ARCADIA, Calif. — The richest race on the thoroughbred racing calendar has more than purse money at stake for Game On Dude.
A win in the $5 million Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita Park will likely provide the Bob Baffert-trained gelding with his first Horse of the Year title. After a disappointing loss in the 2011 Classic at Churchill Downs to the late-running Drosselmeyer, a bad start doomed him in last year’s race as the odds-on favorite. The race will be televised live in prime time this evening on NBC (8 p.m., Ch. 2).
Game On Dude (8-5) will once again have the role and pressure of the morning line favorite in the 30th anniversary of the race. In the previous 29 editions of the Classic, the favorite has won eight times. The field was reduced to 11 on Thursday when Ron the Greek scratched from the race with a quarter crack. The Classic returns four horses from last year’s edition, including the top three finishers. Baffert will also saddle Paynter (12-1), who finished second to Mucho Macho Man in the Grade 1 race named after his sire Awesome Again last month at Santa Anita.
Baffert is expecting big things from Game On Dude, another son of Awesome Again, the 1998 Classic winner.
“He needs to do something big,” Baffert said. “Here he’s won more than $5 million, but he’s never won an Eclipse championship, even though he’s that kind of horse. He needs to win this Classic to make that special statement. And I think he can do it.”
One of Game On Dude’s owners has seen his share of prime time. Baffert explained how Joe Torre, Major League Baseball’s executive vice president of baseball operations, is really excited about his potential Horse of the Year.
“I called Joe Torre the other day after ‘Dude’ worked so well,” Baffert said. “He was in a meeting about umpires and he had to call me back. But when he did, he was really fired up. He’s into this horse. If Game On Dude was a human, he’d be just like Joe – kind and classy.”
One of his challengers will come from another son of a Classic winner, Palace Malice. The Belmont Stakes winner, sired by 2007 Classic winner Curlin, will run against older horses for the second time this evening. Trainer Todd Pletcher is confident he’s up to the challenge.
“He ran really well in the Jockey Club Gold Cup,” Pletcher said. “Ron the Greek ran a huge race that day and Palace Malice showed he fits with the older horses in that race.”
Pletcher isn’t concerned that the “Dude” will run away from his 3-year-old colt with the race based on his front-running style. “From a tactical standpoint, he has the ability to stalk a fast pace and still deliver a strong finish,” Pletcher said. “You know the mile and a quarter isn’t going to be a problem. You just hope for the right set-up and he likes the track and runs a big race.”
Palace Malice has run big in each of his races since the Belmont. He should have no trouble with the distance and continues to train lights out for Pletcher. He loses jockey Mike Smith to Game On Dude, but hardly misses a beat with Hall of Famer John Velazquez, who will ride him for the first time. Pletcher reflected on the switch on Thursday morning.
“I’m not disappointed at all,” he said. “I might have been disappointed if we didn’t have our go-to rider to ride him. We’re very pleased to have Johnny aboard.”
A horse that has relished the Santa Anita surface is the second choice on the morning line, Mucho Macho Man (5-1). Trained by Kathy Ritvo, the son of Macho Uno will try to deliver her the first win in the Classic by a female trainer. The “Macho Man” won his first Grade 1 in the Awesome Again by 4¼ lengths over Paynter in his prep for the Classic. Mucho Macho Man and jockey Gary Stevens will attempt to put together back-to-back Grade 1’s by winning the Classic, a race the 5-year-old lost by a half-length to Fort Larned (6-1) in last year’s Classic at the Great Race Place.
“We were somewhat relieved that you can check that box and he gets up there where people see can say he’s a Grade 1 winner,” owner Dean Reeves said. “You can’t take that away from him. I was so happy for Mucho Macho Man and Kathy, because they are so deserving. Everybody had worked so hard and been so dedicated that it was really nice to notch the Grade 1, because he’s a champion.”
Ritvo has overcome bigger odds in the past, having a heart transplant nearly five years ago, with no signs of rejection since then. She takes 31 pills daily as a hedge against infection. A win in the Classic would be a career-topper where she has served as a hotwalker, groom and exercise rider before taking out her training license as a teenager.
Palace Malice isn’t the only 3-year-old in the race as Travers winner Will Take Charge will take aim at the big purse and divisional honors. Trainer D. Wayne Lukas, winner of a record 19 Breeders’ Cup races over an illustrious career, isn’t scared of facing elder horses.
“Historically, 3-year-olds have done well in the Classic,” Lukas said. “I won with Cat Thief, so I don’t worry about the age thing.”
The last 3-year-old to win the Classic was the powerful Curlin; I’m looking for a repeat by his son, Palace Malice, at a decent price to dash Game On Dude’s Horse of the Year chances.
Post Time Outlook: 1 - Palace Malice 2 - Game On Dude 3 - Mucho Macho Man 4 - Will Take Charge
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.