The Usual Q.T. tops Pacific Classic field

DEL MAR, Calif. - Hold Me Back likes to have a synthetic surface under his feet. He certainly lets no moss gather there. When he runs on Saturday in the Grade 1, $1 million Pacific Classic at Del Mar, it will mark the 11th track at which he has raced in his peripatetic, 13-race career.

He has settled right in at Del Mar, where on Wednesday morning, Hold Me Back galloped strongly under Leana Williford, the assistant to trainer Bill Mott who oversees Mott's Belmont Park division during Saratoga. It is one of the great ironies of Hold Me Back's career that even though he is based at Belmont, he has never raced there. He has sent postcards from Woodbine, Fair Grounds, Gulfstream Park, Turfway Park, Saratoga, Colonial Downs, Churchill Downs, Keeneland, Aqueduct, and Arlington.

Now he is at Del Mar, where on Tuesday night, 10 horses were entered in the Pacific Classic. Hold Me Back drew post 7 in the 1 1/4-mile race, and he is 8-1 on the morning-line set by Del Mar's Russell Hudak. The Usual Q.T., who drew the outside post, is the 3-1 favorite. All starters carry 124 pounds.

The Pacific Classic is the eighth race on an 11-race card that begins at 1 p.m. Pacific time. It will be shown live by TVG, and also via streaming video at NTRA.com.

Hold Me Back comes off a victory on Polytrack in the Dominion Day Handicap at Woodbine on July 1. That marked his fourth win in six starts on synthetic surfaces, including the Lane's End Stakes last year at age 3. The desire to keep him on a synthetic surface was one reason Hole Me Back was brought here, for the 20th running of the Pacific Classic, a race Mott won with Go Between in 2008.

"His form on synthetic reminds me a lot of Go Between," Williford said.

Hold Me Back will be ridden for the first time on Saturday by jockey Garrett Gomez, who rode Go Between in the 2008 Pacific Classic. The mount became open in an inglorious way, owing to Kent Desormeaux, who had ridden Hold Me Back in six of his prior 11 races, failing a pre-race breathalyzer test. Tyler Pizarro picked up the mount at the last second that day.

That was only the third start this year for Hold Me Back. He began the year on dirt, finishing second in an allowance race at Gulfstream, then finished ninth of 10 after stumbling at the start in the New Orleans Handicap at Fair Grounds on March 27.

"He grabbed a quarter really badly," Williford said.

He needed time off, and during that time, Williford said, Hold Me Back grew up. Hold Me Back, a dark bay with a long, narrow blaze shaped like Argentina, stands 17 hands tall, and weighs more than 1,250 pounds, Williford said.

"He's grown into himself," she said. "Last year, he was a big, gangly thing. From April until now, he's probably put on 75 pounds."

Hold Me Back, 4, is a son of Giant's Causeway who was bred in partnership, and is owned, by the WinStar Farm of Bill Casner and Kenny Troutt. Though he won the first two starts of his career, Williford said he has come on in recent months.

"The Giant's Causeways, they take a long time," she said.

Hold Me Back had his final workout on Saturday at Belmont Park. "He was going to work Sunday, but there was rain in the forecast, so we backed up a day," Williford said. Hold Me Back flew here on Monday.

The traveling has become routine for him. "He jumped right into his feed tub," Williford said.

And he jumped right into his training. "He's a little strong to gallop," Williford said.

Williford thought about giving him a day off on Tuesday, but Hold Me Back would have none of that. "He gets kind of excited if you don't go to the track with him every day," she said. So he trained Tuesday. And Wednesday.

On the go. Always.