Ever-youthful Gary Stevens put an exclamation point on his remarkable comeback this season when riding Mucho Macho Man to a thrilling nose victory in the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) Nov. 2 at Santa Anita Park. (VIDEO).
Mucho Macho Man, after opening a clear advantage past mid-stretch, dug in for the final strides and prevailed over a fast-closing Will Take Charge and Declaration of War in the rich event that culminated two days of tremendous racing at Santa Anita.
Coupled with his win aboard Beholder in the Breeders' Cup Distaff (gr. I) a day earlier, the 50-year-old Hall of Fame rider captured both featured events of this year's World Championships.
“This was a tremendous experience to win this race at my age," said Stevens, who appeared to be blinking back tears as he accepted a tremendous ovation from the Breeders' Cup crowd. "I never expected to be in this situation. This is the ultimate feeling. It’s the icing on the cake of my career.”
Three-year-old Will Take Charge, ridden by Luis Saez, was narrowly denied after making a tremendous run in the stretch, edging Declaration of War and Joseph O'Brien by a head for the runner-up slot. Game On Dude, favored at 8-5, gave way in the stretch and was denied victory in the race for a third consecutive year while finishing ninth.
A son of Macho Uno , owned by Reeves Thoroughbred Racing and trained by Kathy Ritvo, Mucho Macho Man made a strong case for post-season Eclipse Award honors with his clutch victory, completing the 1 1/4-mile Classic distance in 2:00.72 over a fast track. He was sent off as the second choice in a field of 11 and paid $10 to win.
Ritvo, who has weathered many ups-and-downs with her health in recent years, including a heart transplant, said she was happy to win but “happier for my horse. He deserves it.
"When Gary waved the stick, I figured he won," she added. "He got a great trip. Gary did a fantastic job. When he used ‘Macho,’ ‘Macho’ showed up. He is a good horse. I’m excited. If I didn’t have the support of my family, I wouldn’t be here.”
Out of the Ponche mare Ponche de Leona, Mucho Macho Man was bred in Florida by John and Carole Rio.
Runner-up by half a length to Fort Larned last year in the Breeders' Cup Classic, Mucho Macho Man earned his second grade I victory following the Awesome Again Stakes (gr. I) at Santa Anita Sept. 28 when he and Stevens teamed up for the first time.
After breaking well, Mucho Macho Man dropped back into a stalking position behind Moreno, Fort Larned, and Game On Dude, who vied on the front end for a half mile while carving a swift pace (:23.39, :46.36) for the distance. Fort Larned forged a narrow advantage after completing six furlongs in 1:10.23, leading Game On Dude on the far turn as Stevens went for an early run with Mucho Macho Man while three wide.
Mucho Macho Man, racing well off the rail throughout, hit the front near the quarter pole, getting the mile in 1:34.84. Game On Dude continued to fight but threw in the towel in upper stretch, and Fort Larned would give way in the drive as well. Mucho Macho Man was in control by about 1 1/2 lengths approaching mid-stretch.
Declaration of War, always in a good stalking position for O'Brien, closed quickly in the final furlong to challenge and Will Take Charge, rallying from sixth at the quarter pole for Saez, was coming best of all as the three approached the wire. But Mucho Macho Man, under right-handed urging from Stevens, lasted to the wire.
"Every time I ride this horse he’s always very steady early in the race," said Saez of runner-up Will Take Charge. "When you turn for home, he’s a totally different horse. In the stretch, (Palace Malice) drifted out a bit and that forced me even wider and yes, it probably cost me the race.”
Will Take Charge came into the Classic off victories in the Travers Stakes (gr. I) and Pennsylvania Derby (gr. II) and may well have earned top 3-year-old honors for the year with his big effort.
“He’s really developed into a beautiful horse and he did everything right today," said Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, the conditioner of Will Take Charge. "It’s just a heartbreak that he lost. He did everything right. The jump after the wire we got him.”
Declaration of War, the Juddmonte International Stakes (Eng-I) winner in August for Irish trainer Aidan O'Brien, also turned in a tremendous performance while making his first stat on dirt.
"He fought all the way to the wire," said O'Brien. "He was always going nicely and held his position well. I couldn’t believe how well he was going."
Mucho Macho Man earned $2.75 million for the victory, his eighth in 23 lifetime starts. That increased his career bankroll to $5,340,410.
The strapping bay horse started the year pulled up in the Sunshine Millions Classic after giving way on a sloppy track at Gulfstream Park Jan. 19. Following a five-month break, he returned with a third-place finish in the Criminal Type Stakes at Belmont Park. He signaled a return to his former top class with a close third-place finish in the Whitney Invitational Handicap (gr. I) in August at Saratoga Race Course and confirmed that with a 4 1/4-length romp in the nine-furlong Awesome Again.
Fort Larned faded to fourth in defense of his Classic crown, 3 1/4 lengths behind Declaration of War.
“It is emotional because it’s his last race," trainer Ian Wilkes said. "He laid his body down today. My hat’s off to Mucho Macho Man. He made a great comeback. I knew my horse would bring his 'A' game and he did. He definitely didn’t disgrace himself. He put the two speed horses away and they aren’t slouches.”
As for Game On Dude, jockey Mike Smith said: "He just didn’t run like he normally does. Gary was on me quick (with Mucho Macho Man). It’s sad because he deserves one of these, and he’s good enough to get one. It was a 'C' race today for whatever reason."
Trainer Bob Baffert lamented, “When I saw him (Game On Dude) going real fast on the backstretch, I knew I was going to be in trouble. Then when Mike asked him, there was nothing there. I feel bad I got beat; you always feel bad when you get beat, but I feel worse for the horse."
Baffert's other entrant, Paynter , finished seventh.
Mucho Macho Man paid $10, $4.60, and $3.60, keying a $73 exacta with Will Take Charge, who returned $7.20 and $4.80. Declaration of War was $4.80 to show.