As the stars converge upon Santa Anita for the 30th running of the Breeders' Cup World Championships, nine past winners return. Will Horse of the Year Wise Dan repeat his dazzling speed in the Mile? What are Fort Larned's chances of duplicating his upset Classic victory? Here's the rundown:
Wise Dan: Breeders' Cup Mile
Some followers lost faith when the Horse of the Year finished second last time out behind frontrunning Silver Max on the soggy Polytrack at Keeneland in an off-the-turf running of the Shadwell Turf Mile. But a five-for-five previous win streak for trainer Charlie LoPresti in graded stakes in 2013, three of them Grade 1 events, is hardly a season to scoff at. Although the Shadwell loss snapped a nine-race win streak overall in graded stakes for 6-year-old Wise Dan, those who question his brilliance may want to remember the track record he set in the Ricoh Woodbine Mile just two starts back. At Santa Anita, where he also set a record winning the Breeders' Cup Mile last year, Morton Fink's homebred Wiseman's Ferry gelding still looms a formidable foe.
Royal Delta, Beholder: Breeders' Cup Distaff
Besilu Stable's Royal Delta has been an inconsistent runner, but there's no mistaking her prowess on the sport's biggest days. Her frontrunning tour de force in the Breeders' Cup last year was the stuff of legends, while her first Breeders' Cup victory came as a 3-year-old defeating elders. Winner of two Grade 1 races this year -- the Delaware Handicap and the Personal Ensign Invitational -- Royal Delta was beaten two lengths in her most recent start, the Sept. 28 Beldame Invitational, by Kentucky Oaks winner Princess of Sylmar. That rival's connections decided to wheel their sophomore filly back in the Distaff, so Royal Delta will face her again. She also must fend off the challenge of local star Beholder, who is undefeated in four starts in two-turn races at Santa Anita -- all Grade 1 events including the 2012 Juvenile Fillies. Keeping in mind that Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott knows how to get the 5-year-old daughter of Empire Maker ready to peak for this event, she stands a very good chance at becoming the first three-time Distaff winner in Breeders' Cup history.
Fort Larned: Breeders' Cup Classic
Janis Whitham's homebred Fort Larned upset the Classic at odds of 9-1 last year, while favored Game On Dude didn't even hit the board (he finished seventh). The defending winner faces decidedly stiffer company than he did in his Sept. 28 victory in the Homecoming Classic Stakes at Churchill Downs, however; the current field includes last year's half-length runner-up Mucho Macho Man, third-place finisher Flat Out, and fourth-place finisher Ron the Greek (who comes off a career-best victory in the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup on Sept. 28), along with Game On Dude plus new shooters like Belmont Stakes winner Palace Malice and Travers winner Will Take Charge. Granted, Fort Larned beat many of them last year, and his class was proven earlier this spring with a sparkling 6 ¼-length romp in the Stephen Foster Handicap, but like Royal Delta his season has been spotty. While his extreme talent may shine through, the 5-year-old son of E Dubai looks vulnerable in this spot despite his previous victory.
Mizdirection: Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint
This slate-gray dynamo has been training on the muscle in the mornings leading up to her title defense, and follows the same path she did to last year's Turf Sprint victory over the boys. Having not raced since June shouldn't be an issue here; she won last year's edition having last raced in May. Mike Puype knows exactly what he's doing in spacing the 5-year-old Mizzen Mast mare's races to produce her prime effort. Last time out in the Just a Game over a boggy Belmont turf course was a disappointment (fifth), but Mizdirection owns the downhill turf course at Santa Anita and will be very tough to beat for the partnership group that includes Bill Strauss and sports radio personality Jim Rome. This will be the final start of her career; she is entered as a broodmare prospect in the Keeneland November sale.
Groupie Doll: Filly & Mare Sprint
Groupie Doll is another who has struggled to get her 2013 season on track. After winning the Filly & Mare Sprint and finishing second by a nose to Stay Thirsty in the Cigar Mile, she did not thrive during the winter at Gulfstream and spent time on the farm for trainer Buff Bradley and a partnership group that includes Bradley's father, Fred, along with Carl Hurst and Brent Burns. She came back with a third in the Grade 3 Gardenia Stakes at Ellis Park, a race she won easily last year. And while she defended her title in the Presque Isle Masters, that race seemed to take a little out of her when she finished a non-threatening third in the Thoroughbred Club of America Stakes at Keeneland on Oct. 5. The 5-year-old daughter of Bowman's Band faces the winner of that race, Judy the Beauty, again in this spot, which will be her final start. She is also expected to sell as a broodmare prospect in the Keeneland November sale.
Little Mike: Breeders' Cup Turf
Little Mike actually went winless between last year's Breeders' Cup Turf and his final prep for this year's edition, but demonstrated his ability with a game victory in the Sept. 28 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic at Belmont, in which he beat fellow Turf contenders Big Blue Kitten, winner of the Sword Dancer, and Real Solution, winner of this year's Arlington Million via disqualification. The 6-year-old Spanish Steps gelding beat Point of Entry by half a length in the Turf last year at odds of 17-1; that rival returns off a significant layup and recovery from a condylar fracture to make a remarkable start in this year's event. Perhaps the most significant rival in this spot is the able European filly The Fugue, who has first preference to this spot and is also pre-entered in the Filly & Mare Turf. Last year, she was second after traffic trouble in the latter event; this year, her connections seem inclined to run her at 1 ¼ miles against the boys. With or without her in the field, Little Mike will have to run the race of his life to notch a repeat.
Trinniberg: Breeders' Cup Sprint
Sherry Racing's Trinniberg hasn't won since taking the Sprint last year, his best effort a runner-up finish 1 ¾lengths behind Bahamian Squall in the Grade 2 Smile Sprint Handicap at Calder back in July. Granted, the early part of his season was taken up by a failed trip to Dubai (11th in the Golden Shaheen), and he had only two other starts for trainer Bisnath Parboo -- a seventh in the Grade 2 Churchill Downs Stakes before the Smile Sprint, and the Oct. 5 Santa Anita Sprint Championship Stakes. He finished seventh. That's not good. Then again, leading up to his 2012 Breeders' Cup victory, he was runer-up in the ungraded Gallant Bob Stakes at Parx after running ninth in the Grade 1 King's Bishop at Saratoga.
Flotilla: Breeders' Cup Mile
Flotilla upset the Juvenile Fillies Turf last year with an explosive late kick at odds of 11-1. She took the Group 1 French One Thousand Guineas back in May, but since then has been off the board in two starts in June (eighth in the Prix de Diane won by eventual Arc victress Treve) and September (sixth in the Prix de Moulin against the boys). With Horse of the Year Wise Dan and several other top-notch horses to face, this is a tough assignment for the 3-year-old filly.
Repeat contenders: How they fared last year
Royal Delta, My Miss Aurelia, St Nicholas Abbey, Musical Romance, and Amazombie were the defending champs of Breeders' Cup 2012. Of them, only Royal Delta put in a repeat performance when she blitzed the Distaff field. My Miss Aurelia -- the Juvenile Fillies winner of 2011 -- finished 1 ½ lengths behind her when checking in second in that event.
St Nicholas Abbey, who won the 2011 Turf by 2 ¼ lengths under 18-year-old jockey Joseph O'Brien -- the son of trainer Aiden O'Brien and youngest rider in history to ever win a Breeders' Cup event -- was third behind Little Mike and Point of Entry last year.
The other two failed to hit the board. Amazombine, who won the Sprint at 7-1 in 2011, was eighth in what ended up being the final start of his career. The same was true for Musical Romance, who took the 2011 Filly & Mare Sprint by 1 ¼ lengths but finished sixth in that race in 2012; she sold for $1.6 million at the Fasig-Tipton November sale to Northern Farm, the Japanese entity owned by Katsumi Yoshida.
Repeat winners through Breeders' Cup history
Only 12 participants have managed to come back to collect additional Breeders' Cup victories. Miesque was the first two-time winner in Breeders' Cup history, taking the Mile in 1987 and 1988. Lure also repeated in the Mile in 1992 and 1993, while Da Hoss won in 1996 and 1998. From 2008-10, the brilliant Goldikova mowed down the boys in the Mile, and finished a game third in 2011 when going for her fourth attempt. Bayakoa, Zenyatta, Royal Delta, Tiznow, Midnight Lute, Ouija Board, Conduit, and High Chaparral are others who managed multiple Breeders' Cup triumphs.
Claire Novak is an Eclipse Award-winning turf writer who covers horse racing for The Blood-Horse magazine in Lexington, Ky. Follow her on Twitter @bh_cnovak and read more of her work at www.bloodhorse.com.