For this year's 25th running of the Grade I TVG Pacific Classic on Saturday, it comes down to one big question: Is there a male in the house who can beat trainer Richard Mandella's super mare Beholder and keep her from becoming the first female to win the $1-million race?
Nine males will take a run at her for the $600,000 first-place check, but there's $200,000 for second and $120,000 for third, certainly not chump change. Just ask trainer John Sadler, who saddled Kettle Corn and You Know I Know, the second- and third-place finishers, respectively, to the record-setting Game On Dude in 2013 when the Bob Baffert horse won the Pacific Classic by a record 8 1/2 lengths.
This year, Sadler will send out Gold Cup winner Hard Aces (with jockey Victor Espinoza) and Class Leader (jockey Mike Smith). Sadler is a Beholder fan and believes her entry adds spice to the race.
"I think Beholder adds a lot of personality to the race," Sadler said. "She's obviously very good. She's beaten all the fillies really easily for quite a while."
Sadler is looking for a fast pace up front that could be set by Midnight Storm, Bayern and Beholder so that his closers, Class Leader and Hard Aces, can rally.
"The key will be pace for both my horses," Sadler said. "Midnight Storm has to run in front. If we get a good pace, my horses will be the ones to watch from behind."
This year's Classic misses Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, who has been training here, but probably will race in the Travers at Saratoga next weekend. It's also minus the defending Pacific Classic champion, Shared Belief, and the 2014 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, California Chrome. Both are healing from injuries.
The race still has Beholder (with jockey Gary Stevens); Bayern (with jockey Rafael Bejarano), last year's Breeders' Cup Classic winner; Clark Handicap and San Pasqual winner Hoppertunity (jockey Martin Garcia); Imperative (third in the Pacific Classic last year and with Corey Nakatani riding); Beholder's talented stablemate Catch A Flight (with Flavien Prat riding) and Red Vine (with jockey Joel Rosario, winner of the Pacific Classic on Dullahan in 2012).
Red Vine, the East Coast shipper owned by Jon and Sarah Kelly of Rancho Santa Fe, adds the unknown factor to the race and will get some attention at the betting windows. Red Vine, a 5-year-old, will try to be the second straight Candy Ride offspring to win the Classic. Shared Belief was also by Candy Ride, the winner of the 2003 Pacific Classic.
It has been a year for longshots at this meeting, with 45 horses paying $20 or more for $2 win bets. Will the Pacific Classic follow that trend? Dare And Go, trained by Mandella, beat the legendary Cigar in 1996 to set the Pacific Classic record for a payout of $81.20 to win.
The two longest shots on the board are Bailoutbobby and Midnight Storm, at 20-1. Scott Kaplan's Great Friends has part of Bailoutbobby, trained by Doug O'Neill, and Billy Koch's Little Red Feather Racing owns part of Midnight Storm, who was fifth in the Eddie Read on a wet turf course July 18.
"We wouldn't be running if we didn't think we had a chance," Koch said. "He's a very, very nice horse. He's fast. Have to take a shot in life sometimes."
Kaplan feels the same way about Bailoutbobby, second in the 1 1/2-mile Cougar Handicap here on July 24.
"The thing about Bailoutbobby, this horse is healthy, he's fresh, he always tries no matter what level he runs at, and he closes," Kaplan said. "If you get a couple of these speed horses that go running away and the pace is hot, Bailoutbobby might shock the world."