01/17/2013 4:01PM

Gulfstream Park: Mucho Macho Man looks primed to defend in Sunshine Millions Classic

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Bob Coglianese
Mucho Macho Man will begin his 2013 campaign as he began 2012, facing six other Florida-breds in the Sunshine Millions Classic.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – Mucho Macho Man came within a half-length and a neck – the margins he was defeated in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and Grade 1 Woodward – from likely putting his connections on the podium to accept an Eclipse Award Saturday night at Gulfstream Park. Instead, trainer Kathy Ritvo and her owners will have to be content to do their celebrating there a few hours earlier if Mucho Macho Man performs as expected and successfully defends his title in the $400,000 Florida Sunshine Millions Classic.

The 1 1/8-mile Classic is the sixth and final stakes in the Sunshine Millions series, to be decided on Saturday’s 11-race program. The outstanding card serves as a lead-in for the annual Eclipse Award ceremonies, which are being held at Gulfstream for the first time this year.

Mucho Macho Man will begin his 2013 campaign in the same manner he began 2012, facing six other Florida-breds in the Sunshine Millions Classic. Mucho Macho Man rallied from just off the pace to register a 1 1/2-length decision over Ron the Greek in last year’s Sunshine Millions Classic and will have that same rival to beat again on Saturday.

Ritvo pursued a relatively conservative path with Mucho Macho Man during the early stages of his 4-year-old campaign last year, winning both the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park and Suburban handicaps before trying Grade 1 competition for the first time in the Woodward. Sent off the 4-5 favorite, Mucho Macho Man was jostled leaving the gate and raced a little further back than expected before being outfinished by a neck by To Honor and Serve following a thrilling stretch drive.

Ritvo opted to skip the Jockey Club Gold Cup to bring her horse in fresh for the BC Classic and was rewarded with the best performance of Mucho Macho Man’s career, only to run into Fort Larned, who also peaked in the Classic. Fort Larned held off a determined stretch try from Mucho Macho Man to register a hard-fought half-length victory. Mucho Macho Man received a lifetime-best 116 Beyer Speed Figure, even in a losing cause.

Mucho Macho Man has trained well here for his return, equipped with blinkers in his last three works. Ritvo was pleased enough with the results of the experiment to put blinkers back on Mucho Macho Man in the Sunshine Millions Classic. It will be the first time he has raced with blinkers since his fourth-place finish in the 2011 Holy Bull.

“He’s doing great. I’m excited to have him back running again,” said Ritvo. “We’re putting the blinkers back on to try to keep him a little more focused. He worked really well with them, and it’s kind of an experiment to see how he goes. We decided to bring him back in this spot rather than wait for the Donn because he ran such a huge race in the Breeders’ Cup. The timing was perfect and it’s the right thing to do with him. He’ll run in his share of Grade 1’s later this year.”

Mike Smith, who has been Mucho Macho Man’s regular rider since winning the Suburban, will be aboard again on Saturday.

Although Ron the Greek finished behind Mucho Macho Man in the Sunshine Millions Classic and again when he ran fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, he will concede his nemesis two pounds in Saturday’s rematch by virtue of his victories in the Grade 1 Santa Anita and Stephen Foster handicaps in 2012. The Sunshine Millions Classic is decided under allowance conditions.

“He came back from the Breeders’ Cup fine and seems to be doing well,” said trainer Bill Mott. “We’re taking on a top horse in Mucho Macho Man, so we’ll just have to see what happens.”

Fort Loudon will stretch out around two turns for the first time since finishing sixth in the 2012 Florida Derby, although he did win Calder’s 1 1/16-mile In Reality at 2. Transferred to trainer Nick Zito’s barn last summer following his upset victory over Trinniberg in the Grade 3 Carry Back, Fort Loudon was beaten just a half-length when second in the Grade 1 King’s Bishop before closing out his 3-year-old season finishing second here last month in the seven-furlong Sunshine State Stakes.

Zito said he had spoken to owner Fred Brei “about stretching him out again, and we’ll give it a whirl.”

“You usually don’t see this caliber of horses in a race like this,” Zito said. “One just gets beat in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and Ron the Greek won two Grade 1 races. It’s a credit to the Florida-bred program.”

The remainder of the Classic field comprises outsiders Cash Rules, who had his string of four straight stakes wins snapped when he finished third behind Csaba in the Harlan’s Holiday, I’m Steppin’ It Up, Atoned and Decaf Again.