by John Mucciolo

And on to the $6 million Classic! I will start by saying it is good to be Bob Baffert. The silver-haired conditioner is already a Hall of Famer and his resume will likely get stronger this weekend with numerous major players at Del Mar, and in no race more than the Classic. The man who has trained the last trio of Classic winners has no shortage of ammunition this season with champion and budding all-timer ARROGATE, old warrior MUBTAAHIJ, superstar sophomore and potential champion WEST COAST, as well as recent Pacific Classic (G1) hero COLLECTED, who is four-for-four in 2017.

As much as I like the uber-talented PAVEL, and as much respect as I have for trainer Aidan O’Brien who will send out CHURCHILL and WAR DECREE, I can’t use them in here with the talent in this field. Oh and there is this horse named GUN RUNNER, too.

Trained by Steve Asmussen, Gun Runner is the currently the top handicap horse in  training and has humbled his foes in his last trio of wins – pulling off a sensational Stephen Foster-Whitney-Woodward triple with the greatest of ease. The four-year-old colt by Candy Ride came out west early to acclimate to his surroundings and appeared to be well within himself in a half-mile morning move on the Del Mar oval in preparation of the Classic.

The stellar chestnut might not be beating the best of the best this campaign, but he’s making some very solid horses look incredibly average. The four-year-old is a deserving favorite in this race and it will take a serious effort from one of his foes to defeat him here.

Arrogate has run some of the best races you and I have ever seen. The Juddmonte homebred had a string of four races where he posted 115-115-124 BRIS Speed numbers, and then put in the best Dubai World Cup (UAE-G1) run of all time in going from last-to-first to blow by Gun Runner in the lane.

But, something happened to Arrogate. It could be the Del Mar surface, maybe he is bored with racing, I have no idea, honestly. But the colt has not broken alertly from the gate in recent races, and lacks that perfectness that we all came accustomed to. The gray looked more like himself in the Pacific Classic at times, but he did run in spots in that outing and that is a major cause of concern for me.

I may have egg on my face following this race if the son of Unbridled’s Song were to win and  pay in the neighborhood of $8, but I don’t like the rail post or what I have seen from him since the summer.

West Coast is an imposing sophomore who continues to improve. The bay son of Flatter is on a roll and has made short work of a pair of Grade 1 fields in succession. Colt gets a real test in this offering and while I would never sleep on a Travers winner in the Classic, I fear he is the “wise-guy horse” of sorts and is worth trying to go against as a potential underlay. The Baffert pupil will surely be champion sophomore with a huge performance on Saturday, though.

Collected is the most dangerous horse in the Baffert barn in my opinion. The son of City Zip was a very good three-year-old who has evolved into a great four-year-old. The speedy sort led throughout in the Pacific Classic, which followed a tour-de-force in the Precisionist (G3), posting BRIS Speed figures of 110 and 111 in his last pair. Collected will be sent early as he has to be from this wide post and part of the early pace under Martin Garcia.

Mubtaahij might be the perfect value horse for the exotics. The five-year-old son of Dubawi is a notch below the best of the big guns going 1 1/4 miles on the dirt as has been proven, but he runs hard every time and I like his chances to get a piece of the pie at a fine number. The $4.5 million earner won in his debut with blinkers on in the Awesome Again (G1) last time, and I would not be floored if he upset this field after running into a fast and contested pace to give pilot Drayden Van Dyke the signature win of his riding career.

I will get pretty aggressive betting Gun Runner to win, and will also play him in exactas with the Baffert quartet.