DEL MAR — That cloud following Free House around turned into the proverbial silver lining Saturday when the big gray 4-year-old colt beat up on Gentlemen and Touch Gold in the $1-million Pacific Classic before 27,576 at Del Mar.
In the winner's circle after Free House's convincing four-length victory, co-owner John Toffan spoke about vindication.
Vindication for what?
"Vindication for running a mile and a quarter, vindication for whatever," Toffan said.
A month ago, running after a nine-month layoff, Free House won the Bel Air Handicap at Hollywood Park, but a post-race urine test came back positive for clenbuterol, a bronchial dilator that is permitted for training but not racing in California. Toffan and his partner, Trudy McCaffery, have been avoiding the issue while waiting for the result of a split-sample test from a second laboratory. In California, the state won't prosecute a drug case without confirmation from a second lab.
"It's been a tough two weeks," Toffan said. "I'd rather not talk about it, but we've got nothing to hide. We haven't done anything wrong, and what happened happened. I'll guarantee you that [trainer Paco Gonzalez] didn't do it."
Free House had never won at 1 1/4 miles before Saturday--he was third in last year's Kentucky Derby and ran last while bleeding badly in the Super Derby--and the Pacific Classic buildup focused on Gentlemen and Puerto Madero, both from trainer Richard Mandella's barn; and Touch Gold, who had beaten Free House twice last year: in the Belmont and the Haskell Handicap. Gentlemen won last year's Pacific Classic, and Puerto Madero was a late-running second in June to Skip Away in the Hollywood Gold Cup.
Gentlemen finished second Saturday. The 6-year-old Argentine-bred led through the first mile, but at the quarter pole, as Free House and Chris McCarron ranged alongside, Gonzalez squeezed McCaffery and said, "We got 'em!"
Gentlemen and Puerto Madero, who finished sixth, were favored at 6-5; and Touch Gold, who was 3-2, ran fifth for Pat Day. Free House beat Touch Gold by almost 14 lengths.
"His rear end went out from under him at the start," Day said of Touch Gold. "After that, he never ran with authority. At the three-eighths pole, Free House and Gentlemen kicked away from us. He was struggling all the way."
Pacificbounty finished third, five lengths behind Gentlemen, and Lazy Lode was fourth. Free House, finishing in 2:00 1/5, paid $9 as the third choice. For his seventh win in 17 starts, the California-bred son of Smokester and Fountain Lake earned $600,000, sending his purse total over the $2.1-million mark.
Wide into the first turn, Free House was never far back and had moved from fifth place to third, behind the 185-1 Ayrton S and Gentlemen, after six furlongs. Once he made the lead, Free House ducked in toward Gentlemen in mid-stretch, but McCarron straightened him out for the last sixteenth of a mile.
"I was wider than I wanted to be [early]," McCarron said. "My horse was much the best. When I came up alongside Gentlemen coming for home, I knew I had more horse than [Corey Nakatani]. I looked back because I wanted to see if Touch Gold was coming at me or backing up. My horse waited on them a little bit in the stretch. He'll do that."
Since winning the Pacific Classic last year, Gentlemen has been beaten in four of five starts.
"Free House ran a fantastic race," Mandella said. "He was stronger than us in the stretch. My horse dug in deep twice to try to get going again, but maybe he's a step slower this year."
After winning last year's Santa Anita Derby, Free House was third in the Kentucky Derby, second by a head against Silver Charm in a hard-fought Preakness and third in the Belmont. There was nothing seriously wrong with him after his disappointing Super Derby, but he rested at the owners' farm in Bradbury until rejoining Gonzalez' barn in April.
"I love all my horses," McCaffery said. "Bien Bien was a favorite. But there's something about this horse. He has a very sexy look. During his time off, we saw him change before our very eyes. This was a more emotional race than any I've ever won."
Before the $158,700 Pat O'Brien Handicap, trainer Noble Threewitt and jockey Eddie Delahoussaye were discussing strategy for Old Topper.
"You're on your own," Threewitt said.
"Maybe I'll cut through the infield," Delahoussaye said.
"I'm up for that too," Threewitt said.
The conversation ended with Threewitt leaving it up to Delahoussaye. Taking the conventional way around, the veteran jockey placed Old Topper close to the pace, and then the 3-year-old finished strongly for a two-length victory.
Son Of A Pistol, the 2-5 favorite, finished second, ending a three-race winning streak. Alex Solis, who rode Son Of A Pistol, told trainer Bruce Headley that Gold Land, ridden by Kent Desormeaux, leaned on his mount at the top of the stretch and Son Of A Pistol briefly quit running.
"That, combined with the weight we were carrying, was enough to beat our horse," Headley said.
Son Of A Pistol carried 123 pounds, seven more than Old Topper, who became the first 3-year-old to win the O'Brien since Bold Brawley won the first running in 1986.
Old Topper paid $23 to win, running seven furlongs in 1:21 2/5. He was one of last year's best 2-year-olds at Del Mar, winning the Best Pal Stakes and missing by a nose against Souvenir Copy in the Del Mar Futurity.
Threewitt, 87, was here running horses when the track opened in 1937. He said that he saddled his first winner a few days into the inaugural season.
The win in the O'Brien now has Threewitt thinking about the $1-million Breeders' Cup Sprint at Churchill Downs on Nov. 7.
"Freshen this horse up and he ought to really have some [run]," Threewitt said.