The $1 million Pacific Classic at the Del Mar race meet promises two minutes of heart-thumping entertainment Sunday, Aug. 24.
A broad field of talented horses is set to race one-and-a-quarter miles around the main track, including last year's top two finishers.
"Sometimes you get one really good horse and it scares off everybody else," said Joe Harper, president of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club. "(This year) it looks like diversity and a full field; some unknowns, some winners, some who have been close."
In other words, get ready for an exciting race.
Last year's Pacific Classic winner Student Council is hoping for two in a row. Only two horses have done that in the 18-year history of the race, Skimming in 2000 and 2001 and Tinners Way in 1994 and 1995.
Awesome Gem lost to Student Council by a half-length last year in an explosive finish. While second place was a major accomplishment, the five-year-old gelding's owners have their sights set on first this year.
"We have very high expectations," said Jeffrey Bloom, vice president of West Coast operations for West Point Thoroughbred, which co-owns Awesome Gem. "He's training as good as he ever has, he's ready."
Awesome Gem came in third in the 2007 Breeder's Cup, the number one horserace in North America, and won the Grade II San Fernando Stakes at Santa Anita under jockey Michael Baze, who will ride Awesome Gem in the Pacific Classic on Sunday.
Baze was reunited with Awesome Gem for the Wickerr Handicap on the Del Mar turf July 25, missing first place by just a nose.
Off the track, Awesome Gem is the "barn ham," a bit of a handful, but a gentle companion who is good with kids, Bloom said.
"But as soon as he has a saddle on him, he has his game face on and knows it's go time," Bloom said.
By no means is Student Council the only competition for Awesome Gem. The field is full of high-earning and winning horses from all over the country.
Other expected competitors include Hollywood Gold Cup winner Mast Tack; Go Between, who won the Sunshine Millions Classic and took second in the Gold Cup; Well Armed, Surf Cat and Mostacolli Mort, the 1-2-3 finishers in Del Mar's San Diego Handicap; Zappa and Tissy Fit, 1-2 in Del Mar's Cougar II Handicap; Delosvientos, who is on a three-race win streak; Out of Control, second in Belmont Park's Manhattan Handicap; and Mojave, who has career earnings of $1.5 million.
The Pacific Classic began in 1991 when former thoroughbred club president John Mabee decided Del Mar needed a $1 million race. It's come to be one of the three major Grade 1 races in California along with the Breeder's Cup at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park's Gold Cup. The winner of the Pacific Classic automatically earns a spot in the Breeder's Cup.
Lava Man was the first horse to win all three events in 2006, and was the horse to beat last year with more than 35,000 people watching.
Officials are hoping for a similar-sized crowd this year, though the audience will likely get a faster race than last year. The 2007 Pacific Classic, the first raced on the synthetic track surface Polytrack, was the slowest on record at 2:07, almost six seconds slower than the 2006 race.
With more water and a new wax this year, Polytrack is staying firmer and race times have been faster.
The Pacific Classic is not the only race of the day. A full day of racing begins at 2 p.m. with several other high-stakes contests, and features a button-down shirt giveaway. Gates open at 11:30 a.m.
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