By the time the $5 million Classic rolls around, at prime time on the East Coast, championships will have been decided in many of the divisions. But it's possible that Horse of the Year honors still could be on the line.
And the race before the Classic, the $2 million Breeders' Cup Mile on the turf, truly is one of the most interesting events in the history of the event. In that field are a former Kentucky Derby winner; the filly who almost derailed Black Caviar's winning streak at Royal Ascot; a five-time runner up to the world's No. 1 horse, Frankel; arguably America's best turf horse; and a handful of others who could upset the lot of them.
But first things first, starting with the final race of the day and working back toward the start in the California sunshine over Santa Anita.
$5 million Classic
By any measure, Game On Dude is the favorite in this nonetheless contentious field of 12 set to go 1 1/4 miles on the main track. The Bob Baffert trainee, a 5-year-old Awesome Again gelding, has four wins and a second from six starts this year. The only blot on his record is a 12th-place finish in the Dubai World Cup on a night when the Meydan track didn't seem to suit any American horses. Game On Dude is 5-for-5 over the Santa Anita main track and comes into this race off a convincing win in the Grade I Awesome Again, over several of Saturday's rivals. He did finish second to Dullahan in the Grade I Pacific Classic but after that race, Baffert changed riders, replacing Chantal Sutherland with Rafael Bejarano.
"He's going to be on the lead," Baffert said of Game On Dude. "I'm not going to change his running style. I think having Bejarano on him helps. He suits him and he can settle him a little bit during the race."
Last year, Flat Out won the Grade I Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park, and then finished fifth in the Classic. This year he again won the Gold Cup and is back for another try. The 6-year-old son of Flatter, trained by Bill Mott, is proven at the distance but is making his first start west of Arkansas. Mott also has Ron the Greek, who won the Santa Anita Handicap in March in his last California appearance. He also ran, but poorly, in the Gold Cup.
Fort Larned finished second in the Gold Cup but before that was a win machine on the East Coast.
Nonios and Richard's Kid finished 2-3 behind Game On Dude in the Awesome Again and reappear. To Honor and Serve and Mucho Macho Man ran 1-2 in the Grade I Woodward at Saratoga.
Alpha, a 3-year-old Godolphin Racing color-bearer, ran poorly in the Grade II Pennsylvania Derby but before that, won the 1 1/4-mile, Grade I Travers at Saratoga in a dead heat. The winner of the Pennsylvania Derby, Handsome Mike, also is in this field.
An interesting longshot is Pool Play. The 7-year-old son of Silver Deputy is 2-for-2 in tries on a fast dirt track. The last of those wins came in his last race, the Grade II Hawthorne Gold Cup, a 1 1/4-mile race that in the past has produced upset winners in the Breeders' Cup.
It may not be the deepest or classiest Classic ever run, but this is a solid race. A lot of people will be singling Game On Dude in the multi-race gimmick bets and if he doesn't get the job done, some longshot bettors will be going home with jingle in their pockets.
$2 million Mile (turf)
This is the race we discussed earlier, with two top Europeans, America's current top grass runner, last year's Kentucky Derby winner coming off an eight-month layoff and a local runner who could easily take the lead and keep going.
Excelebration has lost eight times in 14 career starts. But six of those eight losses were to Frankel, who retired last month as the world's top-ranked horse. In five of the six losses, Excelebration was second to the great one; in the other, third. When Frankel moved along to longer distances, Excelebration promptly won two Group 1 events in a row, beating top-shelf competition. Aidan O'Brien trains and his son, Joseph, rides. They also will have defending champion St Nicholas Abbey in the 1 1/2-mile Turf and easily could win both races.
The other Euro is the French-based filly Moonlight Cloud. She made her mark by falling just a head short of beating Black Caviar in the Group 1 Diamond Jubilee Stakes at Royal Ascot. But the 4-year-old daughter of Invincible Spirit is a star in her own right, with multiple Group 1 conquests to her credit. She is trained by Freddie Head, who saddled Goldikova to win three straight runnings of the Mile between 2008 and 2010.
Animal Kingdom won last year's Kentucky Derby, finished second in the Preakness and ninth in the Belmont. He then was sidelined by injury and returned to win an optional claimer on the turf in Florida in February, prepping for the Dubai World Cup. Again he was injured and now he makes his comeback in what seems an odd spot. He has run the 1-mile turf trip, finishing second at Gulfstream Park in March 2011. He has been training on the grass for conditioner Graham Motion and can be expected to be making a run at the leaders late.
Those could include Obviously, who has won three straight turf miles in California, leading at every call in each race. Two of those wins were in Grade II events. Likely to be on or near the lead is Wise Dan, who is undefeated and largely untested since trainer Charlie Lopresti put him on the grass this summer at Saratoga. Wise Dan is likely to be among the mutuel favorites on Saturday.
Jeranimo has done his best work at 1 mile on California turf and bears watching in the stretch run.
However this turns out, it will be fun to watch and dissect.
$1.5 million Xpressbet Sprint
Fourteen horses going full-out for 6 furlongs. That's the ticket here and the Californians have as much of a home-field advantage as they're going to get in any race.
Last year's winner, Amazombie, is 4-for-8 at Santa Anita and back to defend his title. However, he finished a disappointing fourth in his last race behind three other locals -- all of whom again will line up against him.
Coil, another Baffert trainee, won that last race, the Grade I Santa Anita Sprint Championship, by a head with a late run. Capital Account, yet another from the Baffert barn, was second that day and Jimmy Creed finished third. Neither of them has ever finished off the board at Santa Anita.
After those, the race is pretty wide open. The East Coast contingent is headed by the first- and third-place finishers from the Grade I Vosburgh at Belmont -- The Lumber Guy and Poseidon's Warrior.
A wild card is the third Baffert horse, Fast Bullet. He started his career with a pair of wins last fall at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park but has not raced since last Nov. 12. He has been working very well and if he still has the speed he showed last year, he is likely to be the one out and flying through the early furlongs.
$3 million Turf
The defending champion from Ireland, stars from Japan and France, the Arlington Million winner and a New Yorker riding a five-race winning streak top the 12-horse field for this 1 1/2-mile run.
Last year's winner, St Nicholas Abbey, is back and might even be a square price because he shows only one win from seven starts since last year's Breeders' Cup in Louisville. Don't be fooled. Those seconds and thirds came behind the likes of Frankel, Danedream, Snow Fairy and Cirrus des Aigles -- a literal "Who's Who" of the international racing world. None of them made the trip to California and none of the rivals in Saturday's starting gate has similar credentials.
Closest, perhaps, are French-based filly Shareta, Japan's Trailblazer and Point of Entry, who has won five in a row, including three straight New York Grade I events.
Shareta, an Aga Khan homebred daughter of Sinndar, won the Group 1 Darley Yorkshire Oaks in the north of England and the Group 1 Qatar Prix Vermille at Longchamp in Paris before succumbing to the waterlogged turf in the Prix de l'Arc de Trimophe, finishing ninth. She almost always produces a run and even turned in a respectable performance in last year's Japan Cup.
Trailblazer, from the same team that handles Arc runner-up Orfevre, has been inconsistent in Japan but sparkling when he is on his game. As did Orfevre in Paris, he came to California early to get acclimated and finished second to Obviously in his prep for this, this Grade II Arroyo Seco Mile.
Little Mike won the Grade I Arlington Million in August, leading all the way on a slow pace. He caught a yielding course in finishing well back in the Grade I Turf Classic Invitational but will be back on firm ground Saturday.
The horse that won the Turf Classic at Belmont, Point of Entry, was winning for the fifth straight time. The second- and third-place finishers from that race, Treasure Beach and Kindergarden Kid, return and the question mark for all of them is whether they have faced the kind of competition they'll see in the Breeders' Cup Turf. Answer: No. But that doesn't mean any of them couldn't step up to compete anyway. The same is true for a couple others who have shown moments of talent.
$2 million Grey Goose Juvenile
Two stand out here. Shanghai Bobby, from the powerful juvenile team of trainer Todd Pletcher, is undefeated in four starts at Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga, most recently a convincing, 5-lengths win in the Grade I Champagne at 1 mile. And Power Broker, trained by Baffert, moved from the turf to the dirt in his last start and found his mojo, winning the Grade I Front Runner at Santa Anita by 6 1/2 lengths.
There is plenty of room for caution though. With the anti-bleeding medication Lasix banned from this year's Breeders' Cup 2-year-old races, there is a bit of a question about how previous results will translate to the new reality. Of the nine colts in this field, only one -- Fortify -- has raced without Lasix. He finished second and third behind Shanghai Bobby in his last two races in New York.
A few others could be poised for a breakthrough performance while switching from all-weather tracks, coming off impressive maiden wins or transitioning from state-bred competition.
$1 million Turf Sprint
For a change, a grass race not dominated by the Europeans. Perhaps they are intimidated by the unique Santa Anita hillside turf course -- a steady run literally down the scenic hill with a left-hand turn across the main track and into the stretch. At any rate, the only overseas taker is the O'Brien duo, sending out one-time Australian sensation Starspangledbanner. The 6-year-old misfired in the boggy condition at Longchamp on Arc weekend but before that finished a close second at the Curragh in a Group 3 race. He hasn't prevailed in a Group 1 since July of 2010.
Locally, attention turns to the likes of Unbridled's Note, who loved the course in his first try on turf, winning the Grade III Eddie D a month ago. California Flag capped a five-race winning streak by taking this event over the same course in 2009, then went on to run well in Hong Kong and Dubai. He finished eighth and 12th in the Turf Sprint the past two years at Churchill Downs and his only race since then was a win down the hill in the Grade III San Simeon Handicap back in April. He has been working smartly but he is 8 years old now.
Chosen Miracle always shows speed on this course and finished second in the Eddie D. Great Attack won the Grade III Turf Sprint at Churchill Downs on Derby Day but hasn't raced since. Reneesgotzip has plenty of zip but has never run on the grass before. Next Question was impressive in winning the Grade I Nearctic at Woodbine in his last outing.
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