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 again 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 so many star thoroughbreds are prematurely retired to stud. 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, 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 I 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.
The toughest figures to be Mucho Macho Man, who 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 four lengths in 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 apparently has scared Europeans from coming to challenge him. Mine is a minority opinion, but I don’t believe Wise Dan 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 last start — ending a nine-race win 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.
The Breeders’ Cup begins Friday with five stakes, highlighted by the Distaff, which pits Royal Delta against the 3-year-olds, Princess of Sylmar and Beholder. Princess of Sylmar beat Royal Delta in a prep race at Belmont Park and she may have a tactical advantage at Santa Anita if Royal Delta and Beholder go head-and-head early. The six-horse field is not a great betting event but it is a compelling showdown.
There are a couple of interesting wagers elsewhere on the Friday card.
Juvenile Turf (seventh race Friday): The winning Beyer Speed Figure in the last four runnings of this event have been 87, 86, 86 and 85. So when the 2-year-old Bobby’s Kitten scored a six-length victory in a stakes race at Belmont, earning a figure of 91, he indicated that is an outstanding talent who can handle the challenge from stakes-winning Europeans. I’ll play him in exactas on top of Wilshire Boulevard and Outstrip, the two most accomplished Euros.
Dirt Mile (eighth race Friday): The post position draw changed the complexion of this race, which starts close to the first turn and puts horses in outside gates at a disadvantage. My intended selection, Goldencents, drew the disastrous post 12, and two other top contenders, Verrazano and Pants on Fire, got 10 and 11. The best strategy for the Dirt Mile is to favor horses who can secure good trips from inside posts. Brujo de Olleros ran well to finish second at Belmont in his last start despite racing wide on a rail-favoring track. He’ll break from post 4, and I’ll use him with Golden Ticket (2) and Hymn Book (3).
The Saturday card features several races with legitimately strong favorites. Sweet Reason is the most accomplished entrant in the Juvenile Fillies (fourth race.) Dank is best in the Filly and Mare Turf (fifth race.) Havana may be compromised by post 13 in the Juvenile (eighth race), but he is still the one to beat. However, these two races may offer juicier payoffs:
Turf Sprint (seventh race Saturday): 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 here have all been won by Californians with prior success over the course. This year’s field includes the 2012 winner, Mizdirection, whose career record here is 6 for 6. I’m taking a shot with another of the locals, long shot Caracortado, who had a troubled trip in a prep race, 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 (10th race Saturday): Throw out the 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 last start; in this event he’ll have to cope with several other habitual speedsters. Two horses who had wide trips in the Vosburgh will be running late in the Sprint, and they constitute my exacta play: Justin Phillip and Bahamian Squall.