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Wednesday, October 31, 2012
A Classic Halloween treat

By Gary West
Special to ESPN.com

ARCADIA, Calif. -- Halloween morning at Santa Anita, and through fog as thick as rice pudding, a galloping horse emerged ridden by a zombie. A winged devil was on horseback, too, or maybe that exercise rider was supposed to look like a demented pixie. And over at Clocker's Corner, a few monsters seemed to be waiting for coffee, or perhaps doomsday.

But by far the scariest sight at Santa Anita on this Halloween morning was Ron The Greek. Now, that's a monster.

Breeders' Cup Classic contender Handsome Mike works at Santa Anita on Tuesday.
Will Handsome Mike set the early pace in Saturday's Classic?
And he's 6-1 in the morning line for the country's richest horse race, Saturday's $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic. It could be a race of Classic options: Either it's a Classic coronation for Game On Dude, or it's a contentious, wide-open affair that could develop into a Classic opportunity for any of several contenders, including a certain 6-1 monster.

Game On Dude is the 9-5 Classic favorite, and he deserves the role, having won all five of his races here at Santa Anita, including two major stakes this year, the San Antonio and the Awesome Again. He's easily the most accomplished horse in the field: All he has to do is pass "Go" and he'll send his bankroll over $3 million. Twice he has won at this 1 1/4-mile distance -- in last year's Santa Anita Handicap and this year's Hollywood Gold Cup. And since finishing second in the Classic a year ago, Game On Dude has become a much stronger and, quite simply, a much better racehorse, according to his Hall of Fame trainer, Bob Baffert.

And so get out the party hats and the whistles, ice down the champagne, see if Paul McCartney knows the words to "Fugue for Tinhorns" and prepare for the coronation, right? Game On Dude loves the track and seems unbeatable in this Classic, where a victory will certainly make him Horse of the Year.

But if not the Classic coronation, then the Classic opportunity, and that might be scary to contemplate, something to be mentioned only on Halloween. A free-running sort of dude, Game On Dude will be close to the early lead no matter what the pace might be. As Baffert said, the Dude's "at the mercy" of the pace.

"He just has to be kept in his own cruising speed," Baffert said about Game On Dude. "The first half-mile [of the Classic] will probably dictate the whole race."

In other words, if the pace heats up and forces Game On Dude out of his cruising speed, the Classic favorite will be vulnerable and the party could devolve into an episode of "Survivor." Could that happen Saturday? Could a coronation be supplanted by an opportunity?

Maybe, but it wouldn't be a probable scenario. The Classic field doesn't include a speedster who insists on having the early lead. On the other hand, two horses with good natural speed, Mucho Macho Man and To Honor And Serve, have both drawn outside, which means they'll have to use their speed to avoid a wide trip around the first turn. And then there's Handsome Mike.

Why is he in this race? Perhaps his connections got divine instructions to enter, or maybe Handsome Mike is training like Pegasus and insisting on getting his shot. The winner of the Pennsylvania Derby, he's obviously a horse of quality, no doubt about that, but he has won only twice in his career and, well, he seems rather overmatched in the Classic. So unless there were indeed divine instructions and unless Handsome Mike has grown some dark bay wings, then in response to the obvious question, a rather obvious if scary answer jumps up and screams: He's in the race to heat up the pace.

Handsome Mike has sufficient speed, if it's called upon, to get involved in a zesty opening half-mile. If the pace indeed becomes lively and then overheated, one of the horses that would benefit is Richard's Kid, who, like Handsome Mike, is trained by Doug O'Neill. And if there is no coronation of Game On Dude as Horse of the Year, one of those that would benefit is Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner I'll Have Another, who, like Handsome Mike, is owned by J. Paul Reddam. (Imagine organ music swelling in the background.)

Such thoughts might be nothing more than a ghostly boo for Halloween, thoughts to accompany the scariest sight at Santa Anita, the monster known as Ron The Greek.

Such thoughts might be nothing more than a ghostly boo for Halloween, thoughts to accompany the scariest sight at Santa Anita, the monster known as Ron The Greek. Huge and long and hard-muscled, he glistened Wednesday morning, cruising around the oval with long strides. He's another who would benefit, and perhaps most of all, from a lively Classic pace Saturday.

Back in March, after speedsters scorched the opening half-mile in 44.55 seconds, Ron The Greek rallied from 10th to win the Santa Anita Handicap by more than 3 lengths. The surface was much faster then than now, but the same dynamic could lead to a similar outcome.

"Ron seems to be happy out here," his trainer, Bill Mott, said. "He's doing well, galloping well over the surface. He seems happy to be back in California."

And he looked happy, at the very least, Wednesday, even after a long and accomplished campaign that began in January and has taken him to six racetracks. In June he rallied strongly to win the Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs, beating Wise Dan, and two months later at Saratoga, Ron The Greek rallied from last to finish second in the Whitney Handicap despite a seven-wide journey. His only poor showing all year came in his most recent race, the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park, where he finished sixth. But the surface that day, Mott said, was "drying out and tricky," and the big 5-year-old never seemed to find his footing.

But since then, Mott said, Ron The Greek has trained and worked as well or better than he has all year. And at Santa Anita on Halloween, he trained like a monster.