1991-1993: Best Pal's Triple
There is no question that Best Pal ranks as one of the most successful and popular horses ever bred in California. Being a gelding, he had a long career, and he put together several wins along the way. The fact that he spent the majority of his time in the Golden State helped in making him a recognizable figure among racing fans, and he is still one of the most decorated California-breds to ever compete.
For all of Best Pal's accomplishments, three wins stand out in particular. Individually, they are the biggest races his native state has to offer. Collectively, they form to create a unique triple of sorts (one could think of it as sort of a Triple Crown for the Southern California circuit). The first phase of it came in 1991 on a historic day at Del Mar.
It was August 10, 1991. Best Pal was coming off a win in the Grade II Swaps Stakes a month earlier at Hollywood Park, and he stood as one of the main choices to win the inaugural running of Del Mar's Pacific Classic. Set at 1 1/4 miles, the race was to be the seaside track's version of the Santa Anita Handicap and Hollywood Gold Cup, the premier event of the summer meeting. The public liked Farma Way, who finished second in the Hollywood Gold Cup a few weeks before the Pacific Classic. But Best Pal was getting attention. The Gary Jones trainee had yet to lose at Del Mar, and he was owned by John and Betty Mabee of Golden Eagle Farm in Ramona, which was less than an hour from the Del Mar track. Given the local connections, tt can be said that Best Pal was the hometown hero on Pacific Classic day.
What happened next was a perfect ending for the local folks. Piloted by Patrick Valenzuela, Best Pal spent much of the race a few lengths behind Farma Way, but put on a dazzling finish in the final stretch, catching the leader to win the Pacific Classic to the delight of the raucous and excited fans at the track. The Cal-bred had done well, and he instantly wento into California racing lore for that popular and historic win. But more big races were to come his way.
In the late winter of 1992, Best Pal had enjoyed a successful Santa Anita meet. He started it off by winning two-thirds of the Strub Series, capturing the Grade II San Fernando and Grade I Charles H. Strub Stakes in succession. That set him up for his first try in the state's biggest race, the Grade I Santa Anita Handicap on March 7. Now an older horse at four, Best Pal was eligible to try the Big 'Cap, and he made the most of the opportunity.
Favored to win at less than 9-5, Best Pal and Kent Desormeaux employed tactics similar to those in the Pacific Classic, staying off the pace and waiting to make a move. They were given a nice pace to work with, and Best Pal made a big move from the outside on the far turn to take over the lead. Once he entered the stretch, the bay gelding increased his advantage and was never headed the rest of the way, coming home to win by several lengths in front of another large group of supportive race fans. That gave the Gary Jones charge two of his greatest victories in the span of less than a year. It would be more than a year before he would complete the trifecta.
Back at Hollywood Park in the summer of 1993, it had been nearly fifteen months since Best Pal last visited the winners' circle. After following up the Big 'Cap with a score in the Grade I Oaklawn Handicap, Best Pal lost his next five starts. Coming off a second in the Grade I Hollywood Turf Handicap, bettors were not writing the gelding off yet. They made him the top choice at a little over even money (perhaps heartened at his run in the Turf Handicap and his gaining ground in the 1993 renewal of the Oaklawn Handicap at a mile and an eighth), showing they still had confidence that he could compete.
Best Pal justified that consensus. With Corey Black in the irons, he was initally a little more off the pace compared to the Pacific Classic and Big 'Cap, but Best Pal moved into contention by taking the inside path down the backstretch. Only fellow Cal-bred Bertrando was ahead of him going around the far turn. As they ran down the stretch, Bertrando tried to stay with Best Pal, but ultimately could not sustain his bid. Best Pal was too much on July 3, getting to the wire about two lengths to the good over his opponent.
The win not only put a stop to Best Pal's winless streak, it gave him an unprecedented achievement, for he became the first horse to win the Big 'Cap, the Gold Cup, and the Pacific Classic. Doing so was a tribute to Best Pal's talent and longevity, and winning the Gold Cup enhanced his place in the pantheon of California racing.
Capturing all three of those races still holds up in the present day. Since Best Pal won the Gold Cup, only two horses have followed him as winners of all three of the state's biggest events: Lava Man was the next to do so in 2006, and Game On Dude joined the club in 2013. Possessing victories in each of those marquee events is no easy task, and it takes a special horse to capture them.
But if you happen to talk to a Best Pal fan, you can be sure that the gelding will indeed be thought of as special.