Bellafina winning the Sorrento Stakes (gr. II) at Del Mar - © BENOIT PHOTO

Bellafina winning the Sorrento Stakes (gr. II) at Del Mar – © BENOIT PHOTO

Bellafina didn’t really look like a star in the making when she finished second in her debut at Los Alamitos last month. But boy, she presented an entirely different appearance in the $200,000 Sorrento Stakes (gr. II) on Sunday at Del Mar!

The Sorrento, an early prep race on the road to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (gr. I), was the top juvenile race on the third weekend of the Del Mar meet. Bellafina, who is owned by Kaleem Shah and trained by Simon Callaghan, was well-regarded in the wagering and started as the second choice behind Del Mar May, runner-up to Brill in a quality maiden race on opening day at Del Mar. But while bettors correctly identified the top two finishers, they erred in allowing Bellafina to start at 3.20-1, for in the end she ran more like a 4-5 shot.

Truthfully, the outcome was clear from an early point in the race. Bellafina, showing plenty of speed under jockey Flavien Prat, flew through an opening quarter-mile in :21.82 seconds and a half-mile in :45.25. No one could get close enough to pressure her, and while Del Mar May made a valiant attempt to close some ground (and did quite well to finish second), Bellafina put the field away with a :12.12 fifth furlong and powered home to win by 4 ¼ lengths, stopping the clock in 1:10.61 while earning an eye-catching 94 Beyer speed figure.

But Bellafina wasn’t the only two-year-old filly to impress on Sunday. Trainer Bob Baffert picked up his fourth juvenile winner of the meet when Der Lu, a daughter of Orb, easily won her debut in a 6 ½-furlong maiden special weight. With Drayden Van Duke in the saddle, Der Lu casually tracked fractions of :22.44 and :45.97 before seizing command and pulling away to win by 3 ¼ lengths over Doug O’Neill’s Bizwhacks, recording a final time of 1:17.92 to receive an 83 Beyer.

Van Dyke was also the rider of Sigalert, who prevailed in a 5 ½-furlong open maiden race on Saturday. Trained by John Sadler, the son of Street Sense took advantage of a fast pace (:21.81, :45.61) to rally past the leaders in the final furlong and hold off a late surge from Richard Mandella’s Extra Hope to score by half a length, For good measure, Van Dyke secured another juvenile winner when guiding Tap the Wire to a 3 ½-length victory in the 5 ½-furlong Graduation Stakes for California-breds.

Yet as good as the racing action was last week, it promises to be even better this weekend, and Van Dyke figures to play a major part in the excitement. On Saturday, he’ll be aboard the tremendously promising colt #1 Instagrand, who will make his much-anticipated stakes debut in the $200,000 Best Pal Stakes (gr. II), a stepping stone toward the Del Mar Futurity (gr. I) and—ultimately—the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I).

Instagrand, of course, was nothing short of sensational while winning his debut at Los Alamitos on June 29th. Trained by Jerry Hollendorfer, the colt came in with high expectations but managed to exceed them, leading from the start to win by ten lengths while rocketing the final furlong in a blazing :11.19 seconds. Anything close to a repeat of that effort should land Instagrand in the winner’s circle on Saturday, and I’m looking forward to seeing if this potential superstar can build on his terrific debut. #2 Owning, a sharp maiden winner at Los Alamitos for trainer Simon Callaghan, looms as the clear second choice in the wagering.

Van Dyke will ride another potential star in Saturday’s sixth race, a five-furlong open maiden race for fillies. That potential star, of course, is #2 The Aurelia Factor, an unraced daughter of The Factor. Trained by Bob Baffert, The Aurelia Factor has posted a lengthy series of sharp workouts at Los Alamitos and Del Mar, culminating with a quick five furlongs in :59 flat on August 4th. She should be tough to beat, though she’ll be joined by the well-bred first-time starters #1 Claudelle (a daughter of Candy Ride from the barn of John Sadler) and #4 Calf Moon Bay (a daughter of Bodemeister conditioned by Jerry Hollendorfer).

The action on Sunday kicks off in the fifth race, a one-mile maiden special weight on the turf course. There’s something for everyone in here—first-time starters, horses switching from dirt to turf, even a shipper from Europe—but one of the more intriguing entrants might be #9 Knight’s Cross. Trained by Keith Desormeaux, Knight’s Cross finished last in his debut going five furlongs on the Del Mar main track three weeks ago, but the son of Mizzen Mast is bred for turf and could show significantly improvement while switching surfaces and making his second start. That said, #10 King of Speed could start as the favorite based off a solid third-place finish over this course and distance two weeks ago, while Van Dyke will be aboard Michael McCarthy’s #3 Biz Nasty, eighth in the one-mile maiden race in which King of Speed finished third.

Lastly, the seventh race on Sunday is a five-furlong open maiden race on the main track, and all ten of the entrants are first-time starters. Trainers Jerry Hollendorfer, Doug O’Neill, and Keith Desormeaux will be represented by #3 Aardvark, #7 Gleyber, and #9 Midnight Swap, respectively, but the best horse in the field might be conditioned by Brian Koriner, who sends out #4 Music to My Ears. The son of Goldencents sold for $400,000 earlier this year and has trained well in preparation for his debut, most recently breezing four furlongs in a bullet :47 flat on August 2nd at Del Mar.

Enjoy the races!