It might seem hard to believe, but as little as 30 years ago, popular Del Mar racetrack in California lacked a signature race to define its summer stakes schedule.
There were plenty of quality races held each year at the seaside track, but none that could definitively rank as a must-watch, can’t-miss event.
That all changed when businessman John C. Mabee pushed for the creation of a rich new race — the $1 million Pacific Classic, held for the first time on Aug. 10, 1991.
Mabee was no stranger to high-quality horse racing. A member of The Jockey Club, Mabee and his wife bred dozens of stakes winners while racing their homebreds under the name Golden Eagle Farm. Mabee also was chairman of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club’s Board of Directors, giving him a platform to push the creation of a season-defining stakes race.
Considering Del Mar was already among the nation’s most popular tracks in terms of wagering handle and daily attendance, it was only logical for a race like the Pacific Classic to become a reality. When the 1 ¼-mile race was announced in December 1990, Del Mar President and General Manager Joe Harper expressed a similar sentiment.
“In light of our current status in the national racing community, the Board of Directors of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club felt a race of this magnitude would be a fitting and timely step in enhancing our prestige and bringing our fans a taste of world-class racing,” Harper explained in the Dec. 5, 1990 edition of the Oceanside, California North County Times.
While million-dollar races are not uncommon nowadays, the huge purse for the Pacific Classic was noteworthy at the time. The North County Times said the purse would be “far and away the most lucrative prize ever offered at the seaside track,” exceeding the purse of $372,100 for the 1989 Del Mar Futurity.
The rich prize and classic distance proved perfect for attracting top-tier talent to the Pacific Classic. The eight-horse field that assembled for the inaugural running of Del Mar’s richest race included some of the best horses in training. The most recognizable name was Unbridled, winner of the 1990 Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic, but he wasn’t even favored. That honor went to Farma Way, a five-time graded stakes winner with top-level victories in the Santa Anita Handicap and Pimlico Special Handicap on his record.
Grade 1 Oaklawn Handicap winner Festin also received plenty of wagering support, as did Twilight Agenda, a then-two-time graded stakes winner who would go on to become a Grade 1 winner and finish second in the 1991 Breeders’ Cup Classic. Itsallgreektome, runner-up in the 1990 Breeders’ Cup Mile and a two-time Grade 1 winner on turf, added further depth to the stellar field, while even longshots Anshan and Stalwart Charger had won multiple graded stakes.
And then there was Best Pal, bred and owned by Mabee himself. As the lone 3-year-old in the field, he had yet to prove himself against older runners, though he’d certainly shown serious talent against his own age group. Winner of the Grade 1 Norfolk Stakes and Grade 1 Hollywood Futurity as a juvenile, Best Pal had lost his first five starts of 1991, but this string of defeats included runner-up finishes in the Santa Anita Derby and Kentucky Derby.
Best Pal finally turned things around in the Grade 2 Swaps Stakes on July 7 at Hollywood Park. Traveling the same 1 ¼-mile distance as the Pacific Classic, Best Pal rolled to a decisive four-length victory in the solid time of 2:00.70.
Notably, the Swaps Stakes marked Best Pal’s first start under the care of trainer Gary Jones, who elected to strike while the iron was hot and give Best Pal a stiff test in the Pacific Classic. The move seemed to indicate confidence, yet Jones later admitted in the Aug. 11, 1991 edition of Lincoln, Nebraska’s The Lincoln Star that he had some uncertainties about running Best Pal against tough older horses in Del Mar’s feature race.
“I don’t think we were totally 100% confident,” Jones said. “I think we were wise to try it.”
Even with the uncertainty surrounding Best Pal’s first foray against older horses, Del Mar bettors were impressed enough by his victory in the Swaps to send Best Pal off as the co-second choice in the Pacific Classic wagering. In the end, they were rewarded for their faith, but first had to endure a heart-pounding finish.
Under a patient ride from jockey Pat Valenzuela, Best Pal broke a step slowly from the starting gate and dropped back to sixth place early on as Farma Way — intent on securing the early advantage — battled to a narrow early advantage over Twilight Agenda while sprinting through fast quarter-mile fractions of :22.87, :45.92, and 1:09.99. Halfway through the race, Best Pal had just two horses beaten, leading the distant trailers Unbridled and Festin while racing several lengths behind Farma Way.
But Valenzuela’s conservative ride was a recipe for success in the fast-paced race. Rounding the far turn, Best Pal slowly advanced as Twilight Agenda tackled Farma Way and seized command. Twilight Agenda’s rally to the lead was so decisive that Best Pal briefly lost ground on the new leader, with Twilight Agenda opening up a commanding 2 ½-length advantage at the eighth pole.
Some horses would have been discouraged. But in the final furlong of the Del Mar homestretch, Best Pal dug deep and found something extra. Tenaciously regaining lost ground, he inched closer and closer to Twilight Agenda, cutting the gap to 1 ½ lengths, then a length, and then just a half-length. Inside the final sixteenth of a mile, with mere yards left to be run, Best Pal’s momentum won the day, and he forged past Twilight Agenda to prevail by a length.
Best Pal flew across the finish line in 1:59.86, shattering the track record for a rarely run distance. Twilight Agenda, gallant to the finish line, finished 2 ¾ lengths ahead of the late-running Unbridled. But the star of the show was the youngster who humbled his elders with his resounding victory.
“Pat was sitting there right where he was supposed to be — four or five lengths off of it,” Jones said in the Aug. 11, 1991 edition of the Chicago Tribune. “I thought Pat was ultra-patient. It’s like he has a clock in his head. Man, he rode this race cool.”
“I was saving, saving, saving with him. I knew I needed to have something left late,” Valenzuela explained in the Chicago Tribune. “When the lane came up, I asked him and he fired. He gave me all he had. What a nice, nice colt.”
For Mabee, the moment was doubly sweet. Not only did he witness the inauguration of the great race he championed, he was able to cheer his homebred star — a California-bred, no less — to a thrilling victory against a top-class field.
“I just didn’t want to get disgraced,” remarked Mabee in The Lincoln Star, “and [Best Pal] sure didn’t disgrace us today.”
In the years to come, Best Pal would continue winning high-class races on his way to career earnings of $5,668,245, then the highest sum ever accumulated by a California-bred. But first, he helped put the Pacific Classic on the map with a memorable victory on a sunny Saturday at Del Mar.