Tony Bennett performs "The Best is Yet to Come" at Santa Anita on Saturday, which is the perfect anthem for the $5 million Classic that concludes the 15-race Breeders' Cup extravaganza.
The Classic serves as America's most important race, with six of the last seven Horse of the Year winners showing up for the 1 ¼-mile test. Three of those – Curlin ('08), Zenyatta ('10) and Havre de Grace ('11) – wound up losing the Classic, but Horse of the Year voters still awarded their overall accomplishments.
This year's biggest storyline centers around Horse of the Year front runner Game on Dude, who owns a sparkling five-for-five record at Santa Anita. Co-owned by baseball icon Joe Torre and trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, the 5yo gelding impressively tuned up for his Classic engagement in the local prep race, the September 29 Awesome Again, netting a 109 BRIS Speed rating for the comfortable 3 1/4-length decision.
Game on Dude set a pressured pace in last year's Classic at Churchill Downs and after battling off a host of challengers into the stretch, surged clear with a furlong remaining. He could not withstand the late rally of Drosselmeyer, but Game on Dude exited his runner-up finish with something to prove in 2012.
He's posted four dominant wins so far, with the only setbacks coming on synthetic Polytrack and Tapeta tracks that don't favor him, and Game on Dude captured the 2011 Santa Anita Handicap and this year's Hollywood Gold Cup at Saturday's 10-furlong distance. He also appears to be training forwardly in preparation for the main event, posting a strong seven-furlong drill on Sunday.
"He went great, just like he always does," Baffert observed after the workout. "So far, so good."
With a heavy list of attributes, Game on Dude will be a prohibitive favorite in the 12-horse Classic field, possibly at odds-on, but favorites have not performed well in recent Classic history, posting only one win in the last six editions.
Santa Anita will be hosting the Breeders' Cup for the sixth time, and California horses prevailed in three of the previous five Classics, with international shippers winning the other two times. All 10 participants this year are based in America, and those with the best chance to derail Game on Dude include a quartet from New York (Mucho Macho Man, Ron the Greek, Flat Out and To Honor and Serve); Midwestern shipper Fort Larned; and locally-based Richard's Kid.
Mucho Macho Man turned in a superb performance in the July 7 Suburban, easily defeating a well-respected group, and his BRIS Speed numbers this year are outstanding. The 4yo colt runs well fresh for trainer Kathy Ritvo, so the 63-day layoff isn't a major concern, but the 1 1/4-mile distance is a legitimate question. Mucho Macho Man finished a neck second as the heavy favorite in the 1 1/8-mile Woodward last out.
Hall of Fame conditioner Bill Mott will send out Ron the Greek, Flat Out and To Honor and Serve.
Ron the Greek shipped west to win the Santa Anita Handicap in March and established himself as the divisional leader when capturing the Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs in June, but the confirmed late runner will be looking to rebound from a pair of setbacks in his last two outings including a disappointing sixth in the September 29 Jockey Club Gold Cup.
Flat Out posted a sharp score in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, his second consecutive victory in New York's most prestigious race for older horses, and netted a field-best 117 BRIS Speed rating. The classy 6yo will enter in top form, but his ability to travel is a worry; Flat Out has dropped his last 10 starts outside the friendly confines of Belmont.
Multiple Grade 1 hero To Honor and Serve should add speed to equation and posted a noteworthy win in the Woodward two starts back, but his focus is always a concern; the 4yo tossed in a clunker when fourth as the favorite in the September 29 Kelso Handicap most recently. The colt checked in seventh in last year's Classic, his only previous attempt at the distance, and there are doubts about his effectiveness at the 1 1/4-mile trip.
Fort Larned reeled off a pair of sharp wins, including the Whitney Handicap at Saratoga over an excellent field, before taking a step back with a third in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. The 4yo remains an intriguing candidate for trainer Ian Wilkes, with BRIS Speed ratings of 113, 111 and 110 this season, and Fort Larned's tactical speed could serve him well.
Richard's Kid was purchased privately in late August and exits a better-than-it-appears third in the Awesome Again, passing a lot of horses in the stretch for third over a speed-favoring track. The 7yo veteran would appreciate a hot pace up front, netting a 115 BRIS Late Pace rating last time, and is trained by this year's Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, Doug O'Neill. He's a deep closer to consider for the top three.
Game on Dude figures to be the one to catch turning for home and while an upset is not out of the question, there is an overwhelming sense that he will cement Horse of the Year honors with Classic glory.
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