Shapiro's favorite moments of Del Mar's 2016 summer meet
by Scott Shapiro
As the summer ends and the racing community begins to look towards the 2016 Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita Park, I thought the proper way to finalize the meet at Del Mar was to discuss a few of my personal favorite moments.
With so many great stakes races and fun days in San Diego County it was not an easy chore, but nonetheless here are a few of the events I will remember most about the past two months “Where the Turf Meets the Surf.”
1. California Chrome
While several of the country’s most talented horses competed this summer at Del Mar, the meet no doubt belonged to the unanimous selection for “Horse of the Meet,” California Chrome.
The five-year-old son of Lucky Pulpit stole the “show” with a thrilling stretch drive victory against Dortmund in the San Diego Handicap and then of course the dominant performance in the $1 million Pacific Classic on August 20th. Seeing him take it to what was perceived as one of the strongest groups ever to perform in Del Mar’s premier race is something I will never forget.
The two victories added to Chrome’s impressive 2016 resume and has him on the verge of his second Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year. If Chrome can handle his business in the Awesome Again later this month and in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, he should be the unanimous choice. He is further proof of how great it is to see Triple Crown winners mature and run after their three-year-old campaigns.
2. The battle to the wire in the Grade 1 Clement L. Hirsch
The 2016 Clement L. Hirsch was supposed to be yet another graded stakes win for champion mare Beholder. Horseplayers set the daughter of Henny Hughes off as the 1-9-favorite in the event she won easily last year. However, 2015 three-year-old champion filly Stellar Wind had other ideas.
The John Sadler trainee was primed for a big performance after being defeated by Beholder in early June in the Vanity Mile at Santa Anita Park. Jockey Victor Espinoza gave one of his best rides of the summer in the Hirsch, stalking Beholder from start-to-finish. He never let the Richard Mandella runner relax and Stellar Wind eventually wore down her rival in the final strides for the upset.
Beholder winning at a short price against her gender is something that Southern California racing fans had taken for granted since she returned to the racetrack to commence her five-year-old campaign in April of 2015. While I always enjoy greatness, I also love a good upset. Stellar Wind brought me that this summer.
3. Closing weekend
The final three days of the 2016 Del Mar summer meeting brought me the things I love most about the great meetings the States have to offer this time of year. Top quality juvenile races and cards from start-to-finish that offer horseplayers chances to score big top that list.
As usual, the Del Mar Debutante and the Del Mar Futurity were the final two Grade 1 events of the summer in San Diego County.
The Del Mar Debutante featured an evenly matched field of seven two-year-old fillies led by the full-sister of 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, American Cleopatra.
Horseplayers settled on American Cleopatra as the 9-5-favorite and made Sorrento Stakes winner Champagne Room the 5-2-second choice, but in the end it was twenty-five-year old trainer Shelbe Ruis and her filly Union Strike that stalked early and pulled clear late for the graded stakes score. Another upset to add to a great summer of stakes racing.
The traditional closing day feature was the Del Mar Futurity, an event that I anticipated greatly due to my affinity for Keith Desormeaux conditioned Straight Fire. The Dominus colt led early and appeared poised for a second straight victory, until Bob Baffert’s Klimt came with a powerful run to give Baffert his 13th career victory in the Grade 1 two-year-old event.
While I was disappointed with the outcome for a moment, it did not take long to appreciate the sheer greatness of Baffert’s achievement. His ability to train young horses to win early and prepare them for the big races at two and three is something that cannot be taken for granted. He is the best I have ever seen do it and once again he could be in line for a run at the Triple Crown or at the very least another win in the Kentucky Derby or Preakness Stakes.
In addition to the big juvenile events over closing weekend, the challenging races to handicap from the first race on Saturday to the last on Labor Day is what all handicappers adore. The payouts in the Pick 5, the Pick 4 and a double carryover in the Pick 6 into closing day illustrate my point.
Whether it was two-turn turf events, maiden special weight sprints or a field of hard knocking veterans on the main track, the analytical puzzles provided by the Del Mar racing office the last few days were of strong quality throughout. I will miss these types of cards until they come again late this month at Santa Anita and during Breeders’ Cup weekend.
I would like to thank everyone that followed my work this summer on Twin Spires. I hope you enjoyed the meet as much as I did.