ARCADIA, Calif. — Gary Stevens stamped an exclamation point on his comeback year on Saturday afternoon before 58,759 at Santa Anita Park, winning a thrilling finish to the $5 million Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Classic on Mucho Macho Man.
Stevens completed a tremendous weekend by winning both of the signature races, winning the Breeders’ Cup Distaff on Friday afternoon aboard Beholder before following up with a win in the richest race in North America. He made his move at the top of the stretch to overtake Game On Dude, who finished a disappointing ninth.
Stevens, 50, capped off a miraculous comeback year, returning from retirement in January after last racing in 2005. He won the Preakness on Oxbow in May and had a big Breeders’ Cup weekend by winning two races on Friday.
Stevens also lost a disqualification aboard She’s A Tiger earlier in the day in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies. That race was marred by the breakdown of Secret Compass that sent jockey John Velazquez to the hospital to undergo surgery on his spleen, according to the Daily Racing Form. The horse placed as the winner of the Juvenile Fillies race was Ria Antonia ($66.60), trained by Finger Lakes conditioner Jeremiah Englehardt, the first Finger Lakes trainer to win a Breeders’ Cup race.
The son of Macho Uno won a very close photo, just getting his head down in time to defeat the very game 3-year-old Will Take Charge in the Classic. Mucho Macho Man paid $10 to win, $4.60 to place and $3.60 to show. He completed the 1œ-mile distance in a respectable 2:00.72. Travers winner Will Take Charge paid $7.20 for the second-place finish and $4.80 to show. European invader Declaration of War, in his first effort on dirt, ran a huge race to finish third, paying $4.80.
Just last month Mucho Macho Man won his first ever Grade 1 race in the Awesome Again Stakes at Santa Anita with Stevens aboard for the first time. The combination proved fruitful again before a national televised audience as the sun was starting to set on the beautiful California landscape.
For Kathy Ritvo it was the first ever win for a female trainer in the Classic. Ritvo, a heart transplant recipient, knew her 5-year-old horse had the heart to win the Classic after a disappointing second in a very close race in last year’s edition.
“Kathy’s done a great job. She’s a very, very good horsewoman. She pays attention to detail,” said stable manager Finn Green earlier in the week. “I think she’s one of the most underrated trainers around.” The win was the first for owners Dean and Patti Reeves of Reeves Thoroughbred Racing..
The Florida-bred Mucho Macho Man has savored the Santa Anita dirt surface and proved that he belongs with the top handicap horses with the victory. It was redemption for a horse that just couldn’t seem to win the big one. Two years ago in 2011 he finished third in the Kentucky Derby behind Animal Kingdom.
One horse that hasn’t won the big one is Game On Dude. the 6-year-old gelding could have sewed up year-end Horse of the Year honors with a victory in the Classic. He has disappointed a few times on racing’s biggest stage and that has frustrated trainer Bob Baffert.
The day had its ups and downs for Baffert, whose filly Secret Compass broke down in the Juvenile Fillies race and followed it up with wins with New Year’s Day (Juvenile) and Secret Circle (Sprint) to cap a bittersweet day.
Second-place finisher Will Take Charge made a statement for 3-year-old divisional honors with his effort. He made a late charge in the middle of the Santa Anita strip and just missed nipping the Macho Man at the wire. He followed up his wins in the Travers and Pennsylvania Derby with a solid effort, taking home the $900,000 purse money for the runner-up finish.
As for Horse of the Year, another win by Wise Dan in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup mile brings him back in the discussion for Eclipse voters. It’s been a tremendous year of high class thoroughbred racing culminating in a scintillating finish at the Great Race Place.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.