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Five years after the Pacific Classic launched, all eyes were on Cigar (4), who came to Del Mar in 1996 on a 16-race winning streak but lost to longshot Dare and Go. Photo via YouTube
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Inside Information: The making of a million-dollar horse race

It was right around 1990 that Del Mar emerged as the leading track nationally in regard to daily attendance and handle. The chairman of the board, the late John C. Mabee, had greater visions.

Mabee, who was the catalyst in creating the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, dreamed of bringing Del Mar and horse racing to a different level. Mabee’s brainchild was to create the biggest race, with the largest purse, that would surpass any other racetrack in California and the West Coast and name it “The Pacific Classic.” The purse would be a cool million dollars and a mile and a quarter distance.

Aug. 10, 1991 — Eight horses (3-year-olds and older) were signed up for the inaugural running of the Classic. The race was the third race on the card due to live coverage nationally over ESPN. The mood was electric the moment you walked into that track. You kinda felt something big was going to happen.

People were dressed to the nines and the day had a touch of a high eloquence and magic lined in it. The weather was perfect, and the track was all dolled up.

John & Betty Mabee were owners, breeders and Eclipse award winners. They raced under Golden Eagle Farm and had a homebred named Best Pal. Hollywood could not have written a finer or more fitting script: “Hometown Hero Wins First Pacific Classic.”

Trained by the late Gary Jones that day, Best Pal not only won the race, but set a new track record. The roar of the crowd when Best Pal returned to the winner’s circle will remain with me for a lifetime. He loved every minute of it too!

And more was forthcoming. For the next four years, trainer Bobby Frankel won every one —Missionary Ridge in 1992, Bertrando in 1993 and back to back with Tinners Way in 1994 and ’95.

But no one could have ever predicted what would follow. A horse who was totally bred for the turf and couldn’t run a lick on grass was switched to dirt. Winning wherever he showed up, he was beginning to make history and global news.

Aug. 10, 1996 — His name was Cigar, and on this day, he was trying to notch his 17th straight victory for his hometown connections (Rancho Santa Fe) of Allen E. Paulson. Named for a navigational checkpoint, this 6-year-old was unbeatable and quickly became the Michael Jordan of horse racing.

Cigar was a one-horse wrecking crew during his winning streak, racing at a dozen venues, both here and abroad, and reeling off 16 straight wins (Cigar tied bay colt Citation’s record, who accomplished that mark by 1950).

A track record 44,181 spectators jammed the Del Mar Racetrack to get a glimpse of Cigar and become a part of racing history. Being in the paddock and looking back at the recently renovated grandstand, it seemed that no room separated layers and layers of people. 

I was in total disbelief of how many people were there. Mabee’s vision was playing out and coming full circle in a short five-year span. The race changed the narrative and made Del Mar racing an experience unlike any other.

But it was not to be, as Dare and Go, a 39-to-1 longshot ($81 to win), ended Cigar’s streak and ruined the vibe and party. The fact remained the Pacific Classic was here to stay. I must admit, I bet on Dare and Go that day from a tip and inside information from Francisco Alvarado, a former jockey and assistant trainer to Richard Mandella, after Alvarado told me all systems go. He had ’em ready.

For 30 years, the race has been granted Grade I status, run over dirt and synthetic surfaces. Eighteen different jockeys have won this race and 15 different trainers have saddled winners. The late Garrett Gomez and Mike Smith have four wins and trainers Bob Baffert and Bobby Frankel have won six apiece.

The race has left us with more than we could ever ask for. A homebred gelding winning the first running, one trainer winning the next four, a horse that they almost gave up on packing the entire racetrack, winning female jockey Julie Krone, another woman — 5-year-old mare Beholder and a $50,000 claim (Lava Man) adds to the history. The Pacific Class was here to stay.

The Pacific Classic has truly had it all. A vision is only a vision until acted on, and one man’s vision of the first million-dollar race in California has given us a million memories. Here’s to the fourth decade of the Pacific Classic and to the 250-plus past participants who made the gate … thanks for the memories!

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