Baffert: Dude's on his game

Game On Dude, the Classic morning-line favorite, had another strong gallop Thursday morning, heading out with trainer Bob Baffert's 7:45 a.m. (PDT) set under regular exercise rider Dana Barnes. He returned to the Baffert barn on the Santa Anita backstretch and got a treat of a couple of carrots from Barnes, who is married to Baffert's chief assistant, Jim Barnes.

Jim Barnes was asked how he thought Game On Dude was doing coming up to the Classic.

"Super," he said. "He couldn't be doing better."

Baffert, who stations himself in the middle of the track's grandstand terrace to watch his extensive crew of workers and gallopers, backed the Barnes assessment all the way.

"He's on his game," Baffert said. "Some of my horses, they don't have to work well to run well. Capital Account (Sprint) is one. He never works well, then he runs great. But with 'Dude,' he needs to work well to run well. He's been training great and he figures to run that way, too."

As he watched his horses train, Baffert was asked by a media member which one of his 10 Breeders' Cup runners had the best chance to win. The trainer narrowed it down to four, with one of them being Game On Dude. The other three were Executiveprivilege, Power Broker and Title Contender.

Doug O'Neill's Classic duo of Handsome Mike and Richard's Kid each galloped 1 1/2 miles on the main track at Santa Anita under exercise rider Jonny Garcia to O'Neill's satisfaction.

The entrance to O'Neill's Barn 88 is adorned with wall placards honoring 2012 victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes by I'll Have Another.

"We've taken time to celebrate a great year so far, and it would be absolutely incredible to add a Breeders' Cup win," O'Neill said. "That feeling would be hard to put into words.

"I'm just so blessed to be here," O'Neill added. "If both stay injury-free and get to the gate, I think they both have a great chance."

Grade 2 Pennsylvania Derby winner Handsome Mike is owned by Paul Reddam, who owned I'll Have Another and owns five of O'Neill's seven Breeders' Cup entrants.

"I met Paul through Mark Schlessinger, another client, about 10 years ago," said O'Neill, never dreaming of the heights they would reach. "He got Paul to claim a horse."

O'Neill trains about 15 horses for Reddam.

Flat Out, Ron the Greek and To Honor and Serve -- Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott's Classic trio -- galloped 1 3/8 miles Thursday morning and walked through the paddock on their way back to the barn.

Mott is bidding for his record third victory in the Classic. He won with the Hall of Famer Cigar in 1995 and Drosselmeyer last year. Charlie Whittingham (1987, Ferdinand and 1989, Sunday Silence) and Jay Robbins (2000-01, Tiznow) are the only other trainers to win the race twice.

Also, Mott is in position to repeat his sweep of the Ladies' Classic and the Classic that he accomplished last year with Royal Delta in the Ladies' Classic and Drosselmeyer in the Classic. Royal Delta is the morning-line favorite in the Ladies' Classic. John Shirreffs completed the double in 2009 with Life is Sweet in the Ladies' Classic and Zenyatta in the Classic.

Flat Out was moved into Mott's care this year by the owner, Preston Stables. The six-year-old Flatter horse was previously trained by Charles "Scooter" Dickey. Last year, Flat Out won the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup before running fifth, beaten three lengths, in the Classic. Mott used a similar schedule this year and Flat Out repeated in the Jockey Club Gold Cup by a head over Stay Thirsty.

"We haven't changed anything," Mott said. "The trainer that had Flat Out last year did a very good job and I guess I was the lucky recipient of him because the people wanted him in New York.

"They thought that if he trained up in Saratoga it would probably be a benefit to the horse because he's always been plagued with having some tender feet. I train at Payson Park and I train at Saratoga (on the Oklahoma training track) and they felt it would probably give him his best chance for his feet to stay in good shape. They are two very forgiving tracks for that particular issue. So far we've been very lucky with him.

"He's a challenge because of sometimes tender feet, but we've just trained him like a horse and he's been a willing student and done everything we've asked of him, and most of all, won the Jockey Club Gold Cup last time, which was a big move for him."

Ron the Greek was transferred to Mott in the summer of 2011 and has blossomed into a four-time stakes winner. He won the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap over this course in March and the Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs on June. In a rare off-the-board finish he was a well-beaten sixth in the Jockey Club Gold Cup on September 29.

"In his last race, I think he was compromised a little bit by the racetrack condition," Mott said. "We had a lot of rain in New York and the track surface was probably a little bit slippery. It was a little wet underneath and I'm not sure that he was really getting a hold of it. He never looked like he was comfortable over the surface. I would say we're probably not going to get rained out here on the weekend, so that would be a good thing for him because I don't think a wet track is his optimum surface."

Mott has trained To Honor and Serve throughout his three-year, 16-race career. The Bernardini colt, owned by Live Oak Plantation, has won eight times and earned $1,798,840 in purse money. To Honor and Serve won the Grade 2 Nashua and Grade 2 Remsen as a two-year-old, beating Classic rival Mucho Macho Man, and was a top Kentucky Derby candidate in 2011. He was found to have a leg injury and needed a break that kept him out of the Triple Crown races.

"He came back and won an allowance race at Saratoga, the Pennsylvania Derby and then the (Grade 1) Cigar Mile after he was beaten only 3 1/2 lengths in the Breeders' Cup Classic," Mott said. "He came back and showed us that the wait was worthwhile. He paid us back for giving him a little time off earlier in the year last year."

Mott said there were high expectations for the colt right from the beginning.

"One thing he did early on in his career is that he broke his maiden in his second start and then went on to win two graded stakes as a two-year-old," Mott said. "Obviously, going in with the hopes that we had for him after he won the Remsen, as a Derby candidate the next year, we were very, very excited. It didn't work out. He developed the splint problem, we had to back off of him and he missed the Triple Crown races. That's the nature of the business.

"I didn't think he was in good enough shape to run in the Kentucky Derby and so we opted to give him some time. We had him back late in his three-year-old year and his four-year-old year. He's a very sound horse now, although he's probably going to go to the stallion barn after the Breeders' Cup. He would be fine to run another year if we wanted him to."

Two starts back in the Grade 1 Woodward, To Honor and Serve outdueled his familiar foe Mucho Macho Man by a neck.

Reeves Thoroughbred Racing's Mucho Macho Man took to the Santa Anita track Thursday morning, demonstrating no negative side effects from his cross-country flight on Wednesday. The strapping four-year-old colt galloped 1 1/2 miles under Nick Petro Jr. before visiting the starting gate on the way back to Barn 66.

"He just floats (over the track)," said Ritvo, who accompanied Mucho Macho Man on the flight from Newburgh, New York. "He was very professional today. Everything's fine."

Mucho Macho Man, who stands more than 17 hands, has followed up a solid sophomore campaign that included a third-place finish in the Kentucky Derby, with a successful season this year, winning the Sunshine Millions Classic, Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Handicap and Grade 2 Suburban.

"It's been unbelievable. He's just a great horse," Ritvo said. "He's a nice horse to be around. He's got a nice personality."

Ritvo, who grew up in a racing family at Suffolk Downs, is enjoying the ride with Mucho Macho Man.

"There's no pressure. He does the job. He makes it easy. There's not any pressure to me. I waited six months for a transplant, for my heart. This is easy," said Ritvo, who suffered from degenerative heart disease before undergoing a successful transplant four years ago.

"The first time I ran in a big race, maybe it was the Derby, with my new heart, I thought, 'I wonder how I'll feel.' But I was fine. I'm very blessed."

Janis Whitham's Fort Larned made his initial appearance on the track at Santa Anita Thursday morning, backtracking to the wire and then galloping a mile under exercise rider Kate Merritt.

"I just wanted to give him a light day today," trainer Ian Wilkes said of Fort Larned, who arrived at Santa Anita on Wednesday afternoon. "The plan is to school in the paddock this afternoon and then go out about 6 tomorrow morning."

Fort Larned's trip to California was delayed a day because of the disruption of travel because of Hurricane Sandy.

"The plan was to ship Tuesday and then have a walk day here Wednesday," Wilkes said. "It is just one day and if one day makes a difference, then we are in trouble. I am very happy with where he is and he is doing very well."

Fort Larned will be ridden in the Classic by Brian Hernandez Jr., who has directed the four-year-old homebred to three victories and a third-place finish the four times he has been aboard.

"They make a good team and he lets the horse do what he wants," Wilkes said. "Not that the other riders didn't, but we wanted someone who would stick with the horse and Brian has."

Hernandez will be flying here Friday night after he fulfills a riding obligation that afternoon at Churchill Downs for Wilkes with Neck 'n Neck in the Grade 3 Ack Ack Handicap.

"I'm not really nervous right now because we've still got a couple more days," Hernandez said. "I've still got to ride (Thursday and Friday). Come Saturday, I might be a little nervous then, but we'll worry about that when it comes up.

"It's a daily deal," he added. "We race five days a week and you just have to take it day by day."

Fellow Churchill-based journeyman Miguel Mena, who turns 26 on Tuesday, also will have mounts for the same trainer in the Ack Ack and Classic when he rides Stealcase and Pool Play this weekend, both from the barn of trainer Mark Casse.

"I'm just having fun," Mena said. "I'm not nervous -- yet. I'm just glad they gave me the opportunity. I'm staying focused on today and tomorrow and trying not to think about (the Classic) too much."

After riding in the Classic on Saturday night, both riders will rush back to Louisville, Kentucky, for mounts at Churchill Downs on Sunday.

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