The Grade 2 San Diego Handicap is considered the major prep for Del Mar’s flagship race: the Grade 1 Pacific Classic. But you can be forgiven if you mistake this nine-horse field for what lies ahead Labor Day weekend in the Pacific Classic.

Coutnry Grammer-San Diego Handicap
Country Grammer fired a bullet in this July 24 workout at Del Mar. He’s the 5/2 favorite for the Grade 2 San Diego Handicap in his first US race in 14 months. (Image: Ernie Belmonte)

And that’s not only because defending Pacific Classic champion Tripoli (6/1 on the morning line) is in the field of Del Mar’s Saturday co-featured race. This is a particularly deep and talented San Diego Handicap field, one teasing handicappers with varied options that include four Grade 1 winners, a Kentucky Derby champion, a Dubai World Cup winner and a Hollywood Gold Cup winner.

Speaking of that Hollywood Gold Cup, not only do you get the winner: There Goes Harvard (5/1), you get the 2-3-4 finishers from that race: Defunded (5/1), Royal Ship (4/1) and Stilleto Boy (6/1).

Seven of the nine horses tackling the 1 1/16-mile San Diego carry morning line odds in single digits. Clearly, this line challenged every ounce of Del Mar morning line writer Jon White’s line-setting acumen. Everyone but returning allowance winners Parnelli (15/1) and Señor Buscador (20/1) come in between 5/2 and 6/1.

Country Grammer returns to California

So who’s favored in this class of near-equals? The aforementioned Dubai World Cup winner: Country Grammer (5/2), who returns to the States after winning $10.46 million in his Middle Eastern sojourn. The 5-year-old Bob Baffert trainee finished second in the $20 million Saudi Cup, then won $7 million in the Dubai World Cup a month later.

This is Country Grammer’s first US race since he won the Hollywood Gold Cup in May 2021. After that race, he missed the rest of 2021 with an injury. That Country Grammer hasn’t run in four months is immaterial, considering what he did coming out of a nine-month layoff. Baffert’s custom is to send his charges on quick drills to improve speed. And Country Grammer responded with three consecutive bullets coming in, including a 1:11.40 six-furlong work that was best of nine July 24.

Beside Country Grammer, the name that jumps off the entry list is Mandaloun (4/1). Yes, Brad Cox sent the slumping 2021 Kentucky Derby winner to California for the first time in an effort to roust him from a two-race slump. Mandaloun finished a woeful ninth in the Saudi Cup, then a non-factor fourth by nine lengths in the Grade 2 Stephen Foster.

What Mandaloun will we see in unfamiliar San Diego?

The question facing Mandaloun in the San Diego is can the second race off a layoff be the ticket back to prominence? Or are his best days behind him? That’s the question bettors must ask.

That’s the same question Tripoli’s supporters face. He’s 0-for-3 since winning last summer’s Pacific Classic. And he hasn’t been particularly competitive, turning in two fourths and a seventh without hitting triple-digits in Equibase Speed Figures. One of those fourths did come on turf, in the Grade 3 American Stakes on Santa Anita’s closing weekend in June.

There Goes Harvard, the leader of the four Hollywood Gold Cup ex-pats, comes into the San Diego on a three-race winning streak. He went from winning two allowances to winning a Grade 1 by a length at 8.80/1. There Goes Harvard hasn’t finished out of the exacta in seven races (4-3-0), although three of those came against lesser competition at Ellis Park.

Playing ‘the other Baffert’ card could work here

Defunded, the “other Baffert,” hasn’t missed the exacta in his last five starts (2-3-0). Like There Goes Harvard, who beat him by that length in the Hollywood Gold Cup, Defunded owns three consecutive increasing Equibase Speed Figures. Unlike There Goes Harvard, Defunded has run against good competition. He has to be considered here.

Royal Ship, who finished third in that race, finished third in this one last year. He has a first and a third this year, coming out of a seventh in last year’s Pacific Classic. After that race, trainer Richard Mandella sent the Brazilian-bred gelding to the sidelines for eight months. He came back with a victory in the Listed John Shear Mile at Santa Anita in April.

Grade 2 San Diego Handicap/Del Mar

Morning Line (Jockey/Trainer)

  1. There Goes Harvard, 5/1 (Diego Herrera/Michael McCarthy)
  2. Defunded, 5/1 (Abel Cedillo/Bob Baffert)
  3. Mandaloun, 4/1 (Florent Geroux/Brad Cox)
  4. Stillleto Boy, 6/1 (Juan Hernandez/Ed Moger Jr.)
  5. Señor Buscador, 20/1 (Edwin Maldonado/Todd Fincher)
  6. Parnelli, 15/1 (Victor Espinoza/John Shirreffs)
  7. Tripoli, 6/1 (Tiago Pereira/John Sadler)
  8. Country Grammer, 5/2 (John Velazquez/Bob Baffert)
  9. Royal Ship, 4/1 (Mike Smith/Richard Mandella)

Stilleto Boy had his four-race, in-the-money streak broken at the Hollywood Gold Cup. Before then, he won the Grade 2 Californian and finished third in three Grade 1s: the Santa Anita Handicap, the Pegasus World Cup Invitational and the Malibu Stakes.