Mucho Macho Man earned his long-anticipated first grade I victory and stamped his return ticket to the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) with an impressive performance in the $250,000 Awesome Again Stakes Sept. 28 at Santa Anita Park (VIDEO).
Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens was aboard 8-5 pick Mucho Macho Man for the first time for trainer Kathy Ritvo and Reeves Thoroughbred Racing owned by Dean Reeves. The strapping 5-year-old horse overcame a wide trip to win by 4 1/4 lengths in a time of 1:48.30 for 1 1/8 miles on a fast track.
A close second to Fort Larned in last year's Classic after a stirring stretch battle, Mucho Macho Man won for the first time since the Suburban Handicap (gr. II) in July 2012. He had lost five races in a row.
The race was a "Win & You're In" challenge race for the BC Classic, guaranteeing Muchao Macho Man a fees-paid berth Nov. 2 at Santa Anita, where he seems quite comfortable.
A son of Macho Uno out of the Ponche mare Ponche de Leona, Mucho Macho Man was bred in Florida by John and Carole Rio.
Ritvo brought Mucho Macho Man to the West Coast Sept. 9 to prepare for the Awesome Again, which run as the Goodwood until last year, and said afterward that her charge would remain in Southern California to train for the Classic.
"I don't think it made much difference," she said of the early arrival. "He's a runner. He travels well. He seems to thrive here."
Breaking from the far outside post, Mucho Macho Man stalked the pace on the outside throughout before challenging rounding the far turn. He took command coming into the stretch and was never threatened.
Outsider Summer Hit had the lead for a half mile over Chief Havoc while clipping off fractions of :22.95 and :47.45 before Chief Havoc took over briefly while getting six furlongs in 1:11.48. Golden Ticket and Soi Phet also ranged into contention rounding the bend but none were able to stay with Mucho Macho Man as he was lapped on the leaders by Stevens, who won four races on the day.
"The race was pretty much over at the three-eighths pole," Stevens said. "He has a tremendous stride and he runs the turns really well. He's very athletic. I let him stretch himself a little at the three-eighths pole and had him pick it up again at the quarter pole.
"Had the race been a mile and one quarter I probably wouldn't have been as aggressive as I was but they told me to get a good race in and get a good gallop out of him afterwards, which I did. This horse only has to make up a neck from last year's Breeders' Cup Classic and I think he's a bigger, stronger horse than he was last year."
Second choice Paynter came five wide from out of the pack in the stretch to finish 2 1/4 lengths clear in second, while 22-1 Soi Phet, a $16,000 claim in May who was on a four-race winning streak, held on for third by three-quarters of a length over Golden Ticket.
Mucho Macho Man picked up his seventh win in 22 tries while boosting his earnings to $2,590,410. Mucho Macho Man won for the first time in four starts this year; he was most recently third in the Whitney Invitational Handicap (gr. I) Aug. 3 at Saratoga Race Course.
The victory was worth $5.20, $3.20, and $2.80 to his backers. Paynter, fighting back from a life-threatening illness last year, returned $4.40 and $4 in his fourth start back for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert. The all-chalk exacta was worth $21.20. Soi Phet paid $12.60 to show.
"He was behind there," Baffert said of Paynter. "He took a lot of dirt; actually he settled pretty well and came wide. He was finishing up really well. The winner ran a big race. He will continue on to the Breeders' Cup Classic. I liked his race."
Golden Ticket was followed by Chief Havoc, Liaison , Summer Hit, You Know I Know, Jeranimo , and Take Control.