Then the rains pummeled Saratoga and the legendary racetrack's 150th season, making the surface look like something a confectioner might want to shove into an oven and washing away much of the anticipation for a great Woodward. And so when Mucho Macho Man, a giant of a horse who takes to the slop like a cannonball to water, demurred, he left the Woodward with a field of five. Granted, they were an accomplished quintet, but they couldn't save the Woodward from anticlimax. And so the shuffling among the leading contenders for the Breeders' Cup Classic didn't occur, not that anybody figured to threaten Game on Dude's position atop the ESPN.com poll.
Paynter disappointed, finishing fifth as the Woodward favorite. His trainer, Bob Baffert, said the colt didn't like the track and will try to find his way to the Breeders' Cup via the Awesome Again Stakes at Santa Anita. As a result of the poor effort, Paynter dropped out of the Top 10, replaced by Travers winner Will Take Charge. Fort Larned dropped a position to fourth, and Royal Delta, so say the pollsters, has become the main threat to the Dude.
Although he gave the best performance of his life in winning the Woodward, Alpha wasn't convincing enough to break into the Top 10. When Paynter left the gate slowly, Alpha was able to control a moderate pace and, most of all, the handsome colt enjoyed the sloppy conditions. He's one of those horses with feet just made for mud. Flat Out showed he's maintaining his good form by finishing second, an effort that moved him four spots in the poll.
When he romped in the West Virginia Derby, Departing suggested that he might someday join the Breeders' Cup march. And that day could arrive Saturday, with the Super Derby at Louisiana Downs. Not too long ago, the race was a meaningful prep for the Classic. Sunday Silence, Tiznow, Concern and Unbridled all ran in the Super Derby before winning the richest race in North America.
The Top 10 Breeders' Cup Classic Contenders
1. Game On Dude
With his Pacific Classic victory, he became the clear Classic and Horse of the Year favorite. While some of the best older horses from a year ago seem to be having trouble maintaining or even reaching their best form, Game On Dude seems to be getting better.
2. Royal Delta
What will she prove by winning the Breeders' Cup Distaff? That she's the best mare in the country? Everybody already knows that. A run in the Classic makes sense, and she'll be a serious contender.
3. Cross Traffic
The tenacious winner of the Whitney passed the Woodward to wait for the Jockey Club Gold Cup on Sept. 28, where he'll face horses more experienced and accomplished at the distance. Could he be that good? Maybe.
4. Fort Larned
Last year's Classic winner was scratched from the Woodward when he appeared to be "off behind," according to his trainer. He has been inconsistent this year, but also sensational. He could return in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.
The Kentucky Derby winner is back. He made the lead in mid-stretch, held on gamely for third in the Travers and seems poised to move forward when he takes on older horses for the first time in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.
6. Flat Out
Third in last year's Classic, Flat Out impressed while winning the Suburban and again while finishing second in the Woodward. He might be as good as he was a year ago, but that wasn't good enough to win the Classic.
7. Palace Malice
He gave a winning effort in the Travers, where he crawled out of the gate, entered the first turn with a view of the entire field and raced five-wide in the second turn. He has moved forward steadily since the Derby, and if that continues, he'll be a major player in the Classic.
8. Wise Dan
Yes, he would be an intriguing addition to the Classic lineup, but so would Pegasus. And like Pegasus, the reigning Horse of the Year is very unlikely to show up in the Classic starting gate. He's aimed instead at the Breeders' Cup Mile, which he won a year ago.
9. Will Take Charge
Obviously he gave the best effort of his career in the Travers, but it was the kind of effort his trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, had expected for some time. Will Take Charge will aim at the Pennsylvania Derby on Sept. 21.
10. Successful Dan
Second in the Whitney and third in the Woodward, he's reliable and talented. For one of these big ones, circumstances might open the door for him.
Also receiving votes: Alpha (21), Mucho Macho Man (20), Declaration of War (18), Kettle Corn (6), Clubhouse Ride (6), Paynter (6), Ron the Greek (6), Moreno (4), Point of Entry (4), Princess of Sylmar (3), Graydar (3).