Before the tide of history washes over last weekend's action at Del Mar, there were two performances that deserve note, and that might have been ignored in the wave of successful East Coast invaders, since both were local productions. Then again, neither the Grade 2 Seabiscuit Handicap nor the Grade 3 Native Diver attracted the slightest interest from out of town.
In the case of the Native Diver, at a mile and one-eighth on the main track, such disregard was not a surprise. Races worth $100,000 are a dime a dozen these days, so there was no way Del Mar could have competed on the same day with the $500,000 Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs, or even the $150,000 Hawthorne Gold Cup at 10 furlongs. Even Golden Gate Fields was in competition for similar livestock, carding Saturday's Grade 3 Berkeley Handicap at a mile and one-sixteenth on the all-weather.
The $200,000 Seabiscuit, however, should have been attractive to someone somewhere. In the recent past, while also known as the Citation during its long run at Hollywood Park, the mile and one-sixteenth grass event has been won by Kaigun for Mark Casse, Data Link for Shug McGaughey, and Askal Way for Godolphin. Just last year, Graham Motion sent Ring Weekend forth to win a slam-bang renewal from Vyjack and Om. But this year, when the call went up for out-of-town entries crickets.
They might have been in trouble anyway. Hunt, the gray Irish gelding trained by Phil D'Amato, rebounded from two forgettable performances to manifest his form of last summer, when he took the Eddie Read at nine furlongs and the Del Mar Handicap at 11 furlongs to be the most accomplished grass horse of the meet. In the Seabiscuit, he was thoroughly tested by stablemate Pee Wee Reese on the lead and Lure Stakes winner He Will from behind, before edging He Will by a nose in a fancy piece of needle-threading from Flavien Prat.
(Prat's win on Hunt went toward his meet-leading 18 winners, but it was still not enough to catch trainer Peter Miller, who won two Breeders' Cup races on Nov. 4 and kept going until closing day, when he won his 19th race of the meet with the maiden filly Alliana. D'Amato was second with nine.)
Hunt is owned by Michael House, who at age 77 still looks for the next big horse. After a few minor stakes winners, House connected with the multiple turf stakes winner Battle of Hastings in 2009 and then had another good run with Big John B, winner of the 2014 and 2015 runnings of the Del Mar Handicap as well as the 2016 Tokyo City Cup.
With barn star Midnight Storm off to stud, D'Amato was clearly stoked at Hunt's bounce-back effort after finishing far back in the Breeders' Cup Turf. The trainer already was looking forward to 2018 for his coming 6-year-old.
Except for the presence of Awesome Again winner Mubtaahij, the Native Diver loomed as one of those fields quickly forgotten, no matter what the outcome. Then the apparent turf horse Prime Attraction burst from the closet to win with authority, and all bets were off as to what might happen next.
"This does open up a lot of options," said Jim Cassidy, who trains Prime Attraction for Deron Pearson's DP Racing. "But he's still a little green in some ways, like wanting to switch leads all the time. Today Victor kept finding himself up behind horses all of a sudden when he switched."
Victor Espinoza had ridden Prime Attraction on turf twice before the Native Diver, most recently when they did everything but win the John Henry Turf Championship at Santa Anita. Local division leader Itsinthepost had to pull out all the stops to beat Prime Attraction by a head at the end of the mile and a quarter.
With that race in mind, Cassidy entered his horse with a stablemate in the Hollywood Turf Cup, run the day before the Native Diver, then scratched. The trainer gave credit to Pearson.
"I wasn't necessarily for it, but he made a good case," Cassidy said. "And the colt is bred for the dirt. I've got no problem giving credit where it's due."
In winning the Native Diver, Prime Attraction was celebrating the one-year anniversary of his maiden score going a mile on the dirt at Del Mar. He added allowance wins on turf and dirt last spring, but when thrown to the lions he was thoroughly stomped by Collected, Cupid, and Follow Me Crev in the Californian and Gold Cup at Santa Anita.
"He's improving, that's for sure, but he's still a little you know," said Espinoza, tapping his helmet.
Now 4, Prime Attraction cost $335,000 as a Keeneland September yearling. He is from the next-to-last crop of the late Unbridled's Song out of an A.P. Indy mare, which means he's already got a leg up on a stud career. But first things first.
Santa Anita offers rich opportunities for the dirt division in the San Antonio and Santa Anita Handicap this winter, and Prime Attraction could be one of those late bloomers who has finally found his way. Still, in the wake of the Native Diver, Prime Attraction's people are forgiven if they are starting to dream Pegasus- and World Cup-size dreams.