09/26/2012 2:50PM

Breeders' Cup Classic: Older horses zero in on key prep races at Santa Anita and Belmont

Shigeki Kikkawa
Game On Dude, runner-up in last year's Breeders' Cup Classic, will be back at his favorite track - Santa Antia - on Saturday in the Awesome Again Stakes.

ARCADIA, Calif. – California, here they come, right back where the Breeders’ Cup started.

For the third time in the last five years, fourth time in the last 10 years, and ninth time since its inaugural running in 1984, the Breeders’ Cup returns this fall to Southern California. With the opening of Santa Anita’s autumn meeting on Friday, and a plethora of important stakes races at Santa Anita and Belmont Park this weekend, the countdown has commenced to the 15-race Breeders’ Cup on Nov. 2-3 at Santa Anita.

The 2012 racing season is nearly nine months old, yet few divisions have clear-cut leaders. That includes Horse of the Year, where I’ll Have Another built up a big lead the first half of the year. With his retirement in June, the opportunity is ripe for a horse to put together a late-season surge to usurp him.

As a result, races like the Jockey Club Gold Cup on Saturday at Belmont Park and the Awesome Again Stakes on Saturday at Santa Anita, both of which are key preps for the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 3, are critical. If a horse like Game On Dude, Fort Larned, or Ron the Greek can win Saturday and follow with a victory in the 1 1/4-mile Classic, he would put himself squarely in the debate for Horse of the Year.

While many of this year’s elite 3-year-olds have gone to the sidelines, the older horse division has largely remained intact. Game On Dude, last year’s runner-up in the Classic, has been at it since the beginning of this calendar year. He has now returned to his favorite track, Santa Anita, where on Saturday he is scheduled to take on the likes of Rail Trip, Richard’s Kid, and Suggestive Boy in the Grade 1, $250,000 Awesome Again, formerly known as the Goodwood Stakes.

“Dude’s doing great,” his trainer, Bob Baffert, said the other morning at Santa Anita. “I’m happy to have him back at Santa Anita. He likes dirt.”

The Awesome Again, at 1 1/8 miles, offers a fees-paid berth to the Classic through the Win and You’re In program.

The Awesome Again will be a pivotal race for Suggestive Boy, who trainer Ron McAnally said would return to the turf if he doesn’t handle dirt.

“It would make a lot of sense to do that,” McAnally said on a conference call earlier this week. “Hopefully he does well on dirt. If he does, we’ll continue on. If not, back to turf.”

The Awesome Again is also a key race for Rail Trip, who already has earned a fees-paid berth to the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile through his victory in the San Diego Handicap at Del Mar this summer.

“I’m not sure if he’s better at a mile or a mile and a quarter,” said his trainer, Ron Ellis. “We’ll run in the Awesome Again and decide what our next move is after that.”

Some 2,500 miles away at Belmont Park, the Grade 1, $1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup features many of the leading lights based on the East Coast. In addition to Fort Larned and Ron the Greek, the field entered on Wednesday numbered eight others, including Flat Out, Hymn Book, Ruler On Ice, and Stay Thirsty.

Flat Out, who excels at Belmont Park, is the defending champion of the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Ron the Greek won the Santa Anita Handicap in March and the Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs in June. So a victory on Saturday would give him three Grade 1 wins this year at three different tracks, a compelling r è sum é heading to the Breeders’ Cup.

Flat Out and Ron the Greek are two of three horses trainer Bill Mott is pointing to the Classic, a race he won last year with Drosselmeyer. His third candidate, To Honor and Serve, is scheduled to run on Saturday in the Grade 2, $400,000 Kelso Handicap at one mile on dirt, but Mott said that for the Breeders’ Cup, To Honor and Serve is “leaning in the direction of the Classic”

“Right now, that’s what we plan to do,” he said.

The potential field for the Classic runs far deeper. Horses such as Dullahan, Mucho Macho Man, and, perhaps, Wise Dan, are under consideration.

Dullahan earned a berth in the Classic through his win in the Pacific Classic on Polytrack at Del Mar, becoming the only 3-year-old so far this year to win a Grade 1 stakes against older horses. He, however, has done his best running on synthetic surfaces so the Classic, while a possibility, is not a certainty.

A decision on which Breeders’ Cup race Dullahan aims toward will not be made until after he runs in the Grade 1, $400,000 Jamaica Handicap at 1 1/8 miles on turf on Oct. 6 at Belmont Park.

Mucho Macho Man, second last time out against To Honor and Serve in the Woodward on Sept. 1, was purposely kept out of the Jockey Club Gold Cup this weekend to train straight into the Breeders’ Cup Classic. He has remained at Saratoga, where he’s “doing very well,” trainer Kathy Ritvo said on Wednesday.

“He’s galloping every day and he looks great,” said Ritvo, who has yet to give Mucho Macho Man a timed workout since the Woodward. She said he would likely work again “in the next couple of weeks,” with weather determining when to go.

Wise Dan has emerged as perhaps the best older horse in training right now, but trainer Charles Lopresti has mentioned the Breeders’ Cup Mile, on turf, as a more likely season-ending target for Wise Dan, whose recent victories came in the Fourstardave and Woodbine Mile on turf.

However, Wise Dan was a sharp second in the Stephen Foster in June, his lone loss from four starts this year, and he won the Clark Handicap last fall at Churchill Downs, so he certainly has the talent to compete with, and beat, the best on dirt – though he never has run as far as the 1 1/4 miles of the Classic.

Wise Dan could make his next start in the Grade 1, $750,000 Shadwell Turf Mile at Keeneland on Oct. 6, after which his Breeders’ Cup goal, and the ramifications of the Classic, would become better defined.