Nicholas Godfrey on the Pacific Classic

Del Mar stage the Pacific Classic on Saturday, and international racing expert Nicholas Godfrey looks at whether the odds-on shot Maximum Security can become part of the track's illustrious history.

  • Wednesday 19 August
  • Blog
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IN many ways, it is entirely fitting that a horse like Maximum Security should provide the headline act for the Pacific Classic on Saturday at Del Mar, the storied southern Californian venue where the surf meets the turf.

After all, he is a top-class four-year-old colt racing at a venue where older horses generally provide star quality, and he will be odds-on to add his name to an illustrious roll of honour which in the last half-decade featured such luminaries as Beholder, California Chrome and Accelerate. He’s already beaten his two main rivals, Midcourt, and last year’s winner, Higher Power, in the designated prep race. Albeit only just with regard to the former, but he needed the run and was conceding 5lb to a stubborn foe.

That was Maximum Security's first run for west-coast legend Bob Baffert, who is seeking a record-equalling sixth victory in this showpiece contest, for which the prize-money is cut in half to $500,000 during this coronavirus-blighted campaign.

Baffert is the all-time leading trainer at Del Mar, with 518 career victories before the start of this year’s meet - as might be imagined, he also has more stakes wins than anybody else at this celebrated track adjacent to the ocean. He was leading trainer seven years in a row from 1997-2003, before he eschewed the numbers game to concentrate on quality over quantity.

However, that’s the good stuff. In other ways, Maximum Security’s chequered history also lends itself to Del Mar. Let me explain.

The rivalry between east and west coasts has never entirely left the US racing community, with the New York and Kentucky side of things seemingly holding all the cards when it comes to blue blood of both the equine and human variety.

In contrast, despite decades of success, there is still the sense that there is something not quite right about their west-coast counterparts. If it was Britain, you’d be tempted to call it slightly raffish.

Hence how it might be deemed appropriate to have Maximum Security – he of the controversial Kentucky Derby DQ, the drugs-tainted former trainer, the still-contested Saudi Cup triumph – as the banner horse for the Pacific Classic.

Watch the Pacific Classic at Del Mar live on Sky Sports Racing (Sky 415 | Virgin 535) on Saturday 22nd August.

Without any question, sun-drenched Del Mar is a fairly special place. Located in an upmarket seaside village on the Pacific coast about 30km north of San Diego, Del Mar is the holiday home of the Californian racing circuit.

In a sense it is the west-coast to Saratoga in upstate New York: the tracks run simultaneously, each annually hosting a prestige-packed meeting in late July and August - the mention of their names enough to elicit a beatific smile from American racing enthusiasts.

Yet if Del Mar fulfils the same function in the west as Saratoga in the east, they are chalk and cheese in certain respects: Californian yang to New York yin. Where Saratoga is all about history and tradition in its unquestioned role as sacred keeper of American racing’s flame, Del Mar is the arriviste – even the Pacific Classic is not yet 30 years old, having gatecrashed the scene with a $1m purse in 1991. Outside the establishment, in other words.

While it would be wrong to imply Saratoga is stuffy – Americans have a lot to learn from Britain and France if that’s what you’re looking for – Del Mar is famously laidback and easygoing.

Bing Crosby was among the track’s founders in the 1930s, when Del Mar was a playground for the Hollywood glitterati with a list of patrons reading like a pre-war Oscars guest list. Crosby greeted racegoers personally at the inaugural meeting in 1937, while Seabiscuit beat Crosby’s horse Ligaroti by a nose in a celebrated $25,000 winner-takes-all match in August 1938.

Reminders of this starry era still abound. A recording of Crosby’s rendition of the Del Mar theme tune ‘Where The Surf Meets The Turf’ is still played during racing every day, unless someone is asked to perform a live version; the track is accessed via Jimmy Durante Boulevard.

In September 1966, the Monkees took a train to Del Mar from Los Angeles with some competition winners; the town had been renamed Clarksville for the occasion by the mayor.
And while the Hollywood stars have long since exited the Del Mar stage, the relaxed atmosphere remains intact. Eddie Read, the track’s publicity executive for years, accurately summed up Del Mar as a place “where nobody’s in a hurry but the horses”. The current slogan is “Cool as ever”; also accurate. Or at least it was last year; with limited access this year, we can’t be entirely sure.

More normally, though, with palm trees in front, the Pacific to the left and Mexico not far behind the stand, Del Mar exudes a Hawaiian holiday feel and the Los Angeles racing community certainly seem to treat it as such on their annual pilgrimage. Trainer Richard Mandella suggests daily concerns tend to melt away on the drive down from LA on Interstate 5. “There’s something about passing San Clemente, like a weight is lifted,” he says. “It’s such a refreshing change, and so relaxing to come down here and enjoy it.”

The main stand is a fawn-coloured, adobe-style building, housing a vast range of eating and drinking options. You can imbibe at the Coulda Woulda Shoulda Bar or the Tout and Shout Bar – or, rather less romantically, the Heineken Red Star Café.

Very much a jeans-and-T-shirt venue, Del Mar has to be one of the most welcoming racetracks in the world, a place where under normal circumstances jockeys mill about happily signing autographs for kids, and crowds regularly exceed 20,000.

Not this year, of course, when racing was stopped for a weekend when almost the entire jockey colony tested positive for coronavirus, while the public are still not allowed on the grounds.

On its biggest weekend, this most welcoming of venues remains behind closed doors. Just like Saratoga, as it happens.

And you know what? Even if they are different, it doesn’t really matter. Because in reality, Del Mar and Saratoga are opposite sides of the same coin: utterly beguiling places, on a daily basis offering the very best American racing has to offer.

Which one is the best is a debate for another day, but the good thing is no one is forcing you to take sides.

Watch the Pacific Classic at Del Mar live on Sky Sports Racing (Sky 415 | Virgin 535) on Saturday 22nd August.

Nicholas Godfrey on the Pacific Classic
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