ARCADIA, Calif. – One year ago, the choice for Horse of the Year was settled in the final hour of the Breeders’ Cup. Wise Dan defeated high-class international competition to capture the Mile and establish his supremacy as a grass specialist. When Game On Dude, regarded as the country’s best dirt runner, flopped in the Classic, he handed the sport’s top honor to Wise Dan.
The two 6-year-old geldings are back at Santa Anita, running again in the final two races on Saturday’s card, with the 2013 Horse of the Year award at stake. Their presence highlights two days of Breeders’ Cup action with a large cast of established older stars – a rarity in an era when star Thoroughbreds often are retired to stud as soon as they have made their reputations. They include the 5-year-olds Fort Larned and Mucho Macho Man, the top two finishers in last year’s Classic; the veterans Little Mike and Point of Entry, the 1-2 finishers in the 2012 Turf; and the 5-year-old mare Royal Delta, who on Friday will try to win the Distaff for the third straight year.
But Game On Dude and Wise Dan are the principal protagonists in the two days of competition, and once again, the Horse of the Year title is Game On Dude’s to lose. He is a perfect 5 for 5 this season; his speed figures are outstanding; twice he has demolished Grade 1 competition by more than seven lengths. The only reason to doubt him is the fact that it’s relatively easy for horses to look brilliant when they dominate inferior competition as Game On Dude has been doing. This is the first time since his 2012 Classic debacle that he’s faced a field filled with tough rivals.
His toughest competition figures to be Mucho Macho Man. He ran the race of his life to lose the Classic narrowly last year. In late September, he came to Santa Anita for a prep race and won by 4 1/4 lengths in a fast time. Game On Dude is legitimately the one to beat, but in pick sixes, pick fours, etc., I would use both horses and hope for an upset.
Wise Dan will be the heaviest favorite of the day. His reputation is so formidable that he has apparently scared off Europeans from coming to challenge him. Mine is a minority opinion, but I don’t believe he is the same horse that he was last season. In 2012, he looked overpowering; this year, he has been getting soft trips against moderate competition in small fields. He lost his most recent start – ending a nine-race winning streak – when a race at Keeneland was transferred from grass to Polytrack because of rain, but that should not have been an excuse because he excelled on synthetic surfaces in the past. I’ll try to beat Wise Dan with Olympic Glory, the best of the thin group of European invaders, and the swift Silver Max, who won the Polytrack race and is obviously in top form.
There are a couple of interesting wagers elsewhere on the Saturday card.
The card features several races with legitimately strong favorites. Sweet Reason is the most accomplished entrant in the Juvenile Fillies. Dank is best in the Filly and Mare Turf. Havana may be compromised by post 13 in the Juvenile, but he still is the one to beat. However, there are a couple of races with juicier possibilities.
Turf Sprint: Few home-field advantages in racing are quite as strong as the downhill turf course at Santa Anita. The three runnings of the Turf Sprint at Santa Anita have all been won by Californians with prior success over the course. This year’s field includes the 2012 winner, Mizdirection, whose career record on the Santa Anita turf is 6 for 6, and she is 5 for 5 on the downhill course at the Turf Sprint distance.
I’m taking a shot with another of the locals, longshot Caracortado, who had a troubled trip in a prep race and made a strong, wide move on the turn before faltering in the final yards – an excusable defeat because it was his first start in 20 months.
Sprint: Throw out morning-line favorite Private Zone. He got an easy lead on a speed-favoring track at Belmont Park to win the Vosburgh Stakes in his most recent start. In this event, he’ll have to cope with several other habitual front-runners. Two horses who had wide trips in the Vosburgh will be running late in the Sprint and constitute my exacta play: Justin Phillip and Bahamian Squall.