When Game on Dude runs in the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Saturday, he can probably lock up the horse-of-the-year title with a victory. Yet the nation’s richest and most significant race won’t necessarily be the dramatic high point in two days of racing at Santa Anita.
An exceptional field of females, including two undefeated stars plus last year’s filly champion, will contest in the Ladies’ Classic on Friday. And then on Saturday the remarkable 5-year-old Wise Dan will face a formidable European challenge in the Mile on the grass. The results could present Eclipse Award voters with difficult choices as they try to determine the top racehorse of 2012 — particularly if Game on Dude loses.
Trainer Bob Baffert’s gelding possesses legitimate championship credentials, with four wins in high-level competition this season, most recently a romp in a Grade I stakes at Santa Anita. Game on Dude accomplished that victory with the aid of an easy trip; most of his other top efforts have come over synthetic tracks, not dirt. Moreover, the 11 / 4-mile distance of the Classic has sometimes proved too far for him; he tired to finish second in last year’s event against a relatively weak field.
There is a bona fide 11 / 4-mile specialist in the $5 million Classic, the veteran Flat Out, who earlier this year moved into the barn of Bill Mott, one of America’s greatest horsemen. In typical Mott fashion, Flat Out has run three steadily improving races, winning the 11 / 4-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont in his last start. I’ll bet that he runs down the favorite in the stretch on Saturday.
If he does, he could open the door for the extraordinarily versatile Wise Dan to become horse of the year. The gelding has won stakes from six furlongs to 11 / 8 miles. He has won in Grade I company on dirt, turf and synthetic surfaces. Lately he demonstrated his true forte by winning three straight one-mile turf stakes with overpowering efforts.
In the Mile, he will face two outstanding Europeans, Moonlight Cloud and Excelebration, as well as the 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom. The latter will be the most overbet horse in the Breeders’ Cup; he’s never displayed the talent or turf ability to win at this level.
But running a mile on grass is typically a European specialty, and European oddsmakers make Excelebration a solid favorite Saturday. I question whether he is necessarily better than either Wise Dan or the filly Moonlight Cloud. In his most recent start, Excelebration scored a three-length victory over Cityscape, whom Wise Dan whipped by a greater margin in Canada. When Excelebration beat Moonlight Cloud in France, the filly was compromised by bad racing luck. I will be cheering for Wise Dan and betting an exacta box of Wise Dan and Moonlight Cloud.
As competitive as the Mile is, the depth of competition doesn’t match the field for the Ladies’ Classic on Friday. Awesome Feather comes into the race with a perfect 10-for-10 record. My Miss Aurelia is 6-for-6. Questing delivered a stunning performance — maybe the best by any U.S. thoroughbred this year — when she led all the way to win Saratoga’s Alabama Stakes by nine lengths. Yet all of these filly stars may be vulnerable. Awesome Feather and My Miss Aurelia had their 2012 campaigns truncated by injuries, and they may not have enough seasoning. Questing is at her best when she comes out of the gate at high speed and tries to outrun everybody, but executing this strategy will be difficult with the fast Love and Pride in the field. The pace should help set up the race for Royal Delta, winner of last year’s Ladies’ Classic, whom Mott is bringing into the race in peak form after a 91 / 2-length runaway at Belmont Park.
The main attractions on the two-day, 15-race Breeders’ Cup aren’t necessarily the ones with the most betting interest. There won’t be much value betting Wise Dan or Royal Delta, both of whom are listed at 9 to 5 in the morning line. But there are other races that may offer good wagering value.
On Friday’s card I will bet the Canadian 2-year-old Spring Venture in the Juvenile Fillies Turf, an event in which European invaders have flopped every year. In the Juvenile Fillies, Beholder stands out on speed figures over some overrated rivals.
On Saturday, the Filly and Mare Sprint looks like a cold exacta of Groupie Doll and Dust and Diamonds. The Lumber Guy can win the Sprint at a good price. My key play of the day is in the Turf, where I expect Trailblazer to become the first Japanese winner of a Breeders’ Cup event.
Japanese horses have proved in recent years that they can compete with the world’s best, and Trailblazer showed his quality last fall in his country’s big international race, the $6.1 million Japan Cup. He finished fourth, with a world-class group of horses (including the winner of the prestigious Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe) behind him. His trainer set his sights on the Breeders’ Cup by bringing Trailblazer to Santa Anita for a prep race in early October. The favorite, Obviously, controlled the pace and led all the way, but Trailblazer delivered an eye-catching rally to finish second, accelerating the final quarter mile in a phenomenal 22.74 seconds. And that effort was at one mile — much shorter than Trailblazer’s optimal distance.
In the 11 / 2-mile Turf, the top U.S. contender Point of Entry has an inflated reputation after winning five races in a row over unexceptional competition. St Nicholas Abbey, last year’s winner, and Shareta are dangerous European invaders, but nobody is coming into the Breeders’ Cup in sharper form than Trailblazer.
For previous Andrew Beyer columns, visit washingtonpost.com/beyer.