Held at seven-eighths of a mile at the sunny seaside track called Del Mar, the $150,000, Grade 2 Pat O’Brien Stakes is a race in which pure sprinters routinely face off against longer-winded opponents cutting back in distance.
Technically, the Pat O’Brien is a “Win and You’re In” qualifier for the Nov. 7 Big Ass Fans Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile at Keeneland. But it’s just as likely to produce starters for the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Sprint, annually stamping the Pat O’Brien as a competitive and intriguing race with lots of potential Breeders’ Cup implications.
On the sprinting front, #4 Flagstaff is a formidable face in the 2020 renewal. A son of champion sprinter Speightstown, Flagstaff has proved highly effective dashing seven-eighths of a mile, winning the Damascus Stakes and Grade 2 San Carlos Stakes at this distance at Santa Anita. In the San Carlos, Flagstaff trailed a compact field during the early going, then unleashed a sharp rally to sprint home 1 1/4 lengths clear of 2019 Santa Anita Derby winner Roadster.
But Flagstaff was arguably most impressive in the Grade 3 Count Fleet Sprint Handicap on Apr. 18 at Oaklawn Park. A slow start left Flagstaff much farther off the pace than usual — trailing the leaders by 10 lengths — but down the stretch he produced a big rally to finish second by less than a length to Grade 1 winner Whitmore.
Flagstaff subsequently regressed in the June 7 Triple Bend Stakes at Santa Anita, coming home fourth in a dull performance in the Grade 2 race, but he’s since been freshened by trainer John Sadler and should return to action ready for a rebound.
Then there’s #7 Giant Expectations, who combines the speed and stamina necessary to be a highly effective miler. The 7-year-old veteran has fired off several big efforts running long, most notably upsetting Grade 1 winners Accelerate, Collected, and Hoppertunity in the 2017 San Antonio Stakes at 1 1/16 miles. But he was also quick enough to win the 2017 Pat O’Brien by 1 1/2 lengths in the fast time of 1:21.08.
Giant Expectations returned to Del Mar to finish second by a head in the 2019 Pat O’Brien, but he’s only run once since then, finishing last in the 2019 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile. Del Mar’s leading jockey Umberto Rispoli has been assigned the mount for Giant Expectations’ third start in the Pat O’Brien, but can this aging stakes winner bring his “A” game off a 10-month layoff?
He’ll have to, because there are plenty of other talented horses entered in the Pat O’Brien field. #1 Law Abidin Citizen has a ton of speed and showed tenacity to finish third after an intense pace battle in the Grade 1 Bing Crosby Stakes at Del Mar last month. #2 P R Radio Star has won two straight sprints at Del Mar since being claimed by trainer Phil D’Amato. And 3-year-old #6 Vertical Threat is unbeaten and unchallenged in two starts on dirt, most recently winning Del Mar’s Smiling Tiger Stakes by 5 1/4 lengths.
But the most intriguing horse in the Pat O’Brien field is #5 C Z Rocket. Once upon a time, this son of City Zip was a capable stakes performer. Back in 2018, he dominated the Kelly’s Landing Stakes sprinting seven-eighths of a mile at Churchill Downs, winning by four lengths in the snappy time of 1:21.51. He also competed admirably in Saratoga’s Grade 1 Forego Stakes at the same distance, finishing fourth by just 2 3/4 lengths against a deep field.
The Forego kicked off an 11-race losing streak that saw C Z Rocket slowly descend into the claiming ranks. But since being claimed by trainer Peter Miller in April, the 6-year-old gelding has rebounded sharply, winning three straight races with fast speed figures. He was tons the best in a Churchill Downs allowance race on June 21, winning by 4 1/2 lengths, and three weeks later he rallied to win a similar event at Keeneland in track-record time.
With hot jockey Flavien Prat in the saddle, C Z Rocket appears poised to keep his win streak alive in the Pat O’Brien. A late runner, C Z Rocket should receive plenty of pace to chase courtesy of Law Abidin Citizen, P R Radio Star, Vertical Threat, and perhaps even Flagstaff, if the latter is keen to get going off the layoff. Drawing post-position six also affords Prat plenty of options for working out a clean, unencumbered trip.
In short, C Z Rocket should have every chance to record a fourth straight victory in the Pat O’Brien. The competitive nature of this field should ensure he starts at a fair price, in which case a simple win bet will produce a solid return on investment.
But if you want to aim for a big payday, consider adding a few trifecta tickets with C Z Rocket on top. Underneath, we’ll emphasize Flagstaff, who will ideally get first run at the leaders if the pace is contested and finish in the top three.
Wagering Strategy on a $10 Budget
$10 to win on #5 C Z Rocket
What to say at the betting window: Del Mar, 10th race, $10 to win on 5
Wagering Strategy on a $25 Budget
$11 to win on #5 C Z Rocket
What to say at the betting window: Del Mar, 10th race, $11 to win on 5
$1 trifecta: 5 with 4 with 1,2,6,7 ($4)
What to say at the betting window: Del Mar, 10th race, $1 trifecta 5 with 4 with 1,2,6,7
$1 trifecta: 5 with 1,2,6,7 with 4 ($4)
What to say at the betting window: Del Mar, 10th race, $1 trifecta 5 with 1,2,6,7 with 4
$0.50 trifecta: 5 with 1,2,6,7 with 1,2,6,7 ($6)
What to say at the betting window: Del Mar, 10th race, $0.50 trifecta 5 with 1,2,6,7 with 1,2,6,7
Good luck, and enjoy the race!