As the leaves turn color and the Breeders' Cup draws ever closer, the storylines for Thoroughbred racing's biggest prize are becoming crystal clear.
With all of the major BC preps out of the way, there are really only three horses with a legitimate chance to become Horse of the Year.
There's little question right now that the Horse of the Year award is Game On Dude's to win or lose.
Maybe, in an extreme case, if Ron the Greek wins the Breeders' Cup Classic by daylight -- like he did the Jockey Club Gold Cup -- he might receive some consideration. But that's just some consideration; most likely it will not be enough to eclipse all of the top three.
Through it all, there's little question right now that the Horse of the Year award is Game On Dude's to win or lose.
He's won all five of his 2013 starts. Included in that stretch are some of the nation's most famous races, the Pacific Classic, Hollywood Gold Cup and Santa Anita Handicap, and he's won them by a combined 17 ¼ lengths.
He's also won a $1.5 million race in the Charles Town Classic and the Grade 2 San Antonio.
It's a body of work that's so impressive and compelling that even if he loses narrowly in the Breeders' Cup, with some help, he can still earn the award.
In the event of a Game on Dude loss, the focus will shift to Wise Dan, the reigning Horse of the Year.
Like Game on Dude, he was perfect in 2013 -- until last weekend. He won his first five races, then finished second last weekend in the Shadwell Turf Mile that was switched to Keeneland's main track -- a synthetic Polytrack surface -- and finished second to Silver Max.
Under the circumstances, due to the surface change, the loss was not awful, but all in all, Wise Dan has followed an easier path in 2013 than Game on Dude. Three of Wise Dan's wins were in Grade 1 stakes, and the Shadwell (Off the Turf) Mile was also a Grade 1, yet Grade 1 mile and mile-and-an-eighth turf races on these shores cannot compare to the prestigious races Game On Dude captured.
Yes, they were both Grade 1's, but to say the Maker's 46 Mile Stakes is the equal of the Pacific Classic would be like saying the Miami Heat and the New York Knicks were equals last season in the NBA because they were both division winners.
A win in the Breeders' Cup Mile and a loss by Game On Dude could add up to a second straight crown for Wise Dan, but much will hinge on the quality of the field at Santa Anita and the manner of his victory.
The wild card is Princess of Sylmar. After she won the Alabama to virtually clinch the 3-year-old filly championship, there were some indications she would not race again in 2013 because she was not nominated to the Breeders' Cup and would have to be supplemented to the BC Distaff.
A win in the Breeders' Cup Mile and a loss by Game On Dude could add up to a second straight crown for Wise Dan.
Because the Beldame was part of the Breeders' Cup "Win and You're In" challenge series, Princess of Sylmar's fees for starting in the BC Distaff were reduced to about $100,000 with her travel expenses to California also covered.
Now it's looking like owner Ed Stanco is leaning toward running in the Breeders' Cup and if his filly wins the Distaff -- beating Royal Delta and reigning 2-year-old filly champ and Kentucky Oaks runner-up Beholder in the process -- it would give her five straight glittering Grade 1 wins: the Kentucky Oaks, the Coaching Club American Oaks, Alabama, Beldame and Breeders' Cup Distaff.
If Game on Dude loses, those five wins -- coupled with a record of seven wins in eight 2013 starts and Stanco's sportsmanship in paying the fees to run in the Breeders' Cup -- could be enough to turn a "Princess" into a Queen.
Unless Wise Dan impresses on the Santa Anita turf.
As anyone can see, all of this involves a heavy dose of coulds and ifs. Yet what stands out is that with Thoroughbred racing's world championships looming on the horizon, the last major race of the year, the Breeders' Cup Classic on Nov. 2, will be the most crucial factor in deciding the year's best horse.
Who could ask for anything more than that?