ARCADIA, Calif.—When Mucho Macho Man held on desperately to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic by a nose, the outcome was simultaneously electrifying and anticlimactic.
Gary Stevens, the 50-year-old jockey, sent his mount to the lead as he turned into the Santa Anita stretch, and looked momentarily as if he had the $5 million race locked up. But Will Take Charge, the Wayne Lukas trainee, and Declaration of War, the European invader, both came flying at the leader in the final yards. As they hit the wire, racing fans across the country watched the slow-motion replay to discern whether Mucho Macho Man or Will Take Charge had won it. The finish was one of the most exciting in the history of America’s richest race.
But the Classic often brings the whole racing season to a perfect conclusion by deciding the horse of the year. Not this time. The leading contender for that title, Game on Dude, gave a dismal showing in this event for the second straight year, finishing ninth, and probably blew his chances again. Mucho Macho Man was scoring only his second victory of the year, so he hasn’t done enough. By default, the sport’s top honor may fall to Wise Dan, the 2012 horse of the year, who won the Mile for the second straight year but had to work hard to defeat an ordinary field.
Mucho Macho Man had finished a close second in the Classic last year, and trainer Kathy Ritvo set her sights on this race months ago. She ran her horse in a prep race here in late September, and his runaway victory suggested that he was coming into the race in peak condition. But so, too, was Game on Dude.
Game on Dude broke to the lead, then stalked two of the other speed horses in the field; he appeared to be in perfect striking position on the backstretch. When Mucho Macho Man loomed outside him, a head-and-head battle between the two top contenders seemed imminent. But Game on Dude started to fade immediately, confirming his reputation as a talented animal who can’t win the big one. “I don’t know what else I could have done,” jockey Mike Smith said.
Mucho Macho Man’s battle would be with the two stretch-runners. As they hit the wire, Stevens raised his whip in triumph, celebrating his greatest win since coming out of retirement a year ago. “This is a dream come true,” he said. “This is the one race missing from my résumé.”
Wise Dan came into the Mile with a résumé that included the 2012 horse of the year title and nine straight victories on the grass. He was favored at 4 to 5 against a subpar field for the $2 million event.
The presence of two fast front-runners, Obviously and Silver Max, figured to create a fast pace that would help Wise Dan’s late kick. That’s what happened: Obviously rocketed the first half mile in 44.47 seconds. As the leader started to weaken, however, it wasn’t Wise Dan poised to take the lead. Jockey Jose Lezcano — substituting for John Velazquez, who was seriously injured earlier in the day — still had Wise Dan sitting in the middle of the pack. It was long shot Za Approval who blew past the leaders. When Wise Dan started to accelerate on the turn, it was clear that the champion had a fight on his hands. But he finally wore the leader down, as track announcer Trevor Denman called, “Wise Dan won on all his class!”
After the victory, a TV interviewer asked owner Morton Fink if he thought his horse could be horse of the year again. Fink replied: “If Game on Dude takes a dive, maybe.”
Game on Dude took his dive, but some observers will question whether Wise Dan deserves the title. Although trainer Charles LoPresti said, “He proved he hasn’t lost a step,” but the Wise Dan of 2012 wouldn’t have labored to beat a Grade III racehorse like Za Approval. Some interesting debates about the Eclipse Awards are on the horizon.
The Breeders’ Cup provided plenty of other story lines besides the two climactic races.
●European invaders had an exceptionally successful Breeders’ Cup. After capturing three of five Cup races on Friday’s card, they dominated the $3 million Turf and the $2 million Filly and Mare Turf.
The Irish 3-year-old Magician wasn’t considered a star overseas, but he rallied to catch the highly regarded European filly The Fugue. They both dominated America’s best older males. Irish-bred Dank, who came to the United States in August to win a major stakes at Arlington Park, returned after an 11-week absence from competition to beat France’s Romantica in the Filly and Mare Turf. Running long distances on grass is clearly the Euros’ game.
●The Juvenile usually points out the early favorite for the next year’s Kentucky Derby, and Saturday’s race was dominated by trainers who are always formidable presences in the Derby. But Bob Baffert’s victorious New Year’s Day and Todd Pletcher’s runner-up Havana didn’t look like superstars in the making.
Havana, the favorite, surged to the lead on the turn and looked as if he had the race wrapped up, but faltered badly in the final furlong, as New Year’s Day rallied along the rail to pass him. But the time of the Juvenile was a half second slower than that of an undistinguished field in the Juvenile Fillies.
●When Secret Compass suffered a fatal injury during the running of the Juvenile Fillies, she threw jockey John Velazquez heavily to the track. What could have been a banner day for the Hall of Fame rider turned into a disaster. He was taken to a nearby hospital, found to be suffering from internal bleeding and underwent surgery to have his spleen removed. He was replaced on a stellar list of mounts including Wise Dan and Havana.