LAUREL -- Before this year's Kentucky Derby, the Big Four was big news.
Where are they three months later? Three of the Big Four are pointing for a big showdown in the Travers Stakes, while Best Pal, the fourth member, simply meets the big boys today.
As Strike the Gold, Hansel and Fly So Free relax in their stalls at Saratoga, Best Pal will try the nation's best older horses in the $1 million Pacific Classic at Del Mar Race Course in Del Mar, Calif.
"He'll be a young man against men," said Best Pal's new trainer, Gary Jones.
It is the first time one of the Big Four has tried older runners. Best Pal, owned by John Mabee's Golden Eagle Farm, was winless in his first five starts this year before Mabee took the lTC gelding from Ian Jory and gave him to Jones. Best Pal then beat 3-year-olds handily in the Swaps Stakes, his only start for Jones.
The inaugural Pacific Classic is the eighth -- and so far, perhaps the best -- of the 10-event American Championship Racing Series. Farma Way is the probable favorite today over Festin, the ACRS point leader, in the 1 1/4 -mile race.
"The question Best Pal will answer [today] is whether he belongs in a race with these types," said Jones. "He's still learning what it's all about. It's really anyone's race, and the winner is going to have to be lucky."
Late summer to early fall is the time when trainers begin to pit 3-year-olds against older horses. When a standout 3-year-old such as Best Pal begins the transition, the competition is usually much less severe than what he faces today.
But Mabee, Del Mar chairman of the board, wanted to add intrigue to the Classic, which is the new darling for a track that has experienced stunning success in recent years.
And a victory by Best Pal would certainly be intriguing. Jeff Tufts, the Del Mar odds-maker, has Best Pal at 8-1 against seven others.
The Pacific Classic will be simulcast to Laurel Race Course and ** the Pimlico intertrack outlet as the 10th of 12 races. It will be followed by the $100,000 Twixt Stakes for Maryland-bred 3-year-old fillies, a race in which Wide Country will be heavily favored.
Wide Country reeled off eight straight victories before trying the turf for the first time in her last start. The experiment resulted in defeat, as John's Decision rushed past her to win the Pearl Necklace Stakes by a half-length.
Bob Camac, trainer of Wide Country, was encouraged by the way the filly handled the turf despite the loss in the Pearl Necklace and said he intends to run her back on it after she competes in the Cotillion Stakes at Philadelphia Park next month.
Nevertheless, today's return to the main track figures to comfort her backers. In a field of six, she should be an odds-on favorite for the eighth time in nine starts.
NOTES: The Travers, to be run a week from today, is the last major race of the year limited to 3-year-olds. . . . Although the Laurel main track was rated fast by scratch time (3 p.m.) yesterday, 2 turf races scheduled for today were switched to the main track. . . . Santos Chavez, Wide Country's regular rider, teamed with Camac yesterday to win the $24,000 Laurel feature with 12-1 shot David's Wolf.