The Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI) has provided us with some of the greatest moments in horse racing. With twenty-eight grand renewals of this race behind us, each with its own story, it may be difficult to choose the greatest Classic ever run. This only endorses the greatness of this race, which is one of my favorite races in the sport. This year’s edition is sure to be compelling, assembling some of the best Thoroughbred athletes in the world.
Game On Dude
|Game On Dude|
Photo by Mary Cage
A horse that came within 1 ½ lengths of winning last year’s Classic, Game On Dude began 2012 with a 5 ¼-length victory in the San Antonio Stakes (GII) prior to shipping to Dubai for the richest race in the world, the Dubai World Cup (GI). However, the race – in which Game On Dude finished twelfth – can be thrown out, as the campaign Game On Dude has formed since then has been arguably the best of any main track-based older male in the nation.
His return to American racing came in the Californian Stakes (GII) at Hollywood Park, in which Game On Dude annihilated a small field by 7 ¼ lengths in a good final time of 1:48.01 for nine furlongs over the cushion track, which – though a synthetic surface – is quite similar to dirt. This served as the perfect set-up for the Hollywood Gold Cup (GI), a race in which Game On Dude had been defeated by a scant margin by stablemate First Dude the previous year. But it was clear that 2012 was his year to shine.
Rating just off the pace set by Spud Spivens, Game On Dude took the lead as the five-eighths pole neared, drawing away and continuing to lead until the end of the ten-furlong race, capturing the race by 1 ½ lengths. Game On Dude looked to continue his winning streak next out in California’s richest race, the Pacific Classic Stakes (GI) at Del Mar. It is no secret that Game On Dude does not have an affinity for Del Mar’s synthetic surface, as in this very race in 2011, Game On Dude ran a distant fourth. He experienced a more successful outing in the Pacific Classic this time around, though his series of consecutive victories culminated. After somewhat of a poor start, Game On Dude settled just off the pace prior to taking the lead as the half-mile marker approached. He appeared to be home-free around the far turn and even at the top of the stretch, but the dual grade one-winning Dullahan – whose only wins have come on the synthetic – closed on his outside, catching him in the final strides as Game On Dude’s rider – Chantal Sutherland – lost a rein. Dullahan surpassed Game On Dude by a half-length, setting a new track record. Chantal Sutherland would never ride Game On Dude again.
“The Dude” made his final start before the Breeders’ Cup in the Awesome Again Stakes (GI) at Santa Anita – a stakes that had been renamed after his sire, but had been labeled as the Goodwood a year prior when Game On Dude captured the race over Awesome Gem. Yet again, Game On Dude came away with a win, being ridden by Rafael Bejarano on race day for just the second time. With ease, Game On Dude coasted to a 3 ¼-length win.
As his name suggests, Game On Dude is as game as they come and has put together a spectacular campaign this year. It is obvious that this gelding loves the Santa Anita surface, as he has never lost in five starts over the Arcadia, California track. Furthermore, Game On Dude has been training in tremendous style for the Breeders’ Cup, of course preparing over the Santa Anita oval. He seems to be in great condition and with his clear love for the surface, his evident talent, and his undeniable consistency, Game On Dude will be incredibly difficult to defeat.
Mucho Macho Man
One of just three horses that contested in all three races of the 2011 Triple Crown, Mucho Macho Man was sidelined following the prestigious series, returning in November to easily capture on allowance optional claiming event at Aqueduct. He made his return to stakes company in January in the Florida Sunshine Millions Classic Stakes at Gulfstream Park, in which the son of Macho Uno settled off the leader prior to coasting to a 1 ½-length triumph.
Mucho Macho Man’s first try against graded company since the Belmont Stakes (GI) came in the Gulfstream Park Handicap (GII), in which the tall, lanky individual stalked the pace in the early stages before pouncing to a narrow lead near the quarter pole, never looking back from that point forward as he edged clear to an effortless 2-length victory.
Mucho Macho Man suffered his first defeat of the season in the Alysheba Stakes (GII) at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Oaks day. Rating off the pace as he raced three paths off the rail, Mucho Macho Man appeared to be a strong threat for the win as the horses rounded the far turn. However, he lacked the needed kick and finished third behind Wise Dan’s half-brother Successful Dan, and Fort Larned.
A return to New York resulted in a return to the winner’s circle for Mucho Macho Man. With Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith aboard for the first time, the long-limbed bay went to post in the Suburban Handicap (GII) at Belmont Park. After breaking on top, Mucho Macho Man settled just off the brisk pace set by Trickmeister, appearing very comfortable beneath Smith. Around the far turn, Mucho Macho Man loomed on Trickmeister’s outside, striking to the lead as the field turned for home. Mucho Macho Man then kicked clear, easily drawing off to an easy 2 ½-length with a final time just over one second off Secretariat’s nine-furlong track record.
Mucho Macho Man appeared set for his first grade one victory as his initial opportunity for such a triumph neared in the Woodward Stakes (GI) at Saratoga on the first day of September. Following a bump at the start, Mucho Macho Man was left slightly behind in the early stages of the race, but began to inch closer to the lead around the far turn. Smith maneuvered the horse to the inside to allow less ground to be covered, but guided Mucho Macho Man to the outside near the three-sixteenths marker. Mucho Macho Man accelerated, becoming even with To Honor and Serve in late stretch and seemed as if he would surge to victory, but with smart race-riding, To Honor and Serve’s jockey, John Velazquez, permitted his mount to drift out, thus forcing Mucho Macho Man to go wide and cover more ground. As a result, Mucho Macho Man ran out of real estate, falling a neck short.
Mucho Macho Man should not be knocked for losing his final prep race for the Classic. After all, the past two Classic victors did not achieve a win in the race that served as their last rep race for the Breeders’ Cup. Moreover, Mucho Macho Man further proved the heart he possesses when he strove to conquer To Honor and Serve. He has been incredibly consistent this year, never finishing out of the money despite the fact that he has performed at four different tracks in 2012. This also insinuates that, though Mucho Macho Man has never contested over Santa Anita’s surface, he will take to the track, as he has performed well over each track he has competed at this year. It will be no easy undertaking to face the Santa Anita monster, Game On Dude, but Mucho Macho Man has the power, the talent, and the heart to do so and should be viewed as one of the very top competitors in the Classic, especially considered the series of bullet works he has fired.
Following a win in last year’s Jockey Club Gold Cup Stakes (GI), Flat Out went off as the favorite in the 2011 rendition of the Classic, in which he finished fifth. Then trained by Charles “Scooter” Dickey, Flat Out was transferred to Bill Mott – who won last year’s Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic (GI) and Classic – following a string of three more losses. His first start for Mott resulted in a runner-up finish in the Monmouth Cup Stakes (GII), which preceded a third-place outcome in the Whitney Handicap (GI) at Saratoga.
In the Whitney, Flat Out raced wide throughout, going widest as he entered the stretch. The son of Flatter turned for home six-wide, attempting to chase Fort Larned alongside Ron the Greek as the horses raced towards the wire. But time ran out and Flat Out was left in a photo finish with Ron the Greek, finishing third.
Photo by Mary Cage
Flat Out revisited the stage on which his greatest victory had occurred, the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont, to attempt to become the first horse since Curlin to win back-to-back runnings of the prestigious race. He did just that. Settling off the front-running contingent, Flat Out sat in a comfortable position mid-pack, rating several lengths off the lead. He began to inch closer to the leaders around the far turn, making an imposing rally on the outside as the field turned for home. As Stay Thirsty fought to maintain the lead, Flat Out loomed on the outside at the top of the stretch as Fort Larned struggled to keep up. Flat Out grinded out the victory, passing Stay Thirsty in the final strides in a good final time of 2:01.44 for ten furlongs.
It cannot be denied that Flat Out is a Belmont specialist, but he is capable of performing well at other tracks, having won at two others and finished in the money at seven tracks altogether. Having seen him finish a very fast-closing second in the 2011 Lone Star Park Handicap (GIII) despite going a distance shorter than what he typically prefers, I can attest to the fact that Flat Out is able to take to tracks other than Belmont. Moreover, if anyone knows how to prepare a horse for a Breeders’ Cup Classic victory, it’s Bill Mott.
In 2009 and 2010, Richard’s Kid was among the best handicap horses in California. However, he traveled to Dubai after his 2010 campaign and did not return until this year. He was never successful in Dubai, never finishing better than fourth in his five outings there.
Richard’s Kid’s return to American racing was a very successful one; he romped in the Prove It Stakes at Hollywood Park, setting a new track record for eleven furlongs. A month later, he revisited grade one company, taking on Game On Dude – who was his stablemate at the time – in the Hollywood Gold Cup. Richard’s Kid settled at the back of the pack as the field raced past the stands for the first time prior to finding a place in the penultimate position of the field around the initial turn. Gradually, Richard’s Kid inched closer to the front as the race proceeded, rallying impressively but being unable to catch Game On Dude, who won by 1 ½ lengths.
Richard’s Kid found his way back to the winner’s circle in the Cougar II Handicap (GIII) at Del Mar, in which Richard’s Kid yet again set a new track record – this time for twelve furlongs. His next start was his first for Leandro Mora, who took over Doug O’Neill’s training duties during the Derby-winning trainer’s suspension. This start came in the Pacific Classic, in which the seven-year-old horse yet again faced Game On Dude. Though Dullahan captured the victory, Richard’s Kid again finished behind Game On Dude, closing willingly along the inside but failing to catch the leaders.
Going to post in the Awesome Again Stakes next out for his final prep race for the Classic, Richard’s Kid again moved from the back of the pack, closing remarkably around the far turn. However, he had too much ground to make up and had to settle for third, but the rally he made was rather stunning.
Richard’s Kid may very well be underestimated going into the Classic. He is a Southern California pro and therefore should not have a problem with the surface come race day. Nonetheless, he has failed to keep up with Game On Dude and will have to run the best race of his life in order to win, though I do expect for him to run well.
Ron the Greek
After Ron the Greek’s triumph in the LeComte Stakes (GIII) in January 2010, the son of Full Mandate did not enter the winner’s enclosure until November 2011 when he won the Sunny and Mild Stakes at Aqueduct by 5 lengths in his second start for Bill Mott. Following another ungraded stakes win at Aqueduct, Ron the Greek commenced 2012 with a runner-up finish behind Mucho Macho Man in the Sunshine Millions Classic.
Ron the Greek then shipped west for the Santa Anita Handicap (GI), a race over the same track and distance over which the Classic will be run. After a slightly sluggish break, Ron the Greek settled among the closers in the strung out thirteen-horse field, progressively making up ground as the Thoroughbreds traveled down the backstretch. Rallying around the final turn, Ron the Greek made up much ground to loom on the outside of the leaders as the horses rounded the curve and galloped into the stretch. Ron the Greek then kicked clear, loping to an easy 3 ½-length victory.
After a game runner-up finish in the Oaklawn Handicap (GII), Ron the Greek prevailed by a head over the brilliant Wise Dan in the Stephen Foster Handicap (GI) at Churchill Downs. He then crossed the wire in second again, chasing Fort Larned in the stretch of the Whitney after experiencing a horribly wide journey.
Ron the Greek looked to return to the winner’s circle in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, but he was rather flat throughout the ten-furlong race, finishing sixth. But it must be taken into consideration that this was just his second start at Belmont and in his only previous performance over Big Sandy, he had been beaten by 3 lengths. Perhaps Belmont is simply a track Ron the Greek does not have much of an affinity for, but it's clear that the Bill Mott trainee relishes the surface at Santa Anita and therefore has an edge over several of his rivals in the Classic. In addition, Ron the Greek has been among the best older horses in the nation this year and should not be ostracized when considering top competitors in the Classic.
“The horse that finished fourth in a handicap with a purse of $30,000 at Tampa Bay Downs on February 4 will be one of the top contenders in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.”
Who would believe that statement? Most people wouldn’t. But then that horse – Fort Larned – transformed. A month later, the colt won the Challenger Stakes – a race in which 2011 Classic winner Drosselmeyer had commenced his Classic-winning campaign with a fourth-place finish. Fort Larned then shipped to Gulfstream Park, where he coasted to a 2 ½-length track record-breaking victory in the mile and three-sixteenth Skip Away Stakes (GIII).
On Oaks Day at Churchill Downs, Fort Larned went to post in the Alysheba Stakes, in which he participated in the front-running group prior to striking to the lead around the far turn. He appeared home-free for the first half of the stretch, leaving Mucho Macho Man behind, but was overtaken by Successful Dan in the late stages of the race.
Following a poor trip, Fort Larned faded to finish last in the Foster, but rebounded with an easy win in the Prairie Meadows Cornhusker Handicap (GIII), in which he attained an uncontested lead. He formed a winning streak by taking the Whitney at Saratoga, traveling rather wide while settling just off the leaders. Fort Larned struck to the lead around the far turn, kicking clear at the top of the stretch and drawing away. However, the closers – Ron the Greek and Flat Out in particular – chased after him, cutting into his lead, though Fort Larned managed to capture the race by 1 ¼ lengths.
In his first ten-furlong try, Fort Larned was sent off as the third choice in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and rather than setting or disputing the pace, the son of E Dubai settled just behind the front-running cluster. Rallying around the far turn, Fort Larned drew even with Stay Thirsty, but began to flatten out at the top of the stretch. As Flat Out loomed on his outside in mid-stretch, Fort Larned began to visibly weaken and, in the end, was left 5 ½ lengths behind Flat Out and Stay Thirsty.
Fort Larned, though he won at a mile and three-sixteenths, appears to have distance limitations. He is certainly a talented, gutsy horse, but how he will fare against an assembly of the best handicap horses in the nation going ten furlongs is questionable. He has proven to be a classy horse and should not be ignored, but I do not envision Fort Larned garnering a victory in the Classic.
This is Game On Dude’s race to lose, but the spectacular gelding will have to be at his best in order to defeat the likes of Mucho Macho Man and the other horses featured in this post. The Mile and the Ladies’ Classic have been heralded as the most exciting races of this year’s Breeders’ Cup, but the Classic should not be excluded from the discussion of 2012’s greatest Breeders’ Cup contests. As always, the ten-furlong challenge will feature a clash of Thoroughbred titans as these remarkable horses battle it out for an exciting end to the 2012 Breeders’ Cup.