DEL MAR — Trainer Bob Baffert looks at the national horse poll and shakes his head. Baffert feels that the ratings, which list Lemon Drop Kid in first place and General Challenge in seventh, don't make sense.
"Lemon Drop Kid's not better than General Challenge," Baffert said. "No way. He wins races in his backyard, and we win races in our backyard, but that doesn't make him better than my horse."
Baffert's cheerleading to the contrary, General Challenge hasn't won any races lately, not since his victory in the Santa Anita Handicap on March 4. The 4-year-old gelding needs a win Saturday, as he tries to repeat in the $1-million Pacific Classic at Del Mar, if he's to restore his reputation as one of the country's better horses.
Despite three Grade I wins, five wins in other stakes and purses of $2.8 million, a win against six rivals Saturday may not convert General Challenge's critics, who point to his abysmal record last year outside California: a fifth-place finish in the Louisiana Derby, an 11th-place finish in the Kentucky Derby and a 10th-place effort in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Gulfstream Park.
Curiously, Lemon Drop Kid was in two of those races, and he didn't do much better. He ran ninth in the Kentucky Derby and was sixth in the Breeders' Cup. It's likely that General Challenge and Lemon Drop Kid won't meet again until this year's Breeders' Cup Classic, scheduled for Churchill Downs on Nov. 4. That's a showdown that might have horse-of-the-year implications.
With a new jockey, Corey Nakatani, General Challenge began this year at Santa Anita with an easy win in the Strub, which drew only three other runners. After a strong performance in the Santa Anita Handicap, General Challenge was third at 1-5 in the San Bernardino Handicap and ran second in the Hollywood Gold Cup. Early Pioneer, who won both of those races, isn't running Saturday.
Nakatani, who's back aboard Saturday, is willing to forgive General Challenge for his last two races.
"Horses aren't like a Mercedes, they can't give you a perfect trip every time," Nakatani said.
Baffert says that the strong-minded General Challenge must be ridden carefully, and he thought that Nakatani had their horse too close to the pace in the Gold Cup.
"I had to rush him into that race," Baffert said. "He should do better this time. This is his track, and the mile and a quarter is his distance."
Although General Challenge has run 17 times, he has never adapted to dirt hitting him in the face.
"He hates that," Baffert said.
Consequently, Nakatani must either steer clear of horses in front of him, or risk General Challenge throwing his head when the clods fly.
One cure would be to switch General Challenge to the grass. It's something Baffert has certainly kicked around.
"I think he'd make an awesome turf horse," Baffert said. "If it weren't for the Pacific Classic, you would have seen this horse on grass [last Saturday] in the Arlington Million."
Saturday's race was penciled in for General Challenge about five minutes after last year's was over. The Pacific Classic, first run in 1991, is Del Mar's signature race, enthusiastically supported from the beginning by John Mabee, the track chairman, who bred and races General Challenge with his wife Betty.
Baffert has won the last three stakes at the meet and 20 races overall. He's in the driver's seat as he heads toward his fourth consecutive Del Mar title. The last trainer to win four in a row was Mike Mitchell in 1981-84, and one of those years, 1982, Mitchell was co-champion with Wayne Lukas. The most recent trainer to win four outright titles was Bobby Frankel, in 1975-78. Frankel is running two horses--Skimming and Euchre--in the Pacific Classic.
Baffert is also running a pair. While General Challenge is 9-5, the morning-line favorite, Baffert's other contender, River Keen, is 15-1. River Keen was second in last year's Pacific Classic, but in his prep race here, the San Diego Handicap three weeks ago, he finished last, beaten by 19 1/4 lengths.
"I don't know what happened to him," Baffert said. "He never came out of a gallop. His feet, which has been a problem for a long time, are all right. Maybe he's just starting to show his age."
Hugo Reynolds, River Keen's owner, said his horse bled slightly in the race. An 8-year-old, River Keen would easily become the oldest winner of the Pacific Classic. No horse older than five has won the first nine runnings.
Horse Racing Notes
Bob Baffert, who is appealing a positive test for morphine after his filly, Nautical Look, won a $51,000 allowance race at Hollywood Park, said that the hearing before the stewards will not be held during the Del Mar meet. . . . Trainer Carla Gaines has been suspended for 30 days, starting Aug. 30, after her horse, Nashoba, tested positive for clenbuterol, an illegal bronchodilator, in a race at Hollywood Park on Nov. 27. Nashoba won the race, but lost the $22,220 winner's share when the purse in the $37,000 race was redistributed.