, grizzled veterans of the American Champion Racing Series (ACRS) that had commenced that year. Unbridled, hero of the previous year's Derby and Breeders' Cup Classic (G1), shipped west in search of better luck, but unplaced efforts in the Oaklawn H. (G1) and Pimlico Special (G1) earlier in the season led me to doubt his chances. Nor was I too fond of reigning grass champion Itsallgreektome's abilities on dirt. Then there was Twilight Agenda, an improving colt from the barn of D. Wayne Lukas with back-to-back wins in the Bel Air H. (G2) and San Diego H. (G3).
I went to my local track for the simulcast of the Classic firmly in Best Pal's camp and thinking I would get a juicy price in the upper single-digits. But the sharpies in California and elsewhere were clever, too, and made him joint second choice with Festin a 4.90-1.
Aided by the suicidal fractions set by the Lukas-trained pair of Farma Way and Twilight Agenda, Best Pal won fairly comfortably in the end. In retrospect, $11.80 wasn't so bad.
Hoping Best Pal would be able to make a late-season surge to unseat dual classic winner Hansel from the top of the three-year-old standings, it was disheartening to see him throw a massive dud the following month in the Super Derby (G1) behind the unheralded Free Spirit's Joy. He ended the season with two more losses in the California Cup Classic and Citation H. (G2).
Through the first few months of 1992 it looked as if it would be the year of Best Pal. Four straight wins to start the year, including the Santa Anita H. (G1) and Oaklawn H., got me hugely excited. Unfortunately, a season-ending injury in defeat at the Pimlico Special (G1) proved to be another popped balloon.
Best Pal turned in three more full seasons of campaigning, but he was never the same. With 18 wins in 47 career starts, and more than $5.6 million in earnings, he did make the Hall of Fame. Somehow. I'm not typically keen on seeing horses without a single divisional championship to their name getting a plaque in Saratoga Springs. I would not have supported his induction, but it was not my choice to make. He's there.
Regardless of what he did or did not accomplish in the second half of his career, Best Pal was one of the more exciting horses around in the early 1990s, an era when acts like Sunday Silence-Easy Goer were impossible to follow and tragedies like Go for Wand hard to overcome. However, several of his performances still endure in the mind including one that, to me, was truly a classic.