A star-studded 77th edition of the Grade 1, $750,000 Santa Anita Handicap will take place on Saturday, and the 1 1/4-mile contest has turned into a rematch of last year's Breeders' Cup Classic.
Mucho Macho Man just nosed out eventual champion three-year-old Will Take Charge in the Classic, while two-time Big 'Cap hero Game on Dude ran a subpar ninth as the 8-5 favorite in the 10-furlong contest. All three will line back up over the same track and distance as that Breeders' Cup race in what could end up being a preview of the 2014 Classic this fall.
Mucho Macho Man has been made the 9-5 favorite in the Big 'Cap off his dominating 14-length victory in the January 18 Florida Sunshine Millions Classic. While his connections toyed with the idea of sending the bay six-year-old across the pond to Meydan for the Group 1 Dubai World Cup on March 29, the final decision was made to have him go for Big 'Cap glory on the West Coast instead.
The son of Macho Uno currently sports a 3-1-0 mark from three starts at Santa Anita. He made his debut at the Arcadia, California, venue in the 2012 Breeders' Cup Classic, where he just missed by a half-length to be second behind Fort Larned. Mucho Macho Man was pulled up in his 2013 debut, the Florida Sunshine Millions Classic, then ran third in the June 14 Criminal Type and August 3 Whitney Invitational Handicap in New York before shipping west once again.
The massive bay, who has posted nothing but triple-digit BRIS Speed ratings since November 2011, earned a 113 Speed figure when romping by 4 1/4 lengths in the Awesome Again before his Breeders' Cup run. That battle royale garnered Mucho Macho Man a 108, and he still managed to rack up a 102 when turning the Sunshine Millions Classic into a paid workout.
Gary Stevens took over piloting duties aboard Mucho Macho Man for trainer Kathy Ritvo in the Awesome Again, and has been aboard ever since. The duo will break from the 2 post on Saturday, just inside of Will Take Charge's rail slot.
Will Take Charge didn't get much of a rest after his Classic duel. Instead, trainer D. Wayne Lukas shipped his Unbridled's Song colt to Churchill Downs for the Grade 1 Clark Handicap, and the chestnut found a familiar rival tagging along for the ride when Game on Dude's connections also sent their star runner to Louisville, Kentucky. Will Take Charge found himself engaged in yet another stretch battle, but this time managed to come out on top as he headed Game on Dude on the Clark wire.
Given a brief freshening following a sophomore campaign that saw him rack up an 11-5-2-0 mark, including a nose triumph in the Grade 1 Travers at Saratoga and eventual Eclipse Award honors as champion three-year-old male, the Kentucky-bred made his four-year-old bow in Gulfstream Park's Grade 1 Donn Handicap on February 9 and rallied from midpack to be second. Will Take Charge shipped into Gulfstream from Oaklawn Park and then back to that Hot Springs, Arkansas, track to prepare for the Big 'Cap. He's posted three works since then, including a pair of half-mile bullet moves in :48 2/5 on February 18 and :47 4/5 last Sunday.
Jockey Luis Saez has been aboard Will Take Charge since the Travers, going 3-2-0 from five starts thus far, and the pair will try to continue their stellar run on Saturday as the 2-1 second pick on the morning-line.
Game on Dude, the 5-2 third choice, is seeking a record third victory in the Big 'Cap after joining the likes of John Henry (1981-'82), Milwaukee Brew (2002-'03) and Lava Man (2006-'07) as a two-time winner last year when romping by 7 3/4 lengths. That was just one of his five wins from seven starts last year, with the others coming in the Grade 2 San Antonia, Grade 2 Charles Town Classic, Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup Handicap and Grade 1 Pacific Classic.
Unfortunately, the Bob Baffert-trained seven-year-old hasn't had much luck in the past two runnings of the Breeders' Cup Classic following a runner-up effort at Churchill Downs in the 2011 edition. In 2012 at his home track of Santa Anita, Game on Dude could do no better than a one-paced seventh, and last year faded to fifth after contesting the early pace back at the track.
The dark bay Awesome Again gelding opened the 2013 season on a worrisome note when fifth as the two-time defending champion of the Grade 2 San Antonio on February 8 under jockey Mike Smith, and the duo will attempt to get back to form on Saturday.
The remainder of the Big 'Cap field includes the top three from the February 8 San Antonio in 15-1 upsetter Blingo, 26-1 runner-up Imperative and 19-1 third-placer American Blend, as well as Grade 1-placed multiple stakes winner Rousing Sermon and last year's Grade 2 San Felipe victor Hear the Ghost.