Five things to know for Pacific Classic/Alabama Day
In eager anticipation of Saturday’s showdown in the Pacific Classic (G1), and Songbird’s latest turn in the Alabama (G1), here are a few historical angles of interest.
1. California Chrome is trying to make history as the first Kentucky Derby (G1) winner to capture the Pacific Classic.
Only three previous Derby heroes have attempted Del Mar’s signature race. Unbridled, the 1990 Derby champion, competed in the inaugural Pacific Classic as a four-year-old in 1991 and finished third. That remains the best effort by a Derby winner so far in this race, with War Emblem (sixth as the reigning Derby victor in 2002) and Giacomo (fifth as a four-year-old in 2006) both off the board.
“Chromies” have a right to dismiss this factoid, however, for he enters in a more formidable state than his three predecessors.
2. Dortmund fits a more successful historical trend of Kentucky Derby losers who went on to glory in the Pacific Classic. Of the six, four won as three-year-olds, and the other two added the Pacific Classic as older horses – Dortmund’s hoping to make it three.
This angle got off to an immediate start when Best Pal, the 1991 Derby runner-up, defeated older horses in the Pacific Classic (as Vance Hanson remembers). He had warmed up with two fine efforts against sophomores, just missing in the Silver Screen (later renamed the Affirmed) (G3) and winning the Swaps (G2).
Free House, the third-placer from the 1997 Derby, prevailed in the 1998 edition of the Pacific Classic.
General Challenge, 11th in the 1999 Derby, rebounded over the summer. After landing the Affirmed, he came up a head shy in the Swaps, but rolled in the Pacific Classic.
Came Home, sixth in the 2002 Derby, followed a similar trajectory - only he scored in both the Affirmed and Swaps en route to the Pacific Classic.
Borrego, 10th in the 2004 Derby, reached career-best form at four and made the 2005 Pacific Classic his breakthrough.
Dullahan, the 2012 Derby third, lost his way on fast dirt tracks. But he was a different animal on synthetic, and roared back to beat his elders in the 2012 Pacific Classic on Del Mar’s old Polytrack.
3. Beholder, the only female Pacific Classic winner, would become the fourth defending champion to repeat.
The first two, Tinners Way (1994-95) and Skimming (2000-01), were both Juddmonte Farms homebreds trained by the late Hall of Famer Bobby Frankel. Richard’s Kid (2009-10) emulated them during his stint with Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, and in Del Mar’s synthetic era.
Beholder fans, take note: Tinners Way and Richard’s Kid were coming off losses ahead of both of their Pacific Classic doubles. The star mare can move forward from her reverse at Stellar Wind’s hands in the Clement L. Hirsch (G1), for the tactical reasons explained by James Scully.
But a good duel can also have beneficial consequences from a psychological perspective. For a mare who’s hardly seen a rival in a couple of years, Beholder may have needed a sterner battle to get her ready for the brawl with Chrome and Dortmund.
You can make a similar point about Dortmund as well. The big lug was toughened up by his fisticuffs with Firing Line in the 2014 Los Alamitos Futurity (G1) and 2015 Robert B. Lewis (G3), and it showed in his subsequent victories in the San Felipe (G2) and Santa Anita Derby (G1). When meeting Chrome in the San Diego H. (G2) last out, Dortmund had been out of action for a much longer time. Although Baffert can crank them up off the bench, the hulking chestnut may be more of a challenge to get fit purely off works, due to his massive size. Between the lack of race fitness, and the mental rustiness that accompanies a lengthy layoff, Dortmund did well to come up just short.
4. Shared Belief (2014) is the only three-year-old Pacific Classic winner who didn’t compete in the Kentucky Derby. Dalmore, the lone sophomore in Saturday’s renewal, has an awfully big historical act to follow in this regard.
Unlike Shared Belief, the 2013 juvenile champion who missed the 2014 Triple Crown trail due to foot problems, Dalmore simply wasn’t good enough to mix it up with the best of his generation at the time. The Keith Desormeaux trainee didn’t even break his maiden until his seventh try, then famously flopped in the Wood Memorial (G1).
But Dalmore does have one lesser thing in common with four of the Pacific Classic’s victorious sophomores: he’s struck top form this summer on the Southern California circuit. By rallying to get up in the Affirmed, he achieved a new career high.
The problem, of course, is that Dalmore’s not even the best three-year-old in his own barn – that’s Preakness (G1) and Haskell Invitational (G1) star Exaggerator – and he faces an exceptionally tough trio of older horses. California Chrome and Beholder are surefire Hall of Famers, and Dortmund’s no slouch.
5. If Songbird makes it a perfect 10 on Saturday, she’d become only the second unbeaten Alabama winner in a century – and by far the more significant one.
Given time constraints and the limitations of digging up ancient race records online, I didn't go back to all the 19th-century winners. Looking at all the winners since the 1901 running, I found only one filly who stayed perfect through the Alabama: Sweet Symphony (2005). But she pales in comparison to Songbird. Sweet Symphony was making just her fourth career start, and stakes debut, in the Alabama, and she never won again.
Of the 20th-century notables who came close, Primonetta (1961) suffered her first loss by a neck in the Monmouth Oaks before romping in the Alabama; Top Flight (1932) was undefeated in her own division, but had lost versus the boys; Nimba (1927) likewise lost her perfect mark when pitched in against males, but rebounded in the Alabama; Vexatious (1919), runner-up in her career debut, won the Alabama in just her second start; Ocean Bound (1910) was reportedly unlucky to get beat by a bad ride in the Mermaid Stakes; and Maskette (1909) had lost to Sir Martin in the Flatbush. (To list only their pre-Alabama records.)
Needless to say, a fixation on perfection isn’t the way to define true greatness. It’s far nobler to achieve bold aims, while occasionally missing, than compile a perfect stat that doesn’t reflect much in the end.
Hence the all-time great Alabama winners – a roll of honor ranging from the superlative Miss Woodford (1883), to the redoubtable Beldame (1904), and up through Go for Wand (1990) – weren’t unbeaten. But they are legends. And whether she remains perfect throughout her career or not, Songbird may be on her way to that exalted status.