Game On Dude, who disappointed as the Classic favorite a year ago, will be back too. Now, if only Santa Anita's unabashedly unfair, speed-biased, first-one-to-lead-wins surface doesn't return, we'll finally have a horse race, a year in the making.
Ron the Greek was overwhelming Saturday while winning the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park. Rallying strongly in the second turn, he shot through an open door along the rail and powered clear to win by nearly seven lengths over Palace Malice. Ron the Greek completed the 1¼ miles in a sparkling 1:59.70.
But even if he should duplicate his Gold Cup effort Nov. 2 in Arcadia, Calif., it won't put him in the winner's circle, or even allow him to approach it, unless the surface has changed. If this is the same Santa Anita surface Ron the Greek raced on a year ago, then he'll have the same chance he had last Nov. 3: none, zero, zilch, nil. He might complete the superfecta, but his chances of winning, along with every other stretch runner's in the Breeders' Cup, wouldn't fill a thimble, not if the surface remains the same.
Last year, over the two days of the Breeders' Cup, eight of the 12 winners on the main track led virtually from start to finish. Remember the last Classic Day at Santa Anita: Beholder led from the start to win the Juvenile Fillies; Royal Delta grabbed the early advantage and never let go in the Ladies' Classic; Tapizar vied for the early lead while four-wide, was a head back after a half-mile and went on to win the Dirt Mile by more than two lengths; Shanghai Bobby was the day's big closer, "rallying" from a half-length back to win the Juvenile; Trinniberg held on to win the Sprint after leading through a mind-bending half-mile in 43.73 seconds; and, of course, Fort Larned and Mucho Macho Man danced around the track 1-2 for the entire 1¼ miles of the Classic. When Game On Dude didn't leave the gate alertly, his Classic in effect ended, his chances immediately sinking beneath the tread of Ron the Greek and Diddly Squat.
In last year's Breeders' Cup races at Santa Anita (not counting the three-turn Marathon), only one winner on the zoom-zoom main track rallied from more than a length back after the opening half-mile. That was the sensational Groupie Doll, who cruised along three lengths behind the early leader, Teddy's Promise, in the Filly & Mare Sprint before uncorking her charge and winning by more than four lengths.
So will the Santa Anita surface again provide a sinecure for speed? What will it be like this year? Did all the ballyhooed improvements include the surface?
The early returns are unclear. During the first three days of this Santa Anita season, the main track again has been kind to speed, but not with the unimpeachable resolve of a year ago. In 20 races on the main track, nine winners had the lead after the opening half-mile, or 45 percent. Eleven of the 14 sprints were won by a horse either on the early lead or within a length of it. The typical winner in two-turn races, however, was a little more than three lengths back after a half-mile, as Mucho Macho Man was (actually 3½ back) while on his way to winning Saturday's Awesome Again Stakes.
Keep a watchful and critical eye on the track in Arcadia. If the surface hasn't changed in the direction of fairness, then horses such as Ron the Greek and Will Take Charge might as well stay home. You think the connections for Princess of Sylmar should supplement her to the Distaff? Frankly, it would be foolish, given her late-running style and the track's speed bias a year ago.
But if the Santa Anita surface is fair, if it has become an equal-opportunity purveyor of victories, then this year's could be a sensational Classic. Mucho Macho Man has returned to form, running the final three-eighths of a mile in 36.72 seconds while beating Paynter, who angled out to be very wide in the second turn. Fort Larned's effort in the Homecoming Classic at Churchill, where he threw down some solid early fractions (47.15 for the half, 1:10.49 for three-quarters) to open up a clear advantage, could propel him forward and prepare him for a superlative effort at Santa Anita. Palace Malice ran well to finish second at Belmont, where he pressed the pace and raced wide. His style could prove effective in California. As for Ron the Greek, he has given the sensational performance from time to time, as he did earlier this year in the Sunshine Millions Classic, winning by more than 11 lengths. But then, for his next trick, he traveled to Arcadia and finished fourth in the Santa Anita Handicap. Can he put together two sensational efforts? Can Santa Anita give the Breeders' Cup a fair surface?
Anyway, recent races indeed shook up the Top 10. Not only did some rise in the poll, but Orb, Royal Delta and Successful Dan all dropped out. And Cross Traffic exited the Jockey Club Gold Cup with an injury, so although he's not out of the Top 10, he's out of the Classic.
The Top 10 Breeders' Cup Classic Contenders
1. Game On Dude
Just when it was starting to look as if Game On Dude could be a short favorite in the Classic, several horses have jumped forward with big efforts, as if to say, "Not so fast there, Dude." Still, none of those big efforts could match the Dude's best this year. Game On Dude has the speed Santa Anita loves, and the old pro seems to be even better this year.
2. Mucho Macho Man
A giant of a horse, Mucho Macho Man finished strongly from a few lengths behind a pace that was the slowest of the day for two-turn races on Santa Anita's main track. He won by more than four lengths while racing wide. Will he be able to stalk a faster pace in the Classic and finish as powerfully?
3. Fort Larned
He didn't beat much at Churchill Downs, but he won with style after setting some lively fractions. Although it appeared the runner-up, Windswept, was starting to get to Fort Larned late, the winner actually galloped out strongly. It was a strong effort, and it might be just what he needed to prepare for another run at the Classic.
4. Palace Malice
As Bill Mott said, not many horses could have beaten Ron the Greek on Saturday, not many horses racing today or in the past 10 years. That said, Palace Malice ran well to finish second. He had to force the issue and lost a little ground to the winner, who enjoyed a pluperfect trip. Palace Malice hasn't yet reached the performance level of the best older horses, but he's close enough to suggest he'll have a chance in the Classic.
5. Ron The Greek
Ron the Greek got through along the rail and delivered what might have been the best performance of his career to win the Jockey Club Gold Cup. So what's the chance that happens again? Still, it's useful to remember that he won the Santa Anita Handicap two years ago, when there was a superheated pace that set up his charge.
6. Will Take Charge
Like Ron the Greek, Will Take Charge will depend on circumstances if he's going to threaten in the Classic. Will the surface be fair and give stretch runners a fighting chance? Will the pace be lively enough to set the Classic up for an effective late run? The Classic field could have plenty of early speed, especially if Graydar joins the field.
7. Flat Out
Flat Out didn't give one of his better efforts in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. His poor third was especially surprising in the context of the many outstanding efforts he has given in the past at Belmont. He's usually around when the paychecks are handed out and could be again after the Classic. But it has been two years (2011 Jockey Club Gold Cup) since he gave the sort of performance that will probably be necessary to win the 30th Classic. At 7, he seems to have slowed a step.
8. Cross Traffic
Belmont Park, despite all its virtues, attractions and history, becomes an awkward host when the distance is 1¼ miles, as it was Saturday. Many horses -- in fact, most of the horses in the Jockey Club Gold Cup field -- didn't get away well, and Cross Traffic lost every chance he had at the break. Even worse, he came out of the race with a minor shin injury that will prevent him from racing in the Classic, according to Todd Quest, the general manager for GoldMark Farm.
9T. Wise Dan
The reigning Horse of the Year should be tied in this Classic poll with Secretariat, Citation and Dr. Fager. Wise Dan is about as likely to run in the Classic as they are. In Saturday's Shadwell Turf Mile at Keeneland, Wise Dan is to have his final preparation for the Breeders' Cup. And he's aimed at the Mile, not the Classic, as his connections have been saying for months.
On Saturday, he raced three-to-four wide until he angled out about seven wide and ended up in the middle of the racetrack, where he finished with good energy to be second in the Awesome Again. With that effort behind him, he could move forward next month. His victory in the Classic would be a surprise but not a shock. After his return from death's doorstep a year ago, nothing he accomplishes could ever be shocking.
Also receiving votes: Royal Delta (16), Graydar (16), Princess of Sylmar (12), Declaration of War (10), Successful Dan (4), Moreno (3), Alpha (3), Clubhouse Ride (2), Soi Phet (2), Orb (1), Kettle Corn (1).