Racing's three biggest names—Bob Bafffert, Todd Pletcher, and Bill Mott—will send out almost half the field for the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) Nov. 2 at Santa Anita Park.
Each will have two live horses for the 1 1/4-mile event, with Baffert and Pletcher looking to put an end to years of frustration and disappointment during which they have compiled an 0-for-21 record in America's richest race. Baffert has finished second twice (with Silver Charm in 1998 and Game On Dude in 2011) and Pletcher finished second with Flower Alley in 2005.
Mott was victorious in 1995 with the great Cigar and scored an upset with Drosselmeyer in 2011, in which he ran down Game On Dude in the final yards.
Baffert not only has a chance to land his first Classic, but secure Horse of the Year honors for Game On Dude, who is undefeated in five starts this year, including a sweep of California's three grade I handicaps: the Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup, and Pacific Classic. He also will send out Paynter , the miracle survivor who would evoke a flood of emotions should he win.
Game On Dude was the 6-5 favorite in last year's Classic, but was compromised by a slow start and was never in contention.
"One thing about the Classic, everything has to go just right for you," Baffert said during a teleconference held after the Breeders' Cup pre-entries were announced Oct. 23.
Unlike those four horses, who possess excellent front-running or tactical speed, Mott's duo of Ron the Greek and Flat Out like to come from farther back and could benefit from a fast, contentious pace, just as Drosselmeyer did. It was Flat Out who actually was the 7-2 favorite in the 2011 Classic, which means we have the previous two Classic favorites back this year.
Despite Game On Dude's disappointing effort last year, Baffert feels strongly he is a stronger horse this year.
"He's a totally different horse mentally than he was last year, and he looks better coming into the race this year," Baffert said. "He's run some really outstanding races, his works have been great, and he's shown no signs of tailing off. The break will be crucial and how he gets away, but Mike Smith knows him well and what he has to do. All I can do is prepare him the best way I can and then give Mike the keys to the car and tell him to get around there as quick as he can.
"I've basically warned everyone in the barn we're going to be on pins and needles, and we might have short fuses, but we're used to running a lot of favorites in big races. I think the pressure comes from not being prepared, but we feel he couldn't be training any better and he looks great."
Although Game On Dude is Baffert's big horse, it might not be wise to ignore Paynter, who is coming off an excellent second in the Awesome Again Stakes (gr. I) Sept. 28 at Santa Anita.
"He's doing really well and I liked his race in the Awesome Again," Baffert said, "Even though he was second he was trapped inside and took a lot of dirt. But he never gave up and came running at the end. With all the speed in there, he should come running again; I think he moved way forward off that race."
Pletcher said both his horses are coming into the Classic in great shape.
"They both put in good works, but are coming into it differently," Pletcher said. "Palace Malice has had a steady campaign all year and continues to thrive. Graydar had to take time off early in the year, but he's quietly coming into the race with an impressive resume. His Donn Handicap was a big race, but got lost in the shuffle coming so early in the year. But he backed it up in the New Orleans Handicap and we feel he belongs in here. He's a lot of horse at about 16.3 hands and 1,300 pounds."
Mott has been here before, saddling Flat Out and Ron the Greek to third- and fourth-place finishes, respectively, in last year's Classic.
"Ron the Greek ran probably as good a race as a horse can run in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) and he's always been a solid competitor," Mott said. "Flat Out is the same way. He ran third in the Classic last year, and both of them ran credible races over that (speed-favoring) surface. Hopefully, they'll both run well this year."