While the sixth race was running at Santa Anita Saturday, trainer Gary Jones and jockey Kent Desormeaux were discussing how Best Pal needed to be ridden in the $220,000 San Fernando Stakes an hour later.
Jones, who took over from Ian Jory as Best Pal's trainer last June, had spent months trying to figure out the horse, and he didn't expect Desormeaux to have the combination after riding him in just one race.
"We went over the different scenarios that could develop in the race," Jones said. "We talked about the mistakes Kent had made riding him last time. Best Pal is a very smart horse, he doesn't make any mistakes. But he's his own guy. He doesn't remind me of any other horse I've ever had."
The first time Desormeaux rode Best Pal was on Nov. 30 in the Citation Handicap at Hollywood Park, and John and Betty Mabee's gelding finished second in his first start on grass.
In the San Fernando, Desormeaux gave Best Pal a flawless ride. Midway around the far turn of the 1 1/8-mile race, Jones started leaning toward the winner's circle. "At that point, Kent hadn't even asked him to run yet," Jones said later.
A four-horse stretch run turned into a one-horse rout, with Best Pal beating Olympio, the 8-5 favorite, by 3 1/2 lengths. Dinard was a struggling third, nine lengths behind Best Pal, and it was another half-length back to Charmonnier in fourth place in the nine-horse field.
This was Best Pal's debut as a 4-year-old, and he now becomes the favorite for the 1 1/4-mile Charles H. Strub Stakes on Feb. 9, which is the windup to the three-race Strub series. Olympio won the Malibu to begin the series.
"This horse can run a mile and a half, and he'll eventually do well on the grass, too," Jones said.
At Southern California tracks, Best Pal has won nine of 14 starts, which breaks down to four for four at Del Mar, three of five at Hollywood Park and two of five at Santa Anita, where he hadn't won since the Norfolk as a 2-year-old in October of 1990. Elsewhere, Best Pal is winless in five tries, including a second in last year's Kentucky Derby.
"He's a good shipper, but he's been unlucky out of town," Jones said. "Except for the Derby, every time he's left town he hasn't fired in the race."
Which is why Jones and the Mabees will be hard-pressed to leave California when the American Championship Racing Series swings into high gear in the East later in the year. The only stake in the nine-race series that Best Pal is definitely penciled in for is the $1-million Santa Anita Handicap on March 7.
Best Pal settled several scores Saturday. He outran Dinard, who had beaten him twice at Arcadia last year, in the San Rafael Stakes and the Santa Anita Derby. And he disposed of Charmonnier, who had surprised the 2-5 favorite, in the California Cup Classic at Santa Anita last November.
Carrying 122 pounds, the same as Olympio and two more than Dinard and Charmonnier, Best Pal reached the wire in 1:48 1/5 on a track that's been producing slow times. Best Pal's win payoff as the second choice in a crowd of 22,619 was $7.60. He earned $130,000 as his total surpassed $2.2-million.
The margins at the end were stretched out, but heading into the stretch, the four favorites were strung across the track. Charmonnier, who had battled Olympio for the lead from the start, was on the rail, Olympio was alongside, and Dinard and Best Pal were on the far outside.
At the eighth pole, Best Pal said adios. "When I asked him turning for home--whew!" Desormeaux said. "Once he switches leads, he really cuts. He had running on his mind today, and I don't think there was much on the grounds that could beat him. I hope he always goes out there in that same frame of mind."
Olympio now has four wins and three seconds in seven starts since he was fourth--and Best Pal was fifth--in last year's Preakness.
"No excuses," said Eddie Delahoussaye after riding Olympio. "He had a clean trip. The only thing was that he was trying to bear out all the way. He took off, but the other horse just outran him."
Dinard, injured while preparing for last year's Kentucky Derby, emerged from a layoff of almost nine months to finish fourth in the Malibu. He bled slightly in that race, according to his trainer, Dick Lundy, and raced with Lasix medication Saturday.
"He ran good, but he just came up short," Lundy said. "Maybe we didn't do enough with him between races. Maybe he needs more racing. Maybe seven- eighths of a mile (the Malibu distance) wasn't enough to get him tight for this race. We'll be back for the Strub."
Pat Valenzuela, who rode Best Pal in all but one of his previous wins, has become Dinard's regular rider since signing a one-year contract to ride first call for Allen Paulson, Dinard's owner.
"Best Pal was a fresh horse," Valenzuela said. "He (Dinard)was trying with those other horses, but he's getting tired. I was just trying to save third place."
Horse Racing Notes