There isn’t a lot of star power in this year’s Grade 1 Pacific Classic at Del Mar. What there is, however, is one of Jon White’s more challenging morning-line puzzles.

Express Train-Pacific Classic
Express Train and Juan Hernandez captured the San Diego Handicap, considered a prep for Saturday’s Grade 1 Pacific Classic at Del Mar. Express Train is the 3/1 morning-line favorite in a deep, competitive field. (Image: Ernie Belmonte)

Del Mar’s morning-line author, White found himself staring at one of the most competitive fields he’s faced this summer. Yes, there’s no breakout, slam-dunk, odds-on favorite, which makes this year’s Pacific Classic one of the more intriguing handicap puzzles to solve.

For both White and horseplayers.

First things first. The 1 ¼-mile Pacific Classic is Del Mar’s signature summer race, a 10-furlong test for 3-year-olds and up. It comes with a berth in the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic for the winner. That race goes on this same Del Mar track at this same 1 ¼-mile distance Nov. 6.

Pacific Classic headlines strong stakes card

The Pacific Classic plays the starring role in Del Mar’s 11-race Saturday card. That card includes five graded stakes, with the Grade 1 Del Mar Oaks and Grade 2 Del Mar Handicap being strong undercard events.

This year’s Pacific Classic doesn’t feature the dominant winners of past years. There’s no Best Pal, Bertrando, Candy Ride, Acclamation or Game On Dude. There’s no Shared Belief, Beholder, California Chrome, Accelerate or last year’s winner, Maximum Security. Nobody in this field jumps out at you as a possible single on multi-race wagers.

There’s not even a Rock Your World sighting. Trainer John Sadler nominated the colt, but did not elect to run him.

Which is why it’s one of the juiciest races to break down. And why White found himself posting 5/1 or less odds on six of the nine horses in the field.

Favorite Express Train defines consistency

Someone’s got to be the favorite here. That someone is 3/1 Express Train. And when you look at the 4-year-old’s body of work, White’s selection makes sense. Express Train hasn’t missed the board in his last six races. The Union Rags colt is 2-1-2 in five starts this year, with victories in two Grade 2s: the San Pasqual opening the year and the San Diego Handicap last out.

Express Train would have three victories this year, had he not let Idol catch and pass him just before the wire of the Santa Anita Handicap in March. He went to Oaklawn Park and finished third as the 9/5 favorite in the Oaklawn Handicap, then added another mediocre third in the Hollywood Gold Cup. But Express Train avenged part of that latter defeat, beating Gold Cup runner-up Royal Ship in the San Diego Handicap.

Speaking of 7/2 Royal Ship, someone’s got to be the second-favorite here. And the 5-year-old gelding could give trainer Richard Mandella and jockey Mike Smith their fifth Pacific Classic title apiece. The pair combined for 18 in-the-money finishes, but have never teamed up to win one.

“It’s about time,” Mandella told Del Mar.

‘Ultimate equipment change’ turned Royal Ship around

Royal Ship comes in off that San Diego Handicap third. He ran a strong second in the Hollywood Gold Cup to Country Grammer. That followed his best race since coming to the United States from his native Brazil: a dominant victory in the Grade 2 Californian in February. That came after Mandella made what Del Mar’s notes team called “the ultimate equipment change.”

“He has always trained like a really good horse,’ Mandella said. “He’s done well, but as he got older, he got a little studdish, and that’s when we gelded him. He was having trouble in his races, but he was making his own trouble.”

White’s 4/1 third-favorite could cause a lot of trouble here: Dr. Post. This is a rarity indeed: a Todd Pletcher charge running at Del Mar. So rare is a Pletcher charge at Del Mar that the newly minted Hall of Fame trainer owns one career graded stakes victory at the seaside San Diego-area track.

Seeing a Pletcher at the Pacific Classic is novel

But here we are, with three-time Del Mar riding champion Joel Rosario returning to pilot Dr. Post. He comes in off two victories in his last three starts: at the Grade 3 Monmouth Cup on the Haskell undercard and the Grade 3 Westchester at Belmont Park in early May.

In between, however, Dr Post finished a non-threatening fifth in the Met Mile. He may have issues at this distance, never running 10 furlongs before, but his form and Rosario’s presence make him dangerous here.

Three others are at 5/1: Tripoli, Tizamagician and Independence Hall. Of those three, Sadler’s Tripoli brings the most upside. Sadler is no stranger to hoisting Pacific Classic trophies, winning this race in 2018 with Accelerate and 2019 with Higher Power.

Grade 1 Pacific Classic/Del Mar

Morning Line (Jockey/Trainer)

  1. Tripoli, 5/1 (Tiago Pereira/John Sadler)
  2. Tizamagician, 5/1 (Flavien Prat/Richard Mandella)
  3. Dr. Post, 4/1 (Joel Rosario/Todd Pletcher)
  4. Royal Ship, 7/2 (Mike Smith/Richard Mandella)
  5. Express Train, 3/1 (Juan Hernandez/John Shirreffs)
  6. Magic On Tap, 20/1 (Abel Cedillo/Bob Baffert)
  7. Independence Hall, 5/1 (Florent Geroux/Michael McCarthy)
  8. Sherriff Brown, 30/1 (Edwin Maldonado/Todd Fincher)
  9. Cupid’s Claws, 15/1 (Umberto Rispoli/Craig Dollase)

Tripoli finished a half-length behind Express Train in that San Diego Handicap and ahead of Royal Ship. Now, he jumps to Grade 1 waters for the first time. And Tripoli does so with two wins, a second and a third in his last four starts, albeit three of those in allowances.

The pick: Dr. Post. This is a race where everyone on the West Coast spent 2021 beating each other. And it’s a race where the odds differential is miniscule, given the competitiveness between Express Train, Royal Ship, Tripoli and Tizamagician. So carpetbagging, especially with Del Mar vet Joel Rosario, has its advantages here on the price front. Yes, he’s never run 1 ¼ miles, but watching his Monmouth Cup victory over 1 1/8 miles illustrated Dr. Post has enough in reserve to handle this distance and give Pletcher Del Mar stakes bookends.