The Hall of Fame trainer, Del Mar’s all-time leader for stakes victories with 97 and counting through Baffertthe first four weeks of the meeting, has nominated 2012 Hollywood Gold Cup winner Game On Dude, two-time Classic champion Richard’s Kid and the resurgent Jaycito for the 22nd running of the 1 ¼-mile race. If all three answer the call to post, it will be only the third time that a trainer has had that many representatives in a race.
Should one of Baffert’s trio prevail, it would be his fourth Pacific Classic victory, breaking a tie with Richard Mandella for second behind Frankel on the list of most successful trainers.
Asked recently about his first three Pacific Classic wins, Baffert seemed to have total recall. Starting with the 1999 victory by General Challenge, owned by the Golden Eagle Farm of Del Mar Thoroughbred Club chairman John C. Mabee and his wife Betty and ridden by David Flores.
“I remember coming down here and General Challenge had just lost in the Swaps stakes in a really tough beat,” Baffert said. “I brought him down here, we’re training for it, and the horse to beat was a horse called Mazel Trick of Bobby Frankel’s.
“The last work before the race was on a Tuesday. I was going to work him, I had Dana (exercise rider Dana Barnes) up. I was going to go like, five-eighths or three-quarters with him, but I see Frankel’s horse getting ready to work. So I told Dana to hold off a second and let’s watch Mazel Trick work.
“I’m watching, and all of a sudden I see Mazel Trick pull up lame. They picked him up and took him away to the barn and it’s very disturbing when you see something like that. Dana said ‘Are we going to go three-quarters?’ I said ‘No, we’re going to go an easy half, the horse to beat just pulled up.’ It really spooked me.”
Eight horses went to the post. General Challenge was the 5-2 second choice to the 6-5 Malek. Baffert’s horse won by a convincing three lengths, taking command at the top of the stretch. It was the second and final Pacific Classic victory for the Mabees.
“It was very exciting to win the Pacific Classic for Mr. Mabee,” Baffert said. “That was his favorite race, and he had spent so many years to develop it, and when he won the first one (1991 with Best Pal), it was huge. It was almost like winning the Kentucky Derby of Southern California.
“Mr. Mabee said something like it was bigger for him than winning the Kentucky Derby, and at the time it was. I knew that very well. It’s an honor to win the Pacific Classic.”
An honor that would come Baffert’s way twice more, in 2009-2010, courtesy of one of his horses this year, Richard’s Kid.
“That was shock and awe,” Baffert said of the 2009 victory. “I had two horses. I had Misremembered, and I liked his chances better of the two.” And he had Richard’s Kid, a then 4-year-old son of Lemon Drop Kid who hadn’t covered himself in laurels racing at Laurel Park in Maryland for trainer Richard Small, and who had finished seventh in the Eddie Read on grass in his first start for Baffert.
Subsequently, though, a commendable second in his first run over Polytrack in the Cougar II Handicap emboldened Baffert and owner Arnold Zetcher to try the Classic. Jockey Victor Espinoza, aboard in the Cougar II, had the call on Misremembered, leaving Baffert to find another rider.
“It got to be about five minutes before the (close of entries) and I still didn’t have a jockey,” Baffert recalled. “There were two available and Mike Smith was one of them. I really don’t use Mike that much, but I decided I’d just go with the Hall of Fame jockey.
“At the draw party that night, I told Mike, ‘I need a Hall of Fame ride from you to win it. If you win it, I will get down on my knees and do the ‘I’m not worthy’ (a reference to a line from the movie “Wayne’s World”) thing. He said, ‘You’ve got a deal.’”
The race unfolded with Misremembered, owned in partnership by Baffert’s wife, Jill, and George Jacobs, in a good, stalking position behind front runner Tres Borrachos for the first mile. Then Misremembered went into a deep fade pattern that would drop him from second to 10th in the field of 12.
Jill Baffert’s spirits drooped. Then Bob remembered Richard’s Kid and started looking for Zetcher’s pink silks.
“I see the pink colors coming down the middle of track, making a move. I hear Jill, who’s covering her eyes with her head down, saying, ‘Oh, no,’ so I tapped her on the back and said, ‘Hey, look at the other one’ .”
The other one came from 10th in the final quarter-mile to win by a neck for Zetcher, who was right there next to the Bafferts and Jacobs. The group headed for the winner’s circle where Baffert kept his promise and bowed before Smith.
“The ones you don’t expect to win are probably the best wins,” Baffert said. “We were all so elated.”
A year later, Richard’s Kid was under new ownership -- the Zabeel Racing International Corp., which retains the now 7-year-old today -- and Baffert was away at Saratoga overseeing his representatives on Travers Stakes day. He watched on a television at Siro’s Restaurant in Saratoga as Smith and Richard’s Kid did it again, this time from sixth place with a quarter-mile to go, winning by three-quarters of a length.
“The whole bar was rooting for Richard’s Kid,” Baffert said. “Mike rode him great again and he (Richard’s Kid) just loves this track. It never gets old. Races like this are exciting to win.”
The 2012 version has potential to be as classic a Classic as the 21 that came before.
“It’s coming up to be a pretty strong race with some really good horses in there that we know can get the mile and a quarter,” Baffert said. “The pace is going to be the key and on this particular surface it means a lot who likes it and who doesn’t. It’s like any big race, it’s who shows up that day.”