Arcadia, Calif. -- The $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic promises to be a tremendous race. Horse of the Year leader Game On Dude will square off against a deep field of challengers that includes the first four finishers from last year’s Classic – Fort Larned, Mucho Macho Man, Flat Out and Ron the Greek; top three-year-olds Palace Malice and Will Take Charge; accomplished European invader Declaration of War; and Grade 1 winner Paynter, who made a remarkable comeback this season after falling gravely ill in 2012.
NBC will televise the Classic from 8-9 p.m. (ET) Saturday. Santa Anita hosts a total of nine Breeders’ Cup races on Saturday and NBC Sports Network provides coverage of the earlier races from 3:30-8 p.m.
The Classic storyline centers upon Game On Dude -- he dominated the competition while recording a 5-for-5 mark this year, posting major victories in Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup and Pacific Classic, and the Bob Baffert trainee has been installed as the prohibitive 8-5 favorite on the Classic morning line. But the 1 1/4-mile Classic is the one prize that has eluded the 6-year-old gelding as Game On Dude finished second in the 2011 edition and a disappointing seventh as the 6-5 favorite last year.
Horseplayers must respect the chances of Game On Dude, and I won’t leave him out of the top three. However, Game on Dude’s speed is his major asset and he lost all chance when getting off to a slow beginning in 2012. Jockey Mike Smith will be urging him on from the break, but Game On Dude does not figure to be showing the way early.
Defending Classic champion Fort Larned is the speed of the speed and rates top billing from this handicapper.
Fort Larned earned a 114 BRIS Speed rating when leading wire to wire in last year’s Classic and equaled that figure when thrashing his rivals in the Stephen Foster Handicap this summer, scoring by a 6 ¼-length margin on the front end. That is the best Speed rating earned by a Classic participant this year.
The 5yo horse was overlooked at 9-1 in the 2012 Classic following an up-and-down campaign and brings imperfect form into this year’s race, winning only two of five starts. But Fort Larned is coming off a nice effort in the Sept. 28 Homecoming Classic at Churchill Downs, winning easily despite not being primed for his best by Ian Wilkes. The trainer has tightened the screws in recent weeks with a highly encouraging set of fast workouts in preparation.
Unlike Game On Dude, whose optimal distance is probably 1 1/8 miles, Fort Larned has proven to be a specialist at the Classic distance. He drew perfectly in post position 7 and his affinity for Santa Anita is an advantage. Fort Larned will be the second Classic winner to make a title defense since 2000 – Zenyatta finished a nose second in 2010 and Tiznow went back to back in 2001.
It’s interesting to note that despite his previous Classic success, Tiznow went off at nearly 7-1 in 2001 because many bettors took a negative view of his 2-for-5 campaign that year. Fort Larned compiled the same record in 2013 and is listed at an enticing 6-1 on the Classic morning line.
The opportunity for value only adds to the appeal with Fort Larned, who can prove best in front-running fashion with jockey Brian Hernandez Jr.
The top two finishers last year (Fort Larned and Mucho Macho Man) raced 1-2 the entire way and I am predicting a similar outcome once again. But this time, Game On Dude will be the one chasing in second. The classy veteran has the tools to prove best if Fort Larned falters, but I’ve got Game On Dude coming up a little short for the second time in three years.
Declaration of War is the third selection. A multiple Group 1 winner on turf this year, the 4-year-old possesses a pedigree geared towards dirt (by War Front and out of a Rahy mare) and trainer Aidan O’Brien has done well with horses making a surface switch in the Classic, finishing second with both Giant’s Causeway (2000) and Henrythenavigator (2009). Declaration of War is a confirmed closer who could leave himself with too much to do on a Santa Anita track that typically favors speed, but I expect him to finish up stoutly for a minor award.
The Jockey Club Gold Cup has produced the last three Classic winners (Fort Larned, Blame and Drosselmeyer), but that streak has probably run its course. I will include this year’s top three finishers – Ron the Greek, Palace Malice and Flat Out – underneath Fort Larned in some exotic wagers (exactas, trifectas & superfectas).
Will Take Charge and Paynter both merit respect, but I will have to leave them out of the equation against this competition.
With such a deep and talented field, this year’s Classic could turn out to be one for the ages.