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The wheels must be turning already in the heads of jockeys and trainers participating in the 2013 Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita. There is so much to ponder regarding strategy, post positions, and the effect the race could have on the Eclipse Award voting.
In one of the most wide-open fields ever assembled, where almost every horse has a legitimate shot to win if they show up with their "A" game, racing luck and post positions likely will have a major say in the result.
What sets this year's Classic apart from other Classics is that you have the first four finishers from last year's race -- Fort Larned, Mucho Macho Man, Flat Out, and Ron the Greek -- returning, as well as last year's favorite Game On Dude, who picked the wrong day to throw in a clunker at 6-5. Trainer Bob Baffert has been effusive in his praise for the gelding, who is undefeated in five starts in 2013, and insists he is a different horse from last year.
What also is unique this year are the ages of the major contenders -- Game On Dude is 6, Ron the Greek is 6, and Flat Out is 7. No 6-year-old or older has ever won the Classic.A field of 12 was drawn for the $5 million event at 1 ¼ miles, with no major implications from the post position draw. Game On Dude, installed as the 8-5 favorite, drew well in post 9, while the Bill Mott pair of Ron the Greek and Flat Out will break side by side on the outside in posts 11 and 12, respectively.
While Game On Dude looks to be the only horse in the race who has a legitimate shot at Horse of the Year honors, at least as of now, and would pretty much nail down the title with a victory, there is the battle within the battle between Belmont Stakes winner Palace Malice and Travers winner Will Take Charge, who look to be the two leading contenders for champion 3-year-old male. A victory by either one would no doubt assure them the title, but it could come down to who finishes ahead of the other.
The other major aspect of the Classic is the pace. Game On Dude, Moreno, and Fort Larned all have front-running speed and are most comfortable on the lead, but could also lay just off the pace if need be. Palace Malice, Mucho Macho Man, and Paynter all want to be within striking range.
That should make for a contentious pace, and if the track is fair, unlike last year when there was a strong speed bias, it could help the chances of Flat Out, Ron the Greek, Will Take Charge, Last Gunfighter, and the two European invaders, Declaration of Warand Planteur. The last named, who came from well off the pace to finish third in the last two runnings of the Dubai World Cup, inexplicably ran off on the lead in the recent Prix Dollar as if he were in a six-furlong sprint, and wound up stopping in the final furlong.
Game On Dude was made the favorite based on his undefeated record this year, running over his home track, and becoming only the second horse ever to sweep California's three Grade 1 handicaps -- the Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup, and Pacific Classic—in the same year.
Although Game On Dude is 6 years-old, the only horse to run a faster Santa Anita Handicap in the last 10 years was Game On Dude, two years ago, and that was by only .57 hundredths of a second. He also ran the second fastest Pacific Classic in the last 10 years, so age has not slowed the horse down. Even in his Hollywood Gold Cup victory, he ran over two full seconds faster than he did in winning the race last year.
"Last year, forget about," Baffert said. "He's a different horse this year. He's in the zone right now. I like his post; I just didn't want him drawing on the inside. Last year, he ran a big race in the Awesome Again. He puts a lot into his races and ran so hard in the prep. He gets a little light, so we decided to run a fresh horse this year."
For Fort Larned, who drew post 7, he will attempt to become the only horse other than Tiznow to win back-to-back Classics. The son of E Dubai has had his ups and down this year, but was virtually unbeatable when he trounced a top-classic field in the Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs.
Mucho Macho Man, who suffered a heartbreaking defeat to Fort Larned last year, now is more mature horse and has a victory over the track, winning the Awesome Again in impressive fashion with Gary Stevens aboard. He also drew well in post 6.
"We're very fortunate to get Gary," trainer Kathy Ritvo said. "He's the perfect fit and seems to run for him. Last year, my heart was pounding and it was tough defeat, but we were very proud of him eventhough he got beat."
Perhaps the most amazing story in the Classic is the presence of Paynter, who drew post 2 with Martin Garcia aboard. As Baffert said, "It's a miracle he's even here," referring to the colt's near fatal illness last year and bouts with other maladies, including a mild case of laminitis.
And who is more deserving to win the Classic than Aidan O'Brien? Starting with his heartbreaking neck defeat with Giant's Causeway in 2000, O'Brien has sent 13 horses to the Classic from his Ballydoyle base in Ireland and is still looking for that elusive first victory. He did run second once again in 2008 with Henrythenavigator when the Breeders' Cup was run over a synthetic surface at Santa Anita. This year, he has been pointing Declaration of War, winner of the Juddmonte International and Queen Anne Stakes, to the Classic for most of the year, and unlike past years, he brings a fresh horse who hasn't run in 2 ½ months.
Declaration of War, who will be ridden by O'Brien's son Joseph, drew post 5 and was made 10-1 on the morning line.