DEL MAR — The house horse brought down the house.
With the screams of 28,134 fans rising an octave with every last stride he took to the wire, Best Pal caught Twilight Agenda in the final 30 yards Saturday to score a one-length victory in the $1-million Pacific Classic, the richest race in the 52-year history of Del Mar.
Because he was a 3-year-old in a field of older horses, Best Pal carried eight pounds less than the others in the 1 1/4-race that was expected to establish the horse of the year.
Instead, Best Pal's victory complicated the issue, with Farma Way, the 3-2 favorite, running fifth after leading until the quarter pole, and Festin, his late-running archrival in four other races, ending up fourth.
Best Pal was bred and is raced by John and Betty Mabee, San Diegans who have been part of the Del Mar family for more than 20 years. John Mabee is chairman of the board at the track and was one of the forces behind creation of the Pacific Classic.
"This horse is the public's choice," Mabee said after Best Pal's $550,000 payday. "We just wanted to run a horse in this race that wouldn't disgrace us. I thought he was better coming into this race than the press gave him credit for, but maybe this was just owner prejudice.
"There's no question that he's got a fan base. He would have been 15-1 instead of 9-2 if they had paid attention to the handicappers in the papers."
Twilight Agenda, Farma Way's stablemate from trainer Wayne Lukas' barn, took the lead from Farma Way heading into the stretch but finished second, 2 3/4 lengths ahead of 1990 Kentucky Derby winner Unbridled.
After Festin and Farma Way came Itsallgreektome in sixth place, with Anshan and Stalwart Charger at the rear.
After a moderate opening pace, Best Pal finished in 1:59 4/5, an excellent time and a track record with the qualifier that only three races of this distance--all run last week--had been held here in 41 years. Best Pal paid $11.20 as the second betting choice.
Regarding the horse-of-the-year business, John Mabee said: "We've got a long way to go. I would think we'd still have to beat Strike The Gold (the Kentucky Derby winner) and Hansel (the Preakness and Belmont Stakes winner), and we'd have to beat Farma Way again."
Best Pal's eighth victory in 15 starts came at his favorite track, where he was the leading 2-year-old in winning three times, including the Del Mar Futurity. Ian Jory trained him then, but after five non-winning races this year, including seconds in the Santa Anita Derby, the Kentucky Derby and the Silver Screen Handicap, the Mabees sent Best Pal to Gary Jones, who had trained some of their better stakes horses.
Best Pal's first start for Jones, the Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park a month ago, resulted in a four-length victory, the horse's first trip to the winner's circle since he won the $1-million Hollywood Futurity almost seven months before.
Pat Valenzuela was back riding Best Pal in the 1 1/4-mile Swaps, after Gary Stevens rode the horse in his first four starts this year. Valenzuela was aboard again Saturday, for his fourth victory in a $1-million race.
"They ran the first mile of the Swaps in 1:35 (actually 1:35 3/5), and he still finished the way he did," Valenzuela said Saturday. "I knew that he was a mile-and-a-quarter horse."
Best Pal's training for the Classic did not exactly go according to plan. Two weeks ago, shortly after the start of a five-furlong workout, Valenzuela's foot slipped from a stirrup, taking the rider and the horse on a hellish spin through a maze of other horses out for exercise.
Mabee witnessed that work, which was timed in 57 2/5 for five furlongs--much faster than Jones wanted.
As Valenzuela and Best Pal began, a friend standing next to Mabee said: "Pat's falling off."
"No," Mabee said, trying to guess for the best, "he's just leaning at a 45-degree angle."
When Valenzuela brought Best Pal back, he dismounted and said to Mabee: "I knew he needed a work real bad, so I figured I better hang on."
In Best Pal's next work, he went six furlongs in 1:16--slower than expected.
"Thankfully, Pat has a better clock in his head in the afternoon than he does in the mornings," Jones said Saturday. "Pat's the one who's really been training this horse. All I've done is just loan him a groom."
Farma Way took the lead comfortably out of the gate, with Twilight Agenda slightly behind him through a 45 4/5 half-mile. Stalwart Charger, at 58-1, was also up close for three-quarters of a mile, which was run in 1:09 4/5. Best Pal was in sixth place after a half-mile, moving into contention while racing on the outside going down the backstretch.
On the far turn, while Farma Way and Twilight Agenda were changing positions, Best Pal began his move. Mabee's first reaction was that Valenzuela might be moving too soon, but the jockey knew the horse. "I was saving, saving, saving," Valenzuela said. "When the lane came up, I asked him, and he fired."