A purse of $250,000 and a "Win and You're In" berth to the Longines Breeders' Cup Distaff (G1) is on the line in the Aug. 2 Clement L. Hirsch Stakes (G1) at Del Mar, though those are not the only race elements of significance to the connections of Bo Hirsch's Ce Ce.
Once contested as the Chula Vista Handicap, the 1 1/16-mile dirt race was renamed the Clement Hirsch in 2000 after the longtime horse owner and Oak Tree Racing Association co-founder died that year, and now 20 years later, his son, Bo, has Ce Ce in it. And not just in it—but represented by a contender in a showdown with Hard Not to Love, Ollie's Candy, and Fighting Mad that may determine the West Coast's leading older dirt female.
"No pressure," quipped trainer Michael McCarthy.
Having won the Beholder Mile Stakes (G1) and Apple Blossom Handicap (G1) earlier this year, Ce Ce has the credentials that would warrant her name being etched alongside its past winners, a group headed by champions Stellar Wind and Beholder and Horses of the Year Zenyatta and Azeri. But the homebred's appropriateness as a potential winner goes beyond her racetrack performance and into a pedigree filled with three generations of grade 1 achievements.
Ce Ce is by Elusive Quality out of Hirsch's homebred Belong To Me mare Miss Houdini, winner of the 2002 Del Mar Debutante Stakes (G1). The latter's dam, the Lord Avie mare Magical Maiden—owned by Clement Hirsch—captured the 1991 Hollywood Starlet Stakes (G1) and 1992 Las Virgenes Stakes (G1).
Magical Maiden also won four other stakes, including the 1993 Chula Vista, a grade 2 at the time.
"It's a big deal for me and obviously a big deal for everybody involved," reflected McCarthy of Sunday's race. "There is a lot of Hirsch (history) down here at Del Mar and in the landscape of California racing. This family has been procured by the Hirschs for decades, generations. So to be able to bring something over with a huge chance to win a grade 1 named after a gentleman's father, it's a huge thing.
"The filly is doing as well as we could ask her to be doing. Hopefully we've left no stone unturned and go over there on Sunday (and) give the people what they want."
Storyline aside, Sunday's race is compelling on the merits of the form of its participants. Besides what Ce Ce has accomplished, Hard Not to Love is a two-time graded stakes winner; Ollie's Candy is the race's defending champion; and Fighting Mad defeated both Hard Not to Love and Ce Ce in winning the Santa Maria Stakes (G2) May 31 at Santa Anita Park.
Fighting Mad shook free early in the latter race and led throughout, winning by 3 1/4 lengths over runner-up Hard Not to Love and defeating third-place Ce Ce by 5 1/2 lengths.
The race had more drama before the start than during the running. Hard Not to Love, a one-eyed filly that struggles with occasional bouts of anxiety, needed to be repeatedly encouraged by jockey Mike Smith and the Santa Anita gate crew to enter the first stall of starting gate, delaying the break by eight minutes.
As the gate crew cajoled Hard Not to Love, her opponents idled, and Ce Ce ran like a filly whose engine might have gone cold. After stalking the pace, she lacked her customary kick and weakened down the stretch.
"Can't say I was real happy with the delayed start," McCarthy said.
Hall of Fame jockey Victor Espinoza returns in the irons aboard Ce Ce, who carries highweight of 125 pounds.
Hard Not to Love, who has yet to win going two turns, carries 121 and Ollie's Candy and Fighting Mad both tote 123.
Hard Not to Love won the La Brea Stakes (G1) and Santa Monica Stakes (G2) at seven furlongs over the winter before a runner-up finish in the Beholder Mile and another second in the 1 1/16-mile Santa Maria.
John Shirreffs trains the 4-year-old Hard Spun filly for owners Mercedes Stables, West Point Thoroughbreds, Scott Dilworth, David and Dorothy Ingordo, and Steve Mooney. Shirreffs has won this race four times, including three consecutive editions (2008-10) with Zenyatta.
Paul and Karen Eggert's homebred Ollie's Candy, a Candy Ride mare who is 0-for-5 since winning last year's Hirsch, comes off close defeats this spring and summer when beaten in photo finishes when second in the Apple Blossom and third in the Odgen Phipps Stakes (G1).
Her trainer, John Sadler, has won this race a record five times, four over the last six runnings.
Baffert, seeking his first Hirsch win with Gary and Mary West's Fighting Mad, starts a New Year's Day filly with two wins and a second in three starts at the seaside track. She took the Torrey Pines Stakes (G3) by eight lengths locally in 2019.
Del Mar, Sunday, August 2, 2020, Race 10
PP Horse Jockey Wgt Trainer M/L 1 1Hang a Star (KY) Drayden Van Dyke 121 Ian Kruljac 15/1 2 2Ce Ce (KY) Victor Espinoza 125 Michael W. McCarthy 3/1 3 3Hard Not to Love (ON) Mike E. Smith 121 John A. Shirreffs 2/1 4 4Dogtag (KY) UMBERTO RISPOLI 121 Richard E. Mandella 6/1 5 5Ollie's Candy (KY) Flavien Prat 123 John W. Sadler 5/2 6 6Fighting Mad (KY) Abel Cedillo 123 Bob Baffert 4/1
Del Mar, Sunday, August 2, 2020, Race 10