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Pacific Classic to Feature 12-Horse Field

Times Staff Writer

Except for one year, the most horses to run in Del Mar’s Pacific Classic has been nine. But Sunday’s 15th running has a 12-horse field, second largest ever.

There are a million reasons -- all with George Washington’s picture on them -- for a trainer to take a shot in the track’s richest race. Another reason is that the leaders in racing’s decimated older-horse division are based in the East, and only one of them, the well-traveled Perfect Drift, has come to Del Mar for the 1 1/4 -mile test.

Perfect Drift finished second to Pleasantly Perfect in last year’s Pacific Classic and won the Washington Park Handicap near Chicago in his last start, but he’s still the 4-1 third choice on oddsmaker Jeff Tufts’ morning line. The favorites at 9-5 and 3-1, are Lava Man and Surf Cat, horses that train at Del Mar.

Lava Man, claimed out of a race at Del Mar a year ago for $50,000, won the Californian and the Hollywood Gold Cup in his last two starts. Surf Cat, whose six starts make him the least-experienced horse in the field, will try to become the fourth 3-year-old to win the stake.

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“He’s in with a lot of old warriors, so this is his true test,” said Bruce Headley, who trains Surf Cat for his wife, Aase Headley, and her partner, Marsha Naify. “He’s worked a mile in 1:38 1/5 , and he’s calm and cool. If he can get [the distance], he’ll be very tough.”

Polish Times, a 50-1 shot to be ridden by Kent Desormeaux, drew the inside post. The rest of the lineup includes Choctaw Nation, 6-1, with Victor Espinoza riding; Borrego, 12-1, Garrett Gomez; Lava Man, 9-5, Pat Valenzuela; Surf Cat, 3-1, Alex Solis; Super Frolic, 30-1, Jason Lumpkins; Musique Toujours, 20-1, Jorge Chavez; Congrats, 10-1, Tyler Baze; the mare Island Fashion, 20-1, Corey Nakatani; Oceanus, 30-1; Jose Valdivia Jr.; Ace Blue, 30-1, David Flores; and Perfect Drift, 4-1, Mark Guidry.

The biggest Pacific Classic field came in 2002, when Came Home, a 3-year-old, beat 13 rivals. Best Pal, who captured the inaugural in 1991, and General Challenge, who finished first in 1999, are the other 3-year-olds to win the race.

Only one horse -- Gentlemen, in a five-horse field in 1997 -- has won the Pacific Classic from an outside post, but Murray Johnson, who trains Perfect Drift, is not disheartened by the 6-year-old gelding’s No. 12 starting spot.

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“It could be a blessing,” Johnson said. “He loads last, and if somebody along the line acts up, he won’t be standing there a long time. There should be plenty of time for him to gain position before they hit the first turn.”

Perfect Drift’s second-place finish here last year was loss No. 7 in a 10-race losing streak.

“He finally won another race [at Keeneland in Lexington, Ky., on April 21],” Johnson said. “He won an allowance and a stake. I hope he can put it all together again.”

Johnson had planned to bring out the Kentucky-based Perfect Drift for the Hollywood Gold Cup, the race Lava Man won on July 9.

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“He got an ulcer in his eye,” Johnson said. “And we decided that it might not be a good idea to run him over a track that was favoring speed. We weren’t going to make two trips to California with him, so we settled on Del Mar.”

Surf Cat has three wins and three seconds in six starts, and his defeats have come by two necks and a half-length.

“He’s a very talented colt,” Solis said. “He’s got a world of talent.”

Solis scored the biggest Pacific Classic upset with the 39-1 shot Dare And Go, who ended Cigar’s 16-race win streak with a 3 1/2 -length shocker in 1996.

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“He has to prove himself against the older horses,” Solis said of Surf Cat. “Physically, he’s already there, but he needs to improve mentally.”

Surf Cat won the Swaps at Hollywood on July 9, after finishing second in the Affirmed Handicap three weeks before.

“I rode him a lot better in the Swaps,” Solis said. “I made some bad decisions in the race before that.”

Island Fashion will become the second female to run in the stake. Paseana was a 17-10 favorite when she finished fifth, well back of Missionary Ridge, in 1992.

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Island Fashion has six wins and five seconds in 23 starts, with purses of $1.9 million. She’s lost eight straight, a slump that goes back to October of 2004. She’s twice faced males in the Santa Anita Handicap, running second in 2004 and finishing ninth this year.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Pacific Classic

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Post positions drawn Wednesday for Sunday’s $1-million Pacific Classic at Del Mar, with morning-line odds:

*--* PP Horse Jockey Odds 1 Polish Times Kent Desormeaux 50-1 2 Choctaw Nation Victor Espinoza 6-1 3 Borrego Garrett Gomez 12-1 4 Lava Man Patrick Valenzuela 9-5 5 Surf Cat Alex Solis 3-1 6 Super Frolic Jason Lumpkins 30-1 7 Musique Toujours Jorge Chavez 20-1 8 Congrats Tyler Baze 10-1 9 Island Fashion Corey Nakatani 20-1 10 Oceanus Jose Valdivia Jr. 30-1 11 Ace Blue David Flores 30-1 12 Perfect Drift Mark Guidry 4-1

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