ARCADIA, Calif. — After a year full of disappointments, the 2012 racing season came to a climax in the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita on Saturday, with Game on Dude and Wise Dan trying to prove — in separate races — that they deserved the Eclipse Award as horse of the year.
The day produced an unequivocal championship performance and what ought to be a clear-cut winner of racing’s highest honor. Wise Dan is the champ. He excelled on the day that Game on Dude flopped.
Game on Dude brought formidable credentials and a touch of glamour into the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic, the race that typically determines year-end championships. A member of trainer Bob Baffert’s powerful barn, his raw speed and stamina had given him victories in four major stakes this season.
Wise Dan, by contrast, was the equine equivalent of a blue-collar worker. Modestly bred, trained by low-profile Charlie Lopresti, the 5-year-old gelding had always been versatile and consistent, but this year he revealed his specialty by scoring three straight smashing victories at one mile on the grass.
Turf milers usually don’t win championships in the United States, but by winning the Breeders’ Cup Mile and beating Europeans at their own game, Wise Dan could make a make a case for the Eclipse voters to consider.
Wise Dan was favored by a narrow margin because the British colt Excelebration was considered such a formidable miler, but the America vs. Europe showdown never materialized.
Instead, the California-based speedster Obviously took the lead as John Velasquez positioned Wise Dan on the rail in perfect striking position behind him. On the turn, as the leader began to falter, Velasquez angled outside and powered past the leader.
Fans at Santa Anita were looking for Excelebration or the French filly Moonlight Cloud to make a strong late charge, as the European runners often do, but it was the United States’ Animal Kingdom — the 2011 Kentucky Derby winner — who got up for second place without menacing Wise Dan.
Over the lightning-fast turf course, Wise Dan ran a mile in an eye-popping time of 1 minute 31.78 seconds, the fastest time in the long history of Santa Anita and the Breeders’ Cup as well.
“He just amazes me,” Lopresti said. “I started seeing how fast he was on the turf at Saratoga this summer, and he keeps doing things that you just don’t believe. I knew he was going to run well today, but I never expected anything like this.”
The Breeders’ Cup had scheduled the Mile as the penultimate race of the afternoon, with the Classic as the finale, and Wise Dan had thrown down the gauntlet. Now it was Game on Dude’s turn to respond.
But he never showed his customary spark. When the gate opened, he was sluggish, and jockey Rafael Bejarano had no choice but to let him sit behind the leaders as 9-to-1 shot Fort Larned sped to the lead. The pacesetter is a formidable horse on his good days — he won the Whitney Stakes at Saratoga this summer against an all-star field — and now he was in position to take advantage of the speed-favoring tendency of the Santa Anita track.
Fort Larned had a four-length advantage as he headed into the final turn, when Bejarano started asking Game on Dude hard for a response. But the favorite couldn’t make a serious challenge. Instead it was Mucho Macho Man who surged to challenge the leader, but Fort Larned was resolute and held on to win by a half-length in an exciting stretch drive.
Game on Dude finished seventh — the first time he had ever lost on the Santa Anita track. “It was probably the worst day of his life,” said a dejected Baffert.
There were, of course, other notable performances on the Breeders’ Cup card:
●Shanghai Bobby, an easy winner in his first four career starts, had to show his grit and outduel long shot He’s Had Enough to win the Juvenile. Rosie Napravnik became the first female jockey to win a major Breeders’ Cup event, and Todd Pletcher’s trainee became the early favorite for the 2013 Kentucky Derby.
●Groupie Doll ran a sensational race to win the Filly and Mare Sprint by 4½ lengths, running seven furlongs in 1:20.72. Her performance was at least as impressive as that of the males who contested the Sprint, won in an upset by Trinniberg.
But Wise Dan was the star of the day — and the star of the year. Some voters will cast their votes for I’ll Have Another, who won the first two legs of the Triple Crown before being injured, but two victories over an ordinary 3-year-old crop weren’t enough. Some voters will favor Royal Delta, the impressive winner of the Ladies’ Classic on Friday, but she never beat males. Wise Dan took on all of the challenges he reasonably could. He excelled on dirt and on synthetic surfaces, and at a mile on the grass he was unbeatable.
For previous columns by Andrew Beyer, visit washingtonpost.com/