Mucho Macho Man has been installed as the 9-5 morning line favorite for the 77th renewal of the $750,000 Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) March 8 at Santa Anita Park.
The Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) winner drew post 2 for the 1 1/4-mile event when entries were taken March 5. A field of eight is slated for the race, which will be televised Saturday as part of the The Jockey Club Tour on FOX at 4 p.m. PST. The Santa Anita Handicap, one of four graded stakes on the card, is the ninth on an 11-race program.
To the favorite's inside will be last year's 3-year-old champion Will Take Charge, who is listed at 2-1 on odds-maker Jon White's morning line. Game On Dude, seeking a record third win in the Big 'Cap, drew post 7 and is pegged at 5-2.
Others in the field are San Antonio Stakes (gr. II) winner Blingo (8-1), Imperative (12-1), Rousing Sermon (12-1), American Blend (20-1), and Hear the Ghost (20-1).
The most highly anticipated race of the year, this year's Santa Anita Handicap features a rematch of last year's one-two finishers in the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) at Santa Anita, a race won by a nose by Mucho Macho man over the fast-closing Will Take Charge.
Mucho Macho Man has raced three times over the Santa Anita main track, winning both the BC Classic and the last fall's major local prep, the Awesome Again Stakes (gr. I), and was a close second to Fort Larned in another thrilling Classic in 2012.
"Everybody rants and raves about how much he loves this racetrack," said his Hall of Fame jockey, Gary Stevens, during a national teleconference call March 4. "I'm not taking anything lightly. I know what the horse is capable of; I'm going to ride him with a lot confidence, like he's the best horse in the world."
Stevens is 3-for-3 on Mucho Macho Man, a 6-year-old son of Macho Uno who is trained by Kathy Ritvo for Reeves Thoroughbred Racing and Stronach Stables. The burly bay has raced once this year, a 14-length jaunt over five overmatched opponents in the Sunshine Millions Classic Jan. 18.
It was little more than a paid public workout at Mucho Macho Man's home track, Gulfstream Park, and Stevens has acknowledged that his horse will need to be at his best to win Saturday. Mucho Macho Man, who worked five furlongs in 1:01 2/5 between races at Santa Anita March 2, has won nine of 24 starts and placed in 11 others while earning nearly $5.6 million.
Will Take Charge, winner of the Travers Stakes (gr. I) and Clark Handicap (gr. I) last season en route to championship honors, also makes his second start of the year. The 4-year-old son of Unbridled's Song, trained by Hall of Fame member D. Wayne Lukas for Willis D. Horton and Three Chimneys Farm, was second in Gulfstream's Donn Handicap (gr. I) Feb. 9.
The front-running winner of that race, Lea, set a track record for 1 1/8 miles of 1:46.86. Will Take Charge was beaten 1 1/2 lengths after swinging four wide for the drive.
"We were right there behind the front horses," Horton related. "We never could get through. We had to take the horse back an get in the open in order to make the move he always make. And he made up a tremendous amount of ground."
Horton said his strapping chestnut colt has "gotten bigger and is maturing all the time," adding that he's excited to see him run Saturday.
"This could be the race of a lifetime," Horton said.
With Luis Saez scheduled to fly in from Florida for the mount, Horton said Will Take Charge could be laying a little closer to the lead than usual.
A five-time winner from 11 starts last year, Will Take Charge brings a career bankroll of $3.1 million into the race.
Game On Dude can become the first three-time winner of the Big 'Cap following victories in 2011 and last year by a record 7 3/4 lengths. Aside from his head loss to Will Take Charge in the Clark at Churchill Downs last November, the old reliable Awesome Again gelding has thrown in a pair of clunkers. The front-runner was ninth as the favorite in the BC Classic after giving way last fall. He then opened his 7-year-old campaign at Santa Anita Feb. 8 with a tiring fifth-place effort after getting hooked up in a speed duel in the San Antonio Stakes (gr. II).
Still, his lifetime mark of seven wins from 10 starts at Santa Anita is tough to ignore, and the absence of any first-class speed types in the starting gate could mean he'll be able to dictate the pace.
"He might have been a little too fresh in the San Antonio," Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert said. "With him, pace is the key. He needs to be up on the pace, and two jockeys wanted the lead and it took its toll on both of them. He came out of the race great and has worked well since. It is going to be a tough race with those two (Mucho Macho Man and Will Take Charge) in the lineup, so he's going to have to turn in one of his top performances.
"With his running style, everything has to go perfectly for him. He wants to go fast and be in the fight, but not at a ridiculous pace. Things have to unfold the right way, and when they do, he's very effective."
Game On Dude, owned by Joe Torre's Diamond Pride, Lanni Family Trust, Mercedes Stable, and Bernie Schiappa, has won 15 of 30 lifetime starts and leads the field in earnings with more than $5.7 million. Mike Smith is back aboard the big dark bay.
Mucho Macho Man was assigned top weight of 124 pounds, followed by Will Take Charge with 123, and Game On Dude at 122.
Also in the field is Blingo, who took advantage of the San Antonio speed duel to come from off the pace to tally a half-length victory at odds of nearly 16-1. Aaron Gryder, who picked up the mount on the 5-year-old Artie Schiller gelding for the first time, has the return engagement.
Blingo, who earned his first graded stakes win in the upset, is trained by John Shirreffs for Jerry and Ann Moss.
"John told me the key to the horse is keeping him happy," Gryder said. "In the race before the San Antonio, (the grade II San Pasqual Stakes Jan. 11 in which Blingo ran an eventful sixth), he lost it in the paddock and ran his race before it even started.
"But he was pretty good before the San Antonio, and the whole race I was just letting him settle. I didn't ride him worrying about where Game On Dude was or anybody else. Obviously I was liking the pace, but it was about my horse being comfortable."
San Antonio runner-up Imperative, a 4-year-old son of Bernardini trained by George Papaprodromou, and third-place finisher American Blend, a 6-year-old Quiet American gelding for Carla Gaines, look for further improvement. Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer has entered a pair of longshots in Rousing Sermon, most recently fifth in the San Pasqual but capable on his best day, and Hear the Ghost, third in the Strub Stakes (gr. II) Jan. 18.
$750,000 Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I, Race 9, 4 p.m.), 3 & Up, 1 1/4 Miles
PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer, ML Odds
1. Will Take Charge (KY), L Saez, 123, D W Lukas, 2/1
2. Mucho Macho Man (FL), G L Stevens, 124, K Ritvo, 9/5
3. Blingo (KY), A T Gryder, 117, J A Shirreffs, 8/1
4. Imperative (KY), K J Desormeaux, 114, G Papaprodromou, 12/1
5. Rousing Sermon (CA), R Bejarano, 114, J Hollendorfer, 12/1
6. American Blend (KY), J Talamo, 114, C Gaines, 20/1
7. Game On Dude (KY), M E Smith, 122, B Baffert, 5/2
8. Hear the Ghost (KY), J Rosario, 114, J Hollendorfer, 20/1