In mid-stretch, three weeks out from the Breeders' Cup, the race for Horse of the Year has come down to three horses: Game On Dude, Wise Dan and I'll Have Another.
An imagination given free rein could envision other possibilities. Before the 1997 Breeders' Cup, few would have given Favorite Trick much of a chance to be Horse of the Year; and before the 2002 event, Azeri wasn't a leading contender for the golden bibelot. And so what if Game On Dude and Wise Dan both lose their Breeders' Cup races and Point of Entry dominates in the Turf or maybe Royal Delta wins the Ladies' Classic by 10, and what if Ron The Greek or Fort Larned romps in the Classic, could something strange then happen? In this game, strange always seems to be rallying on the outside.
Bob Baffert didn't want to talk about Horse of the Year, not that the Hall of Fame trainer's superstitious or anything, but, well, as he pointed out, there's no reason to risk a jinx. Game On Dude's trainer said he didn't want to even think about Horse of the Year because that's still a ways off, and almost anything can happen. Pace will be the key, he said, and some exceptional horses are going to show up, and the weather's starting to change, and that's when horses can get sick, and that's always a worry for everybody, and -- well, as Baffert let his thoughts meander, it became clear that he was thinking about a myriad of contingencies, about almost everything, in fact, but Horse of the Year. He'll give that some consideration on the evening of Nov. 3, perhaps; until then, he's focused on preparing his horses for the sport's championship event.
"Right now, I just want to keep them healthy and happy," Baffert said about the horses he has aimed at Breeders' Cup races. Turning his attention to Game On Dude, who recently won the Awesome Again Stakes, Baffert said, "He's doing really well. He came out of that race sharp."
And if Baffert doesn't want to talk about it, that's probably because the golden Eclipse Award is indeed Game On Dude's to win. He's the favorite in this final line on the race for Horse of the Year:
1. Game On Dude, 9-5: He obviously wins the sport's top honor with a victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita, where, by the way, he's unbeaten. The Classic would be his fifth major stakes victory this year. But he might not have to win; a good runner-up finish might get the award, too. As Baffert said, "He's the best horse here," and while others have had shining moments, Game On Dude has been consistently outstanding.
2. Wise Dan, 2-1: He's clearly the most versatile horse in the country, capable of performing at the highest level on any surface, and he's one of the most talented, too. If Game On Dude doesn't win the Classic, Wise Dan would probably get the golden Eclipse with a victory in the Mile. It would be his fifth major stakes victory of the year, four on turf and one on a synthetic surface.
3. I'll Have Another, 7-2: Retired, of course, since June, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner remains the default setting. Yes, he was outstanding in his four races, twice winning in a photo with a tenacious effort. Still, history, which provides clear criteria for the awards, insists that he should be Horse of the Year only if Game On Dude and Wise Dan both lose, but maybe not even then. Spectacular Bid, Alysheba, Smarty Jones, Pleasant Colony and Thunder Gulch all won two-thirds of the Triple Crown but weren't named Horse of the Year at 3. Yes, Charismatic won the sport's top honor in 1999 without racing the second half of the season, but the champion older horse that year, Victory Gallop, won only two stakes, and the champion older female, Beautiful Pleasure, won only three. It was an unusual year, and the default choice was the best choice. That probably won't be the case this year.
4. Point Of Entry, 10-1: He has won five consecutive races, including the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic, the Sword Dancer, the Man o' War and the Elkhorn Stakes, but, well, he's a turf horse, and in this country, for the most part, the very best horses traditionally race on dirt. Yes, Point Of Entry has been outstanding, even dominant, and he probably represents the best chance any American horse has had of wresting the Breeders' Cup Turf away from the Europeans since English Channel in 2007, but he'll have to be sensational and the Dude and Dan will both have to lose for Point Of Entry to have any chance of being Horse of the Year. In 1987, the great Theatrical won seven of nine turf races, including six Grade 1 stakes, and yet Ferdinand, who won only four of 10 but did win the Breeders' Cup Classic, was named Horse of the Year. Yes, turf horses have won the top honor. The great John Henry was twice named Horse of the Year as well as turf champion, but in each of those two seasons, he also raced on dirt. But perhaps an Arcangues shocker awaits us all. In 1993, during the Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita, Paseana lost in the Distaff and Arcangues (with 133-1 odds) upset Bertrando in the Classic, and so Kotashaan became Horse of the Year, his win in the Turf being his sixth major stakes victory of the season.
5. Royal Delta, 15-1: For the first time, the field for the Ladies' Classic, formerly known as the Distaff, will include three American champions. Traditionally, a filly or mare wasn't considered for the golden Eclipse without winning against males, but that changed with Azeri, and then Zenyatta became Horse of the Year after her runner-up finish in the Classic. And so Fillies and mares, even if they have been shoved to Friday of the Breeders' Cup, no longer have to play supporting roles. Any campaign, even one waged exclusively within the distaff division, that culminates with a victory in this year's Ladies' Classic, should lead to some golden consideration. And Royal Delta, as she showed in the Beldame, can be overwhelming and dominant. If she indeed humbles this group, and if the Dude and Dan and Point Of Entry all lose -- well, it's possible, although unlikely, that for the fourth consecutive year a female could become Horse of the Year.
6. Fort Larned, 30-1: After two days of upsets and surprises, when everybody's brain is throbbing with confusion and fever and when thoughts turn to the Classic probabilities involving an earthquake as a variable, could Fort Larned become Horse of the Year with a romp? Maybe. Underrated all year, even while putting together an admirable record, he has won half of his eight outings, including the Whitney. Realistically, though, the best he can hope for is some recognition of an outstanding campaign.
7. Ron The Greek, 30-1: After two days of upsets and surprises, could he possibly become Horse of the Year if he rallies from far back with a stunning, Arazi-like charge? Well, it's very unlikely that three victories and three runner-up efforts would suffice to make him Horse of the Year, but Cowboys fans will insist he has the talent to be a champion.
8. Awesome Feather and My Miss Aurelia, 30-1: They're both unbeaten and nothing short of sensational, but they've each raced only twice this year, and so they simply won't have enough accomplishments, enough victories, unless counted by some binary digital calculator, to be Horse of the Year, even with a win in the Ladies Classic -- unless they and their records are coupled, of course.
9. Mucho Macho Man, 50-1: Like Galileo, he has a Roman problem. Some Eclipse voters still respect those Roman numeral adornments, and Mucho Macho Man hasn't won a Grade I stakes all year. He had a rough trip and perhaps should have won the Grade I Woodward. He won the Suburban with a spectacular performance over a Grade I field, but officially the race was a Grade II. He won the Sunshine Millions Classic, and the horses that finished second and third are both Grade I winners, while the horses that were fourth and fifth are Grade II winners, but the race itself isn't a Grade anything. And so Mucho Macho Man has a chance to be Horse of the Year only if the decision is turned over to the Electoral College. But he gives his best efforts with plenty of time between outings, and he hasn't raced since the first of September. Mucho Macho Man could be very tough in the Classic.
10. All others, 20-1: Executiveprivilege, Dreaming of Julia and Shanghai Bobby are all unbeaten and exciting. Groupie Doll can be a dominant winner. And Buster Douglas is polishing his uppercut.