Road to the Breeders’ Cup: Del Mar Hosts Pivotal Preps

California Chrome and Victor Espinoza after winning the 2016 TVG Pacific Classic. (Eclipse Sportswire)

After a weekend which saw three top-flight turf horses at Arlington International Racecourse and Saratoga Race Course earn automatic berths into the Breeders’ Cup World Championships, the spotlight shifts to sunny Southern California and the annual high point of Del Mar’s summer race meeting .

Del Mar will host two Challenge Series “Win and You’re In” qualifying races on Saturday – the TVG Pacific Classic Stakes and the Del Mar Handicap Presented by Japan Racing Association. The winners of these two races will receive spots in the starting gate for the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic and the $4 million Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf, respectively, on Nov. 2 at Santa Anita Park.

The Pacific Classic and Del Mar Handicap will be televised as part of TVG’s comprehensive coverage of racing at Del Mar, including all of Saturday’s races, with a post time for the opening race set for 5 p.m. ET.

The 14 Breeders’ Cup races attract the best Thoroughbreds in the world to compete for $30 million in purse money and awards, and the selection of starters in each race is determined in part by a points system for graded stakes and the selection criteria of a panel of experts. However, there is one way for an owner to bypass the secondary criteria and secure a spot for their horse in a Breeders’ Cup race, and that is by winning a stakes race in the Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series.

Here’s some background on the Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series races on tap Saturday at Del Mar:

TVG Pacific Classic Stakes:

The TVG Pacific Classic is Del Mar’s marquee race for horses eyeing the Breeders’ Cup Classic. The 1 ¼-mile dirt race was first held in 1991 and has attracted some of the best 3-year-olds and older horses in the sport since its inception.

It’s not surprising, then, that the Pacific Classic has made a significant impact on the Breeders’ Cup. Twilight Agenda, runner-up to Hall of Famer Best Pal in the inaugural 1991 Pacific Classic, finished second to Black Tie Affair in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs (and 1990 Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Unbridled was third in both races). Two years later, Pacific Classic winner Bertrando was second best in a Classic that may forever hold the record for the longest-odds winner, as Arcangues scored a 133.60-1 upset at Santa Anita.

In 1996, arguably the most popular horse of that decade figured prominently in both the Pacific Classic and Breeders’ Cup Classic. Cigar came to Del Mar riding a 16-race winning streak, tied at the time with Citation for the most in the modern era. What commenced in the Pacific Classic left fans across the U.S. stunned, as Cigar and Jerry Bailey stalked Siphon’s hot early pace (six furlongs in 1:09.29), took the lead through the far turn, but then had no response when 39.60-1 bomb Dare and Go swept past them at the top of the stretch. Cigar’s winning streak ended, and three starts later, his career concluded as well when he finished third behind Alphabet Soup and Louis Quatorze in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Woodbine, beaten a head. Nevertheless, Cigar won his second straight Horse of the Year Eclipse Award in 1996.

The turn of the century saw Tiznow win two consecutive Breeders’ Cup Classics in 2000 and 2001, and he finished second in the 2000 Pacific Classic to Skimming (Skimming also won the ’01 Pacific Classic). Medaglia d’Oro, one of the best racehorses of the early 2000s, finished second in both the 2002 and 2003 Breeders’ Cup Classics, and he was runner-up to Candy Ride in that horse's record-setting ’03 Pacific Classic win. Pleasantly Perfect, winner of the ’03 Breeders’ Cup Classic over Medaglia d’Oro, took the 2004 Pacific Classic and finished third in that fall’s Breeders’ Cup Classic, won by Ghostzapper.

As the 2000s continued, many Pacific Classic starters participated months later in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, including fan favorite Lava Man (won the Pacific Classic in 2006, seventh in the Breeders’ Cup Classic) and high-speed Game On Dude. That gelding was a familiar face in both races from 2011-2014, finishing fourth in the ’11 Pacific Classic and then almost winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic under Chantal Sutherland before yielding to Drosselmeyer. In 2012, Game On Dude finished second in the Pacific Classic but a disappointing seventh in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. He then reached the best form of his long career in the subsequent months and won the 2013 Pacific Classic emphatically. That 8 ½-length win was Game On Dude’s sixth in a row, which made him the favorite in the Breeders’ Cup Classic for the second consecutive year, but in retrospect it was his career peak as he finished ninth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and won only one of his final seven starts, retiring after a fourth-place finish in the 2014 Pacific Classic.

Shared Belief, winner of the 2014 Pacific Classic in Game On Dude’s final race, was next in line to join Lava Man, “the Dude,” and other popular California-based geldings of recent vintage, and he held that distinction admirably for the next year, only to suffer an injury setback in 2015 and then die far too early from colic. Shared Belief would run fourth in the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Classic after being slammed at the start by race winner Bayern. The horse Shared Belief easily defeated at Del Mar, European-based Toast of New York, finished a nose behind Bayern in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

The elite racemare Beholder, a dominant winner of the Pacific Classic in 2015 against males, was scheduled to challenge American Pharoah in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland but was scratched after she developed a fever. She would capture the 2016 Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff over Songbird in her career finale. And in 2016, the popular California Chrome nearly became the first horse to pull off the Pacific Classic-Breeders’ Cup Classic double, only to yield to Arrogate in the final strides in the latter race at Santa Anita.

Arrogate continued his streak of dominance into early 2017, winning the Pegasus World Cup Invitational and the Dubai World Cup, but shocked race fans and a few “bridge jumpers” who filled up the show pool with bets on him when he prepped for the 2018 Pacific Classic in the TVG San Diego Handicap and finished a distant fourth to Accelerate. Juddmonte Farms' superstar returned with a better effort in the TVG Pacific Classic but still came up short, running second to fellow Bob Baffert trainee Collected, and then concluded his career with a fifth-place finish in in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Del Mar in November.

Considering all of the champions who had won the Pacific Classic over the years, it was surprising that none of them were able to train on and win the Breeders’ Cup Classic ... but the drought ended in 2018. Accelerate, who as mentioned above first burst onto the national racing scene with his upset of Arrogate in the 2017 San Diego Handicap, was sent off as the shortest-priced favorite in Pacific Classic history last Aug. 18 at odds of 2-5. Those odds reflected his dominant prior 2018 campaign, which included three wins in four starts and two Grade 1 conquests.

At Del Mar, the John Sadler-trained son of Lookin At Lucky absolutely overpowered six opponents, romping by 12 ½ lengths and cementing his status as the favorite for the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs. Accelerate would next win the Awesome Again Stakes at Santa Anita and then, in perhaps the best race of his career, overcome an outside post to achieve the Pacific Classic-Breeders’ Cup Classic double in grand fashion, scoring by a length under the Twin Spires. Accelerate was voted champion older dirt male for his brilliant campaign, but finished behind Triple Crown champion Justify in the race for 2018 Horse of the Year. He wrapped up his racing career with a third-place finish in the January 2019 Pegasus World Cup Invitational.

Del Mar Handicap Presented by Japan Racing Association:

The 1 3/8-mile Del Mar Handicap dates all the way back to the racetrack’s opening in 1937, and it was held on dirt until 1969 and again from 1976 through 1985. Soon after becoming a permanent turf fixture, the Del Mar Handicap entered the Breeders’ Cup picture. In 1988, Great Communicator entered the Del Mar Handicap after rising through the claiming ranks to become a multiple graded stakes winner in California. He finished second at Del Mar to Sword Dance, but two starts later scored a 12.40-1 upset in the fifth Breeders’ Cup Turf at Churchill Downs. 

In 1993, Kotashaan took a similar path to Breeders’ Cup glory, minus the high odds. The French-bred horse entered the Del Mar Handicap having won four stakes in a row, three of them Grade 1s, for eventual Hall of Famer Richard Mandella, but came up a nose short to Luazur as the 2-5 favorite after rallying late. Kotashaan rebounded to win another Grade 1 turf stakes at Santa Anita and then scored by a hard-fought half-length over Bien Bien in the Breeders’ Cup Turf, again at Santa Anita. Kotashaan made one more start in his career, finishing second in the Japan Cup at Tokyo Racecourse, and was voted Horse of the Year for 1993 as well as champion turf male at the Eclipse Awards.

In 2001, Del Mar Handicap winner Timboroa finished third in the Breeders’ Cup Turf. One year later, popular gelding The Tin Man, another Richard Mandella trainee, finished second by a neck to longshot Delta Form in the Del Mar Handicap. The Tin Man would go on to finish fourth in both the 2002 and 2003 editions of the Breeders’ Cup Turf before reaching his best form at the end of his career when he won six of his final 10 starts and ran second in his other four from 2005-2007.

Champ Pegasus, winner of the 2010 Del Mar Handicap, set the pace in the 2010 Turf but yielded late to European invader Dangerous Midge and settled for second. And in 2016, Del Mar Handicap winner Ashleyluvssugar finished a decent fifth in the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf. 

Other weekend stakes:

Among the other stakes races this weekend that are not “Win and You’re In” races, several have had a significant impact on the Breeders’ Cup in recent years – and one, the historic Alabama Stakes at Saratoga, has been intertwined with the World Championships from the get-go. The D. Wayne Lukas-trained 1984 Alabama winner, Life’s Magic, finished second in the inaugural Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Hollywood Park to Princess Rooney, and then came back and won the second Distaff in 1985 by 6 ¼ lengths over Lady’s Secret. She received Eclipse Awards in both years.

Over the next decade, many notable 3-year-old fillies who performed well in the Alabama Stakes went on to factor in the Breeders’ Cup. The list is long, and includes the great and ill-fated Go for Wand in 1990 (won the Alabama in stakes-record time, tragically broke down while leading in the Distaff); Versailles Treaty in 1991 (won the Alabama, second in the ’91 and 1992 Distaffs); Heavenly Prize in 1994 (won the Alabama, second in the ’94 and 1995 Distaffs); Ajina in 1997 (second in the Alabama, won the Distaff); and Banshee Breeze in 1998 (won the Alabama, second in the ’98 and 1999 Distaffs). Another champion from the era, Escena, finished second in the 1996 Alabama, third in the ’97 Distaff, and then first in the ’98 Distaff.

In 2000, Spain finished third in the Alabama but scored a 55.90-1 upset in the Distaff at Churchill Downs (the Wayne Lukas trainee would also finish second in the 2001 Distaff). Farda Amiga, winner of the 2002 Alabama and that year’s champion 3-year-old filly, went on to finish runner-up to Hall of Famer and four-time champion Azeri in the Distaff. Ashado, elected to the Hall of Fame in 2014, finished third in the 2004 Alabama but won that fall’s Distaff and also ran third in the 2005 Distaff. In 2010, Blind Luck won the Alabama and finished second to Unrivaled Belle in the Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic, as it was then named ... but 2011 was the year when the stars aligned and a 3-year-old filly broke through to win both prestigious races.

Royal Delta was one of the top sophomore fillies in her class through the first half of 2011, and she took to the Alabama’s big stage in a big way that August, winning by 5 ½ lengths. After finishing second to 2011 Horse of the Year (and 2010 Alabama runner-up) Havre de Grace in the Beldame Stakes, Royal Delta scored an easy 2 ½-length win in the Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic en route to champion 3-year-old filly honors. The Bill Mott-trained Royal Delta would win the Ladies’ Classic again in 2012, and finish fourth in the 2013 edition (renamed then as the Distaff) in her final race. She was recently voted into the Racing Hall of Fame at Saratoga.

Stopchargingmaria, the 2014 Alabama winner, put together a career-best performance to win the Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff a year later, defeating Stellar Wind at Keeneland. And three years ago, the supreme Songbird took the Alabama by a comfortable seven lengths to extend her unbeaten streak to 10. She would win one more race before suffering a heartbreaking nose defeat to Beholder in the Longines Distaff at Santa Anita. 

In 2017, Elate turned plenty of heads with a 5 ½-length romp in the Alabama Stakes for Bill Mott and owners Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider. She finished fourth in a loaded 2017 Longines Distaff and only raced twice in 2018, but has recently rounded back to her best form with two consecutive graded stakes romps and stands as a major player in the older female division this fall.

Another Saratoga stakes, the Lake Placid on turf for 3-year-old fillies, has occasionally had crossover with the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf, although rarely in the same year. Shared Account, winner of the 2009 Lake Placid, scored a 46-1 upset in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf a year later at Churchill Downs, while 2012 Lake Placid victress Stephanie’s Kitten, already a Breeders’ Cup winner in the Juvenile Fillies Turf a year before, finished second in the 2014 Filly and Mare Turf and then won the 2015 Filly and Mare Turf to spark a memorable celebration by owner Ken Ramsey and family at Keeneland.

The Del Mar Mile Handicap on turf will be run on Sunday, Aug. 18. The race was held on dirt prior to 2004 and has been won by such notables as Hall of Famer and 1985 Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner Precisionist in 1988 and by 1996 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Alphabet Soup in 1995. Since switching to grass, the race has produced a few winners who went on to perform in the Breeders’ Cup, with the best obviously being ... Obviously. That accomplished gelding won both the 2012 and 2013 Del Mar Mile Handicaps and finished fourth in 2014. He also ran in four consecutive editions of the Breeders’ Cup Mile, with his best finish coming in his 2013 debut when third. In 2016, Obviously skipped the Del Mar Mile Handicap and was shortened up by trainer Phil D’Amato for a try in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint at Santa Anita, which he won by a nose.

In 2017, Blackjackcat won the Del Mar Mile Handicap by a head over Vyjack, and followed that with a listed stakes win at Santa Anita. He then outran his 19-1 odds with a very good third-place effort in the Breeders' Cup Mile at Del Mar, won by World Approval. And last year, Catapult took the Del Mar Mile under Drayden Van Dyke and then trained up to the Breeders’ Cup Mile at Churchill Downs, where he ran a gritty second to European invader Expert Eye, losing by a half-length.

Of note: Saturday’s Green Flash Handicap at Del Mar, a five-furlong turf sprint, was granted Grade 3 status for 2019. The Green Flash dates to 2003 and has been won by some of the best turf sprinters in California through the years, including California Flag in both 2009 and 2010. That popular gelding won the second Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint in ’09 by dictating the pace on Santa Anita's downhill turf course.

Last year, Peter Miller-trained Stormy Liberal rallied late to defeat Richard’s Boy by a nose in the Green Flash. He then won a Grade 3 turf sprint at Santa Anita before shipping to Kentucky, where he successfully scored a repeat win in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint and joined Roy H as repeat Breeders’ Cup winners for Miller on a memorable day at Churchill Downs.

newsletter sign-up

Stay up-to-date with the best from America's Best Racing!