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OCTOBER 3, 2013

Dude awaits Classic challengers

by James Scully

A horse for the course at Santa Anita, Game On Dude will look to make amends for last year's effort in the Breeders' Cup Classic (Benoit Photo)

After winning the last two editions of the Awesome Again, Game On Dude remained in the barn while Mucho Macho Man posted an impressive victory last Saturday. Bob Baffert orchestrated the change in strategy because of last year's flop in the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic and the Hall of Fame trainer will be seeking an optimal performance on November 2.

Game On Dude just missed when second in the 2011 Classic at Churchill Downs and brought huge expectations into the 2012 running following an easy win in the Awesome Again five weeks earlier. But he never ran a step as the 6-5 Classic favorite, checking in a well-beaten seventh, and sustained his first setback in six career starts at Santa Anita.

Game On Dude has not lost since then. After the Breeders' Cup, Baffert elected to give the six-year-old gelding plenty of time between races and he's been rewarded with a career-best season.

The most recent start, an eye-catching 8 1/2-length romp in the August 24 Pacific Classic, came after a seven-week break and Game On Dude garnered the July 6 Hollywood Gold Cup following an 11-week rest. The Charles Town Classic and San Antonio both came after nine weeks off and the Santa Anita Handicap was the only race this year not preceded by a freshening.

The nation's top dirt horse will return from a nine-week rest in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

His BRIS Speed ratings are outstanding and the dark bay Kentucky-bred has the home-field advantage (seven for eight) as well as the right running style for Santa Anita. Game On Dude won't be scared by the competition, but the Classic favorite still faces a significant challenge at the 1 1/4-mile distance.

Game On Dude is only five-for-10 at the Classic distance and has been the controlling speed in most of his wins, allowing himself the opportunity for a breather during the early stages. Ten furlongs is the biggest concern given the presence of other serious speed in the Classic line-up (Fort Larned and perhaps others) and the front-running Game On Dude will need the proper trip; he must avoid exerting himself too much in order to save something for the stretch drive.

It would be foolish to put it past him. Game On Dude is the horse to beat in this year's Classic and despite any concerns, the classy gelding's got something to prove after showing up flat last year.

Here is an early look at the main Classic contenders:

Game On Dude: Five-for-five this year, with convincing major wins in the Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup and Pacific Classic, he's in a head-for-head battle with Wise Dan for Horse of the Year (that rival is headed to the Mile) and likely controls his own fate given that the Classic is the spotlight event. Perhaps the third time will be the charm for Game On Dude, who figures to be cranked for his best after last year's disappointment. His sluggish start was most memorable and Game On Dude should be much more involved from the get-go.

Mucho Macho Man: We can debate who recorded the top performance in last weekend's Breeders' Cup prep races, but Mucho Macho Man gets my vote. The thought of him moving forward from the sterling 4 1/4-length victory is exciting (earned a 113 BRIS Speed rating), but it's important to remember that inconsistency is too often his calling card. Just when we think Mucho Macho Man is ready to take the next step, he lets us down. It happened after his excellent half-length second in last year's Classic, with the Awesome Again marking his first win since July 2012, but the five-year-old remains very dangerous. Santa Anita looks like his best track and the in-form horse has added the services of Gary Stevens, who provides an edge in big-money events.

Fort Larned: Speed, speed, speed. Fort Larned caught a speed-favoring oval in last year's Classic and nobody will be surprised to see the track playing similarly this year. And trainer Ian Wilkes appears to have the defending champ right where he wants him. After posting a superb win in the 2012 Whitney, Fort Larned took a step back when third in the Jockey Club Gold Cup before delivering a career-best at Santa Anita. The five-year-old has experienced ups and downs in 2013, but he was brilliant taking the Stephen Foster over a strong field this summer and his final prep, last Saturday's Homecoming Classic at Churchill Downs, served its purpose. Fort Larned was not at his best despite winning, allowing a big lead to dwindle significantly while tiring down the stretch, but that was the tightener Wilkes desired in order to have the bay horse at his best on November 2. Fort Larned will be a handful if he runs back to last year's Classic effort.

Ron the Greek: Circumstances are different this year. Ron the Greek entered last year's Classic off a dull sixth in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, but the six-year-old produced a devastating upset in the same race last Saturday, equaling a career-best 112 Speed rating while drawing off to a 6 3/4-length decision at 21-1. The Bill Mott trainee received some support in last year's Classic (8-1) due to his success in the Santa Anita Handicap earlier that season but was never a factor finishing fourth. His typical late-running style is seldom favorable at Santa Anita, but the six-year-old horse showed more tactical speed last time, generating huge E1 and E2 Pace ratings (94 and 119) while racing closer to the pace. Those tactics figure to serve him well if Ron the Greek can hold his form at Santa Anita.

Palace Malice: The Belmont Stakes winner was never a serious factor finishing a clear second in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, but that doesn't hurt his chances -- the last three Classic winners all lost the same race beforehand (Fort Larned, Drosselmeyer and Blame). Palace Malice is a late foal (May 2) who needed plenty of time before discovering his best form this summer, earning only his second career victory with a surprisingly easy 3 1/4-length tally in the final leg of the Triple Crown, and the dual stakes winner lost all chance in the Travers following a disastrous start two races ago. His supporters will be taking a "glass half-full" approach following his solid runner-up effort last time because Palace Malice potentially has much more to offer. He's an ideal candidate for the 1 1/4-mile distance and possesses a high cruising speed.

Will Take Charge: An intriguing prospect from the three-year-old ranks, Will Take Charge will enter on the upswing for D. Wayne Lukas, recording wins in the Pennsylvania Derby and Travers. He gutted out a nose score in the Travers before posting a convincing 2 1/4-length triumph at Parx Racing, bearing little resemblance to the deep closer we witnessed earlier this season with 97 E1 and 111 E2 Pace ratings last time, and it's easy to admire the progress he's making. Whether the chestnut will be good enough to challenge top older horses is a legitimate question, but Will Take Charge is headed in the right direction presently.

Flat Out: Third in last year's Classic, Flat Out has done little wrong while making his last five starts in New York, producing a couple of stakes wins and three Grade 1 placings, but traveling is always a major concern for the seven-year-old horse -- you must go back to 2010 to find his last win outside the Empire State. Flat Out will look to rally into contention from off the pace, but he's got a puncher's chance at best.

Paynter: Surprised to see him rating off the pace in midpack during the Awesome Again but have to give him credit for a rallying second after thinking he was through midway on the far turn. He's easy to root for, making a miraculous recovery from a life-threatening illness to return at the highest level, and his Speed ratings are encouraging (three century-topping numbers, including a 108 last time). But I can't envision him offering a serious challenge at 1 1/4 miles -- his best chance for success this year would be in the Dirt Mile. Paynter didn't return to the races until June and has dropped all three stakes attempts. He could still use a little more bottom to him and there's nothing wrong with exercising a little more patience with hopes of making a serious assault upon the 2014 Classic.

Graydar: He's not been confirmed for the Classic but figures to join the mix following a nice win in the one-mile Kelso Handicap off of a lengthy layoff. The Todd Pletcher-trained colt stamped himself as a Classic contender earlier this season, recording excellent wins in the Donn Handicap and New Orleans Handicap, and would add more speed to the equation. I have my doubts about his effectiveness at 1 1/4 miles, but the gray four-year-old lays it all on the line every time, dropping only one of six career starts.

Declaration of War: Santa Anita has played host to the only Euro-based winners in Classic history (Raven's Pass & Arcangues) and Declaration of War will be a major dark horse if he makes his dirt and U.S. debut as expected. A multiple Group 1 winner at distances up to 1 1/4 miles this year, the Irish-based colt will make his final prep this weekend in England for Aidan O'Brien and could be easily overlooked in the Classic field regardless of how he performs. But it's worth noting that the four-year-old possesses a useful pedigree for dirt (by War Front and out of a Rahy mare) and O'Brien nearly pulled off the coup with another talented runner bred to handle any surface, Giant's Causeway, who came up a neck short to the mighty Tiznow in 2000.



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