Nine races at Santa Anita will climax with the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic, featuring some tough Europeans, the ever-promising Game On Dude and several other talented, if erratic, would-be stars.
The day's penultimate race, the $1 million Breeders' Cup Mile on the grass, sees Wise Dan defend his title in that event and his Horse of the Year crown while coming back from a rare defeat in his last outing.
Here's how they will line up.
Game On Dude, a disappointment in many of his biggest races, is the morning-line favorite in the $5 million Classic at 1 1/4 miles on the main track and trainer Bob Baffert admits it's time for him to step up. But if he is going to do so, he will have to vanquish 11 talented rivals, including defending champion Fort Larned, a pair of talented Europeans and the recent winners of such Grade I events as the Awesome Again, the Travers, the Belmont Stakes and the Donn Handicap.
"He needs to do something big," Baffert said of the 5-year-old son of Awesome Again, who has earned more than $5.6 million but failed -- sometimes narrowly and often dismally -- in two Breeders' Cup Classics, the Dubai World Cup, the Florida Derby and the Belmont Stakes.
"He needs to win this Classic to make that special statement," Baffert said during Game On Dude's preparation this week at Santa Anita. "And I think he can do it. He's a different horse this year. By not running him too much, I've kept him good ... I'm feeling it this year."
Santa Anita has been the site of two of the most impressive showings by Europeans in past runnings of the Classic. In 2008, Raven's Pass and Henrythenavigator came from England to finish 1-2. And, famously, in 1993, Arcangues came from France to shock the racing world with a stretch-running victory over Bertrando, returning $269.20 for a $2 win ticket.
This year, the foreigners are Declaration of War, a 4-year-old War Front colt from the Irish-based Coolmore combine, and Planteur, owned by Sheik Joaan bin Hamad al Thani of Qatar's ruling family. Declaration of War's resume includes Group 1 victories in the Queen Anne Stakes at Royal Ascot and the Juddmonte International at York. Planteur finished third behind Animal Kingdom and Red Cadeaux in this year's Dubai World Cup and won the Group 3 Winter Hill Stakes at Windsor and was leading in the Group 1 Prix Dollar at Longchamp before fading badly in the final furlong.
For trainer Aidan O'Brien, Declaration of War will be his 11th starter in the Classic, including two tries by George Washington. His best showings were second-place finishes by Giant's Causeway in 2000 and Henrythenavigator two years earlier. He saddled Galileo, now arguably the world's top sire, to a sixth-place showing in 2001.
"To win it would be huge, monumental," the Irishman said Thursday. "But I don't allow myself to even dream about it."
The horses who finished second and third in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, Palace Malice and Flat Out, also are in the Classic. Palace Malice won the Belmont Stakes and the Grade II Jim Dandy at Saratoga. Flat Out, a 7-year-old trained by Bill Mott, won the 2012 Gold Cup and Mott said he may be "sitting on a big race."
Defending Classic winner Fort Larned has struggled this year, winning the Grade I Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs for fun but failing badly in a couple other starts.
"It's been a roller coaster ride, for sure," trainer Ian Wilkes said Thursday, adding, "All is well."
Mucho Macho Man, who finished second by 1/2 length in last year's Classic, came west in time to win the Grade I Awesome Again over the track and is primed for this event.
Ron the Greek, who would have been among the favorites after a dominating win in the Grade I Jockey Club Gold Cup, was scratched Thursday. Mott said Ron the Greek developed a crack in his right front hoof -- not a long-term problem but enough to knock him out for Saturday's race.
The others include last year's Grade I Haskell winner Paynter; the 1-2 finishers in the Grade I Travers, Will Take Charge and Moreno; lightly raced Graydar; and Last Gunfighter. Baffert has been touting Paynter as a live long shot for the race.
The even-money favorite in the $2 million Mile over the turf course is Wise Dan, the defending champion in this race and the reigning U.S. Horse of the Year. The 6-year-old Wiseman's Ferry gelding had a nine-race winning streak snapped in his last outing when he finished second to Silver Max in the Grade I Shadwell Turf Mile at Keeneland -- a race that was run at 1 1/16 miles on the all-weather course after rain saturated the grass course. Wise Dan jogged on the Santa Anita main track Thursday morning and exercise rider Damien Rock reported, "He is every bit as good as he was last year." Silver Max, winner of three straight, will try to repeat the Keeneland performance but faces plenty of other talent in the 10-horse field. Olympic Glory comes off an impressive win two weeks ago in the Group 1 Queen Elizabeth II on British Champions Day at Ascot for Sheik Joaan. Obviously, He Be Fire N Ice and Jet Lag have been running well against each other in California and Za Approval has been consistently in the money at starts all around North America.
The defending champion, Trinniberg, is back for the $1.5 million Xpressbet Sprint at 6 furlongs. But, winless since that year-ago triumph, he is far from the favorite among 12 entrants. For that distinction, look to Private Zone. Other than a dismal showing on World Cup night in Dubai in March, the 4-year-old Macho Uno gelding has been in the money in seven straight races, including a front-running win over Justin Phillip in his last start, the Grade I Vosburgh Handicap at Belmont Park. Justin Phillip also is in Saturday's field. Secret Circle is making just his second start for trainer Bob Baffert after an 18-month layoff but has been burning up the track in workouts. Sum of the Parts and Laugh Track finished 1-2 in the Grade III Phoenix over the Keeneland all-weather course. The Lumber Guy finished second in last year's Sprint but has been unimpressive since.
Another of last year's winners, Little Mike, is back to defend his title in this $3 million, 1 1/2-miles event, which starts on the hillside turf course, and then crosses the main track for a full circuit and more on the main grass oval. Little Mike, a Spanish Steps gelding, spent the early months of 2013 in Dubai, without success. He faded from the lead in both the Grade I United Nations and the Grade I Arlington Million this summer, finishing off the board, and then stepped up to win the Grade I Turf Classic at Belmont Park Sept. 28, defeating Big Blue Kitten and Real Solution. The latter two also are in Saturday's field. Big Blue Kitten won the Grade I United Nations and the Grade I Sword Dancer earlier in the year and may be the weekend's best hope for owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey. Real Solution, also owned by the Ramseys, won the Arlington Million in August on a disqualification. In from England is the 4-year-old filly The Fugue, who finished third in last year's Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf and recently reeled off consecutive wins in the Group 1 Yorkshire Oaks and the Group 1 Irish Champion Stakes -- the latter against some very talented males. Irish trainer Aidan O'Brien saddles Magician, winner of the Group 1 Irish 2,000 Guineas. Point of Entry, a 5-year-old son of Dynaformer, has won seven of his last eight starts for trainer Shug McGaughey and finished second in this race last year. However, he has not started since winning the Grade I Manhattan at Belmont in June.
"Is the layoff a concern? Maybe," McGaughey said Thursday after Point of Entry galloped. "But I think we've got him where we want him ... I think he's fit enough."
The $2 million Juvenile, run at 1 1/16 miles on the main track, has a full field of 14, ranging from Grade I winners to contenders fresh off their maiden scores. The 5-2 morning line favorite is Havana, a Dunkirk colt trained by Todd Pletcher who is undefeated in two starts including the Grade I Champagne at Belmont Park. Pletcher also saddles We Miss Artie, who won the Grade I Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland but has yet to win on dirt. Bond Holder has home-court advantage as the winner of the Grade I Front Runner at Santa Anita last month. Dance With Fate, the runner up in that event, also returns. As is frequently the case, this is a tough one to handicap with much confidence.
The top three from last year's running are back for the $1 million Geico Turf Sprint at about 6 1/2 furlongs down the unique Santa Anita hillside course. Mizdirection, Unbridled's Note and Reneesgotzip all have run well since the 2012 showdown but none of them -- nor any others in the 14-horse field -- has posted a record that stands out. Mizdirection had won eight of nine starts, including last year's Turf Sprint, but flopped when sent east for the Grade I Just A Game at 1 mile on the Belmont Park Turf in her last start and has been absent since June. In a tough race to figure, Tightend Touchdown is a speed merchant who has been unable to hold the lead late and steps up in class but could be dangerous running downhill. This is about as wide open as it gets at this level of racing.
Filly & Mare Sprint
Yet another defending champ is back for the $1 million Filly & Mare Sprint. Groupie Doll was dominant last season and won this race by 4 1/4 lengths. But as a 5-year-old, the Bowman's Band mare has posted only a single win from three starts and looks vulnerable despite being the 5-2 morning line favorite. Looming as a serious challenge is Dance to Bristol, who has 10 wins and eight seconds from 19 lifetime starts and recently has been defeating the best of the East Coast female sprinters. Book Review, Dance Card and Sweet Lulu all are Grade I winners. A dozen are set to try the 7 furlongs on the main course.
Filly & Mare Turf
Two Californians and an English star top the 10 entered for the $2 million Filly & Mare Turf at 1 1/4 miles. Dank, trained by Sir Michael Stoute in England, came across the ocean to win the Grade I Beverly D. at Arlington Park in August, drawing clear late for an easy victory. She returns as the 5-2 favorite for Saturday's race. Marketing Mix, who finished second in this race last year, and Tiz Flirtatious, never off the board in 12 career starts, are both posted at 7-2. The field is so deep that the oddsmaker estimates 10-1 returns on the likes of Kitten's Dumplings, who won the Grade I Queen Elizabeth II Cup at Keeneland in her last outing and has four wins from her last five starts, and 10-1 on Alterite, previously raced in France and second in the QE II. Laughing has won four straight races, all graded stakes. Romantic comes from France with a Group 1 win on her resume. Marketing Mix, a 5-year-old daughter of Medaglia d'Oro, is ticketed for the breeding shed in the spring but what happens before then depends on her, owner Craig Bernick said Thursday. If she wins, he said, she likely will ship to the Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Cup on Dec. 8. "If she runs second or third, she'll go against the boys in the Hollywood Turf Cup. But that will be it for her," he said.
The day's championship races kick off with the $2 million Juvenile Fillies at 1 1/16 miles on the main track. ArtemisAgrotera and Sweet Reason, 1-2 finishers in the Grade I Frizette at Belmont Park, are the early favorites in a field of 10. Untapable is undefeated in two starts, including the Grade II Pocahontas at Churchill Downs. Rosalind looks good after three straight in-the-money finishes.