Updated on 11/02/2013 9:16PM

Breeders' Cup Classic: Mucho Macho Man, Stevens win a thriller

Barbara D. Livingston
Mucho Macho Man (right) holds off Will Take Charge (left) and Declaration of War to win the Classic.

ARCADIA, Calif. – A year ago, Gary Stevens was working in broadcasting for NBC. Six years ago, Kathy Ritvo was nearly dead, the victim of a failing heart.

On Saturday, in tandem, Stevens and Ritvo completed the comeback story of the year. Stevens, a Hall of Fame jockey who returned to riding early in the year, and Ritvo, able to follow her passion of training with a transplanted heart in her chest, won the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic with Mucho Macho Man, who survived a thrilling three-horse duel to the wire that captivated the crowd of 58,795 at Santa Anita.

Mucho Macho Man just did hold off the 3-year-old Will Take Charge to win by a nose, with the European invader Declaration of War, making his first start on dirt, right between them, only a head farther back in third.

Mucho Macho Man ($10), the second choice in the field of 11, completed 1 1/4 miles on the fast main track in 2:00.72

Fort Larned was fourth and was followed, in order, by Last Gunfighter, Palace Malice, Paynter, Flat Out, Game On Dude, Moreno, and Planteur. Ron the Greek was scratched on Thursday.

Game On Dude, the 8-5 favorite, failed in the Classic for the third straight year, finishing ninth, beaten 11 1/2 lengths, after attending the early pace while wide. He came up empty in the stretch with seemingly no excuse.

[BREEDERS' CUP SATURDAY: Video replays and race results]

Game On Dude had not lost since finishing seventh in last year’s Classic and came into this year’s race having won six straight races, five this year, and as the front-runner for Horse of the Year. But his loss against the best field he faced this year throws Horse of the Year into debate. Wise Dan, the 2012 Horse of the Year, certainly enhanced his chances by winning the Mile on turf for the second straight year.

And now the older horse title is up for debate, with Game On Dude having dominated much of the year, but Mucho Macho Man having made a late-season bid and being far better in the only head-to-head match.

The Classic was the last of 14 Breeders’ Cup races run on Friday and Saturday. Unlike the Friday card, when the main track seemed to favor speed, the track on Saturday, though fast, seemed fair to all running styles.

Moreno, Fort Larned, and Game On Dude set off for the early lead and set fractions of 23.39 seconds for the opening quarter-mile and 46.36 for a half-mile. Moreno was the first to yield, with Fort Larned surging to the lead through six furlongs in 1:10.23.

Stevens was able to get Mucho Macho Man – a big, long-striding horse – out into the middle of the track down the backstretch, and he set after the leaders with three furlongs to run, ranging up outside Fort Larned and Game On Dude.

Mucho Macho Man did not corner well into the home stretch. Fort Larned re-rallied to briefly take a narrow lead in upper stretch as Game On Dude faded, but Mucho Macho Man surged anew and took the lead for good.

Declaration of War, who settled smartly inside and behind the leaders, was tipped out for the stretch run and took aim at Mucho Macho Man, and then Will Take Charge came storming down the center of the track after getting fanned about six paths wide into the lane.

They came to the wire three abreast, and, though it was desperately close, Stevens rose in the saddle and thrust his whip in the air.

It was the most he used the whip. Stevens said he learned in a victory Sept. 28 in the Awesome Again – the first time he rode Mucho Macho Man – that the horse did not respond to being whipped.

“He’s a very intelligent horse,” Stevens said.

Mucho Macho Man finished second in last year’s Classic to Fort Larned. He came to Santa Anita in September to prepare for the Classic by prepping in the Awesome Again, which he won, and he remained here, turning in a strong, steady series of works for Ritvo.

Mucho Macho Man, owned by Reeves Thoroughbreds, has now won eight times in 23 starts. The $2,750,000 first prize money from the Classic was more than the $2,590,410 he had earned in his previous 22 starts combined.

Stevens, who also won the Distaff on Friday with Beholder, called the Classic win, his first in the race, “Sweet.”

“Maybe this all was meant to be,” Stevens said. “I mean, I thought it was going to happen, but I can’t believe it did happen.”

“This is retirement for me,” Stevens added. “Believe it or not, it’s a retirement check every month. I’m having fun.”

Ritvo, the first woman to train a Classic winner, said, “Like Gary said, I thought we’d be here. I don’t know how to feel.”

Game On Dude broke sharply, was in a good position into the far turn, but retreated.

“When the running started, he just didn’t have it,” said his trainer, Bob Baffert. “It’s been a great year, but I really expected him to win the race.”

It was a day of emotional highs and lows for Baffert. He won the Juvenile with New Year’s Day and the Sprint with Secret Circle, after having his filly Secret Compass suffer fatal injuries in the Juvenile Fillies.

John Velazquez was injured in the day’s first Breeders’ Cup race when Secret Compass went down. He needed surgery to remove his spleen. Just one of his subsequent mounts, Wise Dan, was a winner, with Jose Lezcano picking up the mount. Rafael Bejarano subbed for him on Palace Malice in the Classic.

Groupie Doll won the Filly and Mare Sprint for the second straight year, and Mizdirection repeated in the Turf Sprint, joining Wise Dan. Secret Circle, who won the now-discontinued Juvenile Sprint in 2011, captured the Sprint, becoming the third horse to win two different Breeders’ Cup races.

The Europeans, who won two races Friday, came back with two more Saturday, with Dank in the Filly and Mare Turf and Magician in the Turf, both ridden by Ryan Moore. And they nearly won a third in the Classic with Declaration of War.

Martin Garcia also rode two winners, New Year’s Day and Secret Circle. Stevens was denied a second winner on the day when She’s a Tiger was disqualified from victory in the Juvenile Fillies after bumping Ria Antonia in deep stretch.

“I tried not to let that get in my head the rest of the day,” Stevens said.

– additional reporting by David Grening

$2 exacta (6-10), $73
$1 trifecta (6-10-5), $304.40
$.10 super (6-10-5-7), $191.62
$.50 super high-5 (6-10-5-7-1), $8,813.50
$2 double (8-6), $19.20
$1 pick-3 (9-8-6), $37.80
$.50 pick-4 (11-9-8-6), $381.45
$2 pick-6 (6 of 6) (12-4-11-9-8-6), $47,156.20
$2 pick-6 (5 of 6) (12-4-11-9-8-6), $406.40