The 1991 Pacific Classic
August 10, 1991. It is one of the biggest days in Del Mar's history. On that summer afternoon, the popular racetrack hosted a new race, one that was destined to become the biggest horse race in the area.
It was named the Pacific Classic, and its distance was one and one-quarter miles, the same length as the Santa Anita Handicap and Hollywood Gold Cup. And like its predecessors, the new addition to the stakes schedule would become the crown jewel of the summer meet.
Originally a listed stakes race (it would become a Grade I contest in 1993), the Pacific Classic was not light on prize money. It carried a purse of $1 million, thus having no trouble luring Thoroughbreds to the starting gate. In all, eight horses were entered in the historic event:
Post one: Itsallgreektome, who counted the Grade Hollywood Derby and Hollywood Turf Cup Handicap among his victories.
Post two: Anshan, winner of the Grade II San Bernardino Handicap the previous winter.
Post three: Farma Way, who took the 1991 Grade I Santa Anita Handicap and Pimlico Special before finishing second in a memorable renewal of the Hollywood Gold Cup.
Post four: Stalwart Charger, whose victories included the 1990 California Derby and Silver Screen Handicap (both Grade III events), and that year's Grade II Del Mar Mile.
Post five: Twilight Agenda, recent winner of the Grade III San Diego Handicap (now the traditional prep for the Pacific Classic).
Post six: Best Pal, a Cal-bred who was owned by nearby Golden Eagle Farm and bred by its owners, John C. and Betty Mabee. Best Pal was no stranger to Del Mar, having won three stakes there in 1990, including the Del Mar Futurity. More recently, he had been second in the Kentucky Derby and finished first in the Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park.
Post seven: Anshan, an Argentine-bred who boasted victories in the Grade I Oaklawn Handicap and Grade II Nassau County Handicap in 1991.
Post eight: Unbridled, who captured the 1990 Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup Classic before being named the season's Champion Three-Year-Old Male.
Of everyone in the lineup, the popular choice to win was Farma Way, who already owned a win at ten furlongs thanks to the Big 'Cap score. Set at 3-2 on the tote, his closest adversaries looked to be Best Pal, no doubt due to his Swaps win and his Del Mar record, and Festin, who actually finished second to Farma Way in the Big 'Cap. Both horses settled in at 9-2.
The public did not have to wait long for the Pacific Classic to get underway, for it went off as the third race of the afternoon. The eight Thoroughbreds all started the race well, and Farma Way took control early with Twilight Agenda and Stalwart Charger behind him when they reached the wire for the first time. Behind them was Anshan in fourth, and to his right was Best Pal and Itsallgreektome along the rail. Unbridled and Festin brought up the rear, already several lengths down.
Farma Way led the charge down the backstretch while setting a decent pace of :22 4/5 and :45 4/5 for the first half-mile. Twilight Agenda stayed close by on the outside, while Stalwart Charger followed in third. Anshan and Best Pal dueled for fourth, and Itsallgreektome traveled along the rail in sixth. Three-quarters of a mile went by in 1:09 4/5. Up front, Twilight Agenda drew even with Farma Way in the far turn, but Best Pal got going, too. He and Patrick Valenzuela won the battle with Anshan before blowing right past Stalwart Charger. The bay gelding looked good as he came well within striking distance of the top two at the quarter pole.
Meanwhile, Twilight Agenda took the lead at the top of the stretch after running a mile in 1:34 1/5. Farma Way was no longer a threat for the win, but Best Pal was ready for the last stage of the race. After getting into second, he gobbled up the main track as the huge Del Mar crowd roared in delight. The hometown hero was focused and driven,and Twilight Agenda was no match for him.
With a final time of 1:59.86, Best Pal ran his way into Del Mar and California racing history as the first winner of the Pacific Classic. The win was hugely popular given how Golden Eagle Farm was less than an hour away from the track, and it was fitting that a Cal-bred from Golden Eagle won the inaugural running of the race.
It was also fitting because John C. Mabee reportedly came up with the idea for the Pacific Classic, and now he and his wife had the distinction of winning it at their home track. Without question, it had to have been one of the greatest days of Mabee's life.
The inaugural running of the Pacific Classic was a total success, and it has grown to be one of Southern California racing's crown jewel events alongside the Santa Anita Handicap and Hollywood Gold Cup. In the years since Best Pal won the first edition, great and popular horses like Lava Man, Shared Belief, California Chrome, Beholder and Maximum Security have taken their place as champions of the event. To win it is a real accomplishment.
August 10, 1991. That day marked the debut of the Pacific Classic, but it also stands as the beginning of a new era for Del Mar.
John Mabee comes up with Pacific Classic idea: Del Mar 2020 media guide, p. 18