There was a changing of the guard in Sunday’s $1,000,000 Pacific Classic as shipper and recent private purchase STUDENT COUNCIL pulled off the upset at 23-1. Shipped to trainer Vladimir Cerin just six days before the race, ‘COUNCIL took advantage of a perfect trip/ride under Richard Migliore, surged to the lead into the lane, then held off the late run of AWESOME GEM (10-1). The longshot brigade was completed by HELLO SUNDAY (13-1), which made for a very healthy trifecta of more than $2,500. As for LAVA MAN, he got a gorgeous trip, challenged for the lead at the 1/4-pole, then came up empty in mid-stretch. Although it’s way too early to write him off after this subpar performance, he had to be considered vulnerable after his all-out win in the Hollywood Gold Cup. Here’s what I wrote in the blog posting following the Gold Cup: “As a handicapper and one who tries to dispassionately analyze races, my first thought after the initial thrill of a great stretch run was: What a lousy race for a Grade I…if that sounds cynical to the casual fan, so be it. The name of the handicapping game is properly analyzing what you see and trying to use it to your advantage next time.”

In hindsight, I would have to say that was a pretty good analysis. LAVA MAN ran sixth in the Pacific Classic, right behind BIG BOOSTER (third, beaten less than a length in the Gold Cup), then it was all the way back to ninth to find A. P. XCELLENT (beaten a nose in the Gold Cup). Assessing the Gold Cup as a “negative” key race, one reasonably could have thrown these three out of consideration. That still didn’t make the winner easy to find but it might have made the task a little easier.

CROSSING THE LINE was awesome again in winning the Del Mar Mile, his third consecutive win in this country…GREG’S GOLD stalked the soft trip set by BORDONARO, switched leads late and held off SURF CAT to wrap up top sprinter of the meet.

On Saturday, RUTHERIENNE got the jump on VALBENNY and impressively won the Del Mar Oaks. As we wrote before, no one is better at shipping and winning than trainer Cristophe Clement…RIVER’S PRAYER made it five straight when winning Friday’s Rancho Bernardo. She is a major contender for the BC Filly and Mare Sprint race.

On Thursday night, the racetrack community came together for a poker tournament and silent auction benefit for Lava Man’s injured groom Noe Garcia. The night was a huge success, raising more than $120,000 to help towards Garcia’s medical bills and a new, state-of-the-art prosthetic arm. Although this a very competitive business/sport with a tremendous amount of backbiting, racetrackers do have a history of taking care of their own. Congratulations to the O’Neill families for their tireless work on this project, which came together in a matter of only two weeks. Honorable mention to horse owner and former Syracuse basketball player George Hicker, who made the final bid ($12,000) on a Hawaiian vacation package, then handed the vacation over to Garcia and his family.

Sight of the week: Dennis O’Neill rented a U-Haul truck to bring all the silent auction memorabilia down from Los Angeles. With no other mode of transportation to Wednesday’s post position draw party at The Lodge at Torrey Pines, O’Neill was left with no option but to drive the big orange truck. Watching O’Neill leave valet parking at the end of the night, I am quite sure he made history as the first person to ever valet park a U-Haul at swanky Torrey Pines.

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Time flies at Del Mar, where six-day racing can swallow you up if you’re not careful. The blog updates have become a bog, so it’s time to catch up on last week’s proceedings.

The biggest news of the week were the deaths of trainer Warren Stute and owner/entertainment mogul Merv Griffin. IÂ knew both only by reputation. Stute as the tough, old-school trainer who plied his craft for nearly 70 years, winning the first Del Mar Debutante, then another one 51 years later. Griffin as the effusive owner of Stevie Wonderboy, who broke into a rendition of “My Old Kentucky Home” after his pride and joy had won the BC Juvenile at Belmont Park in 2005. Stevie didn’t make it to Kentucky the following spring, and Griffin’s Cobalt Blue didn’t get there this year but Griffin never got discouraged and was a great ambassador for our sport. Both gentlemen will be missed.

On Saturday, THE TIN MAN ran his heart out but had to settle for second behind JAMBALAYA in his quest to win consecutive runnings of the Arlington Million. The 9-year-old was trying to match John Henry as the only two-time winner but perhaps he will be back to try again next year…SALUTE THE SARGE remained perfect in three starts when defeating GEORGIE BOY in the Best Pal Stakes…MEDICI CODE got the right trip and won smartly in the La Jolla. He ran a number of good races in a short period in his native England and will be a definite threat in the Del Mar Derby. Speaking of the DM Derby, Secretariat winner (at Arlington Park) SHAMDINAN is likely to ship West for Doug O’Neill…MAIMONIDES, the $4.6 million Zayat/Baffert colt who shipped out of Del Mar, turned heads at Saratoga with a huge debut win…liked the way TASHA’S MIRACLE won the Sorrento here last Wednesday. She acts like a major player in the 2-year-old filly division…Joe Talamo tied Michael Baze at the top of jockey standing mid-way through Saturday’s card but Baze spurted clear again and holds a 31-25 lead into Wednesday’s card…the O’Neill barn has picked up the pace and leads Jeff Mullins 12-10. As Yogi Berra said, it looks like deja vu all over again…there has been an absolute claiming frenzy through the first month of the meet. I haven’t counted up all the claims but many times there is a shake (multiple claims) for each tagged runner.

Quotes of the Week: Had to laugh when I read these two quotes. First, there was Kent Desormeaux after winning aboard Silver Tree at Saratoga: “If you can teach every horse to race like him, everyone would have a luxury of life.” I think it’s “life of luxury”, Kent. Then there was winning owner Marc Keller, who had owned horses in the 1980′s but got out of the game. After his GRAND COUTURIER won the Sword Dancer: “I married a wife who thought you’re supposed to keep money in a matress, so I got out. She passed away 1 1/2 years ago and I’m back in.”

Good night now.

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Although she didn’t beat a strong field in Sunday’s Clement L. Hirsch at Del Mar, NASHOBA’S KEY was awesome while running her record to a perfect six-for-six. Despite getting trapped from the backstretch to mid-stretch, ‘KEY put on a powerful late burst to run down overmatched Bai and Bai. Now, to be sure, this wasn’t winning rider Joe Talamo’s finest moment. He took the bait set by Victor Espinoza, who took BALANCE very wide down the backstretch to lure Talamo up inside, then put the winner in a box all the way around the far turn. Fortunately for the Carla Gaines-trained amazon, Balance ran out of horse in mid-stretch and the winner was able to ease outside and explode past the leader. Next stop, the Yellow Ribbon at Oak Tree.

Speaking of Gaines, what a year she is having. She and Talamo combined for three victories on the card, believed to be the first time a female trainer has won three races on a Del Mar card. Also on Sunday: BLACK MAMBA turned in a powerful stretch run to win the 3rd, giving trainer John Sadler another very good Down Under invader…old pro LORD ALBION, re-claimed by Jack Carava off a poor try routing, returned to sprinting and got up in the last jump to record his 15th career victory…ROCKY ROAD dug in gamely to win his second straight on turf.

On Saturday: PRECIOUS KITTEN outclassed her opponents to become a Grade I winner in the John C. Mabee Handicap. Trainer Bobby Frankel is absolutely loaded in the filly and mare turf division with ‘KITTEN, PRICE TAG and CITRONNADE…in the Haskell at Monmouth, ANY GIVEN SATURDAY was outstanding when defeating CURLIN and HARD SPUN. The Todd Pletcher-trainee didn’t show up on Derby Day but he’s fired in every other start and looks like a serious contender for this year’s BC Classic.

Disturbing Trend: Clenbuterol positives (and $3,000 fines) for trainers Mike Pender and Paulo Lobo. Possible medication violation for Cody Autrey. Rumored barn shakedowns on Autrey and Darrell Vienna—not what racing needs in the face of increasing numbers of fans who believe drug use runs rampant on the backside.

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Although it’s old news by now (hard to keep up on my blog postings with six-day racing), the Joe Harper-Ahmed Zayat dust-up on Monday sounded like a doozy. In case you missed it, Del Mar CEO and General Manager Harper and high-profile owner Zayat got into a very heated debate during morning workouts on Monday (for full stories, I’ve linked Hank Wesch’s article from the San Diego Union-Tribune and Jay Privman’s article in DRF Zayat complained about the slow times and suggested something needed to be done to “speed up” the track. Harper replied that Polytrack officials strongly suggest leaving the track alone (a “less is more” approach to track maintenance), and that the new surface has been extremely safe. He pointed to the fact that there have no fatal breakdowns during main track races, as compared to about 10 at this time a year ago.

I wasn’t there to witness it in person, but apparently a couple “f-bombs” were dropped and the normally easy-going Harper, who never has a hair out of place, got quite hot. Zayat threatened to pull his 25-30 Bob Baffert-trained horses from Del Mar and head East (which he subsequently did). I’m not crazy about the slow times (as I wrote early in the meet, the fastest sprinters on the circuit would run the Bing Crosby in about 1:11) but you can’t argue with the safety factor. And isn’t that the reason Southern California racetracks went to synthentic surfaces in the first place?

Harper’s track invested $9 million on this project and he’s not going to tinker with it during the meet. Everyone—trainers, owners, jockeys and handicappers—are learning how to deal with the new surface. For Zayat and Baffert (and possibly a small minority of other owners and trainers) to pass judgement after two weeks is extremely premature. And for Zayat to yank his horses off the grounds is like the spoiled kid who throws a tantrum and runs home, taking his toys with him.

Nice to see a Pick Six carryover into Thursday’s card after single-ticket winners three times last week…huge day for Joe Talamo, whose four winners on Wednesday moved him to within three of leading rider Michael Baze (18-15). Where have we seen this before?

Sunday’s Bing Crosby turned out to be a thriller as East Coast shipper IN SUMMATION nosed out 2005 winner GREG’S GOLD, with pacesetter BORDONARO tiring to third. Trainer Cristophe Clement might be without peer in his ability to ship a horse and win…NOBLE COURT was impressive beating older in his first start around two turns.

Overall, sprint races seem to play fair but it’s still been almost impossible for front-runners to win wire-to-wire in route races.

Final thought: Flashing back to a radio interview I did with John Ward (trainer of 2001 Kentucky Derby winner MONARCHOS) months ago, I asked him what it would mean to California racing if our circuit did go to synthetic surfaces (which had just been mandated by the CHRB). To paraphrase, he replied something to the effect that “it would mean quarter horse trainers would have to get up in the morning and actually start training their horses.” I took it as a thinly-veiled shot at Baffert—those two clearly had no love lost during the ’01 Triple Crown series. However, after looking at Baffert’s results over Cushion Track at Hollywood and through the first couple weeks over Polytrack, Ward’s words might have been prescient.

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