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Acclamation earns some with Pacific Classic victory at Del Mar

The 5-year-old leads wire to wire, holding off Twirling Candy and Game On Dude. He becomes only horse this year to win three Grade I races and puts himself in conversation for horse of the year.

August 28, 2011|Bill Dwyre
  • Acclamation and jockey Patrick Valenzuela upset Twirling Candy and jockey Joel Rosario in the $1 million Pacific Classic at Del Mar on Sunday.
Acclamation and jockey Patrick Valenzuela upset Twirling Candy and jockey… (Benoit Photo )

From Del Mar —

When the smoke cleared from Sunday's $1-million TVG Pacific Classic at Del Mar, a thoroughbred that hadn't been in the conversation suddenly emerged as a candidate for horse of the year.

No, his selection won't be by acclamation, even though that is this smooth-striding, 5-year-old's name. The grand Eclipse Award at the end of the year is always a grand juggle for voters who must consider Triple Crown-race winners and Breeders' Cup stars, among others.

But Acclamation's victory Sunday, on another perfect Del Mar day, before 29,267, in the third of Southern California's three main races for older horses, had to turn some heads. No other horse, to date, has won three Grade I races this year.

"He is just a marvelous horse," said co-owner E.W. (Bud) Johnston. "He's got a great set of lungs, and he loves to run."

Run he did, leading from wire to wire, holding off challenges from two of the bigger stars in Southern California racing this year, and turning in the best time at a mile and a quarter at Del Mar since the track put in a synthetic surface in 2007. That was 2 minutes 61 hundredths seconds.

The race presented several story lines.

Acclamation was only the third favorite on the morning line, behind Twirling Candy and Game On Dude. Acclamation had won the Grade II Jim Murray at Hollywood Park on May 11 and the Grade I Charlie Whittingham there a month later. Then, rather than roll him out for one last go at a Hollywood Park turf surface that he clearly loved, Johnston decided to save him for the July 23 Eddie Read at Del Mar, also on turf.

That became his second Grade I title of the year and allowed Acclamation to win two of the Del Mar meet's richest races. After the Pacific Classic's $1-million purse, the Eddie Read and the Aug. 6 Clement Hirsch carried the next largest purses at $300,000 each.

Chasing Acclamation to the wire were the horses rated to finish ahead of him. Twirling Candy took a run on the home stretch and was turned back. Game On Dude pressured him all the way around and was in position to win with another gear in the last two furlongs. But Bob Baffert's 4-year-old didn't have that it this time.

Game On Dude had won the first of Southern California's big races for older horses, taking the Santa Anita Handicap in March. He then finished second in the second big race, the Hollywood Gold Cup at Hollywood Park in July, to another Baffert horse, First Dude.

That leads to several thoughts:

•Acclamation's win Sunday spared the older racing public a sweep of the three big races by horses with "Dude" in their name.

•Classic favorite Twirling Candy, favored in the Big Cap and finishing out of the money there, was edged back to third by First Dude and Game On Dude in the Hollywood Gold Cup. That makes trainer John Sadler's Twirling Candy a candidate for an Eclipse Award as perhaps the best "almost" horse in the country. Sadly, they have no such category.

•Game On Dude's fade down the stretch Sunday under Chantal Sutherland allowed him to be caught and edged out for third place by Stately Victor. That was mildly interesting because Stately Victor, 15-1, was ridden by Mike Smith, Sutherland's former boyfriend and winner earlier in the meeting of a highly publicized match race between the pair. Or, as Sutherland termed it, the jilted and the jiltee.

Almost as big a story as Acclamation was the rider on his back.

Patrick Valenzuela, the 48-year-old affectionately (or sometimes otherwise) known as P Val, hadn't won a Pacific Classic since the first one, 20 years ago. He only got the ride when Acclamation's recent rider, Joel Rosario, made a commitment on Twirling Candy. Rosario had expected Johnston and co-owners Pete and Mary Hilvers to enter Acclamation in Sunday's $200,000 Del Mar Handicap. That is on turf, where Acclamation has excelled.

But the owners chose the Classic, and Rosario ended up watching his horse beat him by a head and P Val waving his hands in wild celebration.

Valenzuela had celebrated similarly on Best Pal in 1991. That first Classic was the result of influential horseman John Mabee, now deceased, urging Del Mar to further legitimize itself with a $1-million race. The thinking was that you can only live on perfect weather and the sound of surf so long before horsemen give you their Jerry Maguire act.

And so Del Mar showed them the money and, fittingly, Mabee owned Best Pal.

Between then and now, Valenzuela has had a storied and stormy career. His rap sheet includes numerous racing titles, as well as riding gaps caused by suspensions for drug abuse. After the race, he thanked California racing officials for giving him another chance.

When he met the press, he laughed when someone suggested he had an every-20-years thing going in the Pacific Classic, and he would be 68 for his next victory.

He said he would celebrate this one by taking his fiancée out for dinner — "maybe Jack in the Box," he said. He introduced her as Kaylee and said it was the one-year anniversary of when they started dating.

The Breeders' Cup now becomes large for Acclamation's connections. Johnston said he would lean toward one of the turf races, because he wasn't sure how his horse would handle Churchill Downs' dirt track.

But horse-of-the-year pressure often brings consideration of a run in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

That's a race in which they really show you the money. The purse is $5 million.

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