10/30/2013 5:28PM

Breeders' Cup Classic: Opening furlong might determine winner

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Barbara D. Livingston
Mucho Macho Man, second in last year's Breeders' Cup Classic, enters Saturday's renewal off a 4 1/4-length victory in the Grade 1 Awesome Again Stakes at Santa Anita.

ARCADIA, Calif. – They’re putting the band back together! Four of the runners from last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic, including the top three finishers, are set for a rematch in this year’s running Saturday at Santa Anita. What with $5 million in prize money up for grabs, they’ll be on a mission.

Fort Larned, Mucho Macho Man, and Flat Out swept the top three spots last year, with the favored Game On Dude seventh. They’re back, with three of the four hoping for a different result and seven newcomers hoping to break up the band.

A fifth horse from last year’s Classic, Ron the Greek, also was scheduled to compete, but he was withdrawn Thursday because of a quarter crack in his right front hoof. Ron the Greek finished fourth in last year’s Classic.

The Classic is run at 1 1/4 miles, yet in last year’s race, it was the first of the 10 furlongs that told the tale. Ian Wilkes, the trainer of Fort Larned, emphasized to jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. that a sharp start was paramount. Fort Larned left with alacrity, never relinquished the lead, and turned back a tenacious Mucho Macho Man to prevail by a half-length.

By contrast, Game On Dude did not leave alertly, and his fortunes tumbled from there. Usually on or near the lead, Game On Dude was seventh early, advanced as close as third, then retreated like a tortoise into his shell.

“He was out of contention the first 100 yards. It was tough to watch,” said Bob Baffert, the trainer of Game On Dude.

Again this year, “The break is going to be very important,” Baffert said.

[BREEDERS’ CUP 2013: Fields with DRF odds and comments]

Baffert, as well as bettors who are expected to make Game On Dude the favorite, will hang their hopes on the belief that Game On Dude is a better horse than a year ago. He comes into the Classic with six straight victories, five this year.

“Mentally, he’s a different horse than he was last year,” said Baffert, who has purposely given Game On Dude more time between races this year. “That’s allowed him to keep his weight on. He just keeps getting better and better. The way he’s training, he’s really on his game.”

Game On Dude will have to be on his game because he is meeting the most formidable lineup he’s seen since last year’s Classic.

Fort Larned has had a star-crossed year, one that began with him losing Hernandez at the start of the Gulfstream Park Handicap, but he comes off a win against inferior competition in the Homecoming Classic at Churchill Downs. He is expected to improve off that race because Wilkes, like his mentor, Carl Nafzger, is savvy at using preps as a means to an end.

“I’m very happy with the way my horse is doing,” Wilkes said. “I’ve got no excuses.”

Mucho Macho Man, though based in the East, has thrived in California. In addition to his gallant performance in last year’s Classic, he won the Awesome Again Stakes here last time out. In both those races, though, he had outside posts, ideal for his big, long stride. This time, he must work out a trip from post 6, inside of both Fort Larned and Game On Dude, while outside another speed horse, Moreno.

Flat Out performed admirably in last year’s Classic over a track that seemed to favor speed and compromised his late-running style. He was third most recently in the Jockey Club Gold Cup behind his Bill Mott-trained stablemate, Ron the Greek.

Palace Malice, a 3-year-old, was second in the Jockey Club Gold Cup in his first start against older runners. Though no match for Ron the Greek, he ran well in his own right, and his stalking style might be ideal in this field. If not for a dreadful trip in the Travers, Palace Malice might very well be coming into the Classic with three wins in his last four starts, beginning with the Belmont Stakes. A big, strong colt, Palace Malice has held up well through a campaign that began in January, according to trainer Todd Pletcher.

“He’s amazing,” Pletcher said. “It’s rare to have a horse run in the types of races he’s run in and continue to thrive.”

Will Take Charge beat Moreno and Palace Malice in the Travers and followed with another victory, again over Moreno, in the Pennsylvania Derby. His last three races have been the best of his career. A bigger colt than even Palace Malice, Will Take Charge has an outside post that should keep him in the clear. That should prevent him from getting stopped in traffic, but he could be forced to lose ground when rallying.

“He’s not only tall, but he’s long,” said his trainer, D. Wayne Lukas.

The European invaders Declaration of War and Planteur will try to transfer their form on turf and synthetic surfaces to dirt, over which they are competing for the first time. Declaration of War has the superior form of the two, but it’s a complete guess as to how he’ll handle the surface switch. Both are getting Lasix for the first time.

Paynter, who is making the final start of his career, deserves points for even making it this far after becoming seriously ill in the summer of 2012. He was a distant second to Mucho Macho Man in the Awesome Again last time out.

Last Gunfighter has done his best against lesser competition. He was fifth, behind Ron the Greek, Palace Malice, and Flat Out, in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.