01/16/2014 4:12PM

Gulfstream Park: Mucho Macho Man stands out in Sunshine Millions Classic

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – It may not be a walkover, but it’s hard to make a case for anybody other than Mucho Macho Man winning Saturday’s $400,000 Florida Sunshine Millions Classic.

Of course, most bettors felt the same way about Mucho Macho Man coming into the 2013 Sunshine Millions Classic against a decidedly stronger field that included Ron the Greek and Fort Loudon. But his backers ultimately faced the harsh reality that anything can happen in a horse race, as Mucho Macho Man was eased at 2-5 when unable to handle the sloppy track.

Trainer Kathy Ritvo also learned a valuable lesson that day: Never run Mucho Macho Man on a wet racetrack again. Fortunately, it does not appear that she’ll have to make that decision Saturday, with the weather forecast calling for clear skies and a fast track for the Classic and the five other Sunshine Millions stakes that highlight an 11-race program.

The card serves as an enticing warm-up for the Eclipse Award festivities later Saturday evening at Gulfstream Park.

Mucho Macho Man has not started since outlasting Will Take Charge and Declaration of War to conclude his roller-coaster 2013 campaign with a nose win in the Breeders’ Cup Classic in November. The performance helped erase the memory of last year’s Sunshine Millions Classic for Ritvo. Mucho Macho Man had won the 2012 Sunshine Millions Classic, beating Ron the Greek by 1 1/2 lengths.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s like last year’s Sunshine Classic never happened,” Ritvo said. “But we did find out he doesn’t care for a wet racetrack, and better to have learned that lesson early in the year than later.”

[Sunshine Millions: Get PPs, watch Saturday's card live]

Only five horses were entered against Mucho Macho Man in the 1 1/8-mile Classic, including his onetime nemesis, Gourmet Dinner, and the hard-knocking former claimer Bernie the Maestro. The field also includes the outsiders Decaf Again, Joshua’s Comprise, and Rule Number Six.

“Obviously, the field has come up a lot softer than it did when we ran in it the last two years,” Ritvo said. “We had to face Ron the Greek in both those races, along with several other top-caliber stakes horses. We weren’t really looking at who was in the race this year. We were just looking at this race as the perfect stepping-stone for wherever we might decide to run him next.”

Mucho Macho Man has trained extremely well for his much-anticipated 2014 debut.

“Fortunately, everything has gone smoothly for him since he’s returned from California,” Ritvo said. “He’s training well over a racetrack he really knows and likes. Our main goal at the moment is to get him back to the Breeders’ Cup as sharp as he was going into the race last year.”

Gary Stevens, who rode Mucho Macho Man to wins in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and the Grade 1 Awesome Again in 2013, will fly in from the West Coast to ride him Saturday.

“Gary’s only ridden him twice but knows the horse so well, it seems like he’s been riding him forever,” Ritvo said.

[Clocker Reports: Get Mike Welsch’s clocker reports from Gulfstream Park and Palm Meadows]

Mucho Macho Man will try to pull off a unique double Saturday by winning the Sunshine Millions Classic and an Eclipse Award several hours later as the top older male horse of 2013. He also is a finalist for Horse of the Year.

“It would be nice to win the race during the day and an Eclipse at night, but we’ll see what happens,” Ritvo said. “Our goal last year was to win the [Breeders’ Cup] Classic, not an Eclipse Award, although it would be great for him to be recognized by the voters for defeating the best horses in the best race of the year.”

Gourmet Dinner came out a length on top when he and Mucho Macho Man launched their careers in a maiden special weight race at Calder during the summer of 2010. He also finished in front of Mucho Macho Man when third the following winter in the Grade 3 Holy Bull.

Gourmet Dinner continued along the Kentucky Derby trail with a second-place finish in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth before nagging injuries forced him to the sidelines for the remainder of his 3-year-old campaign.

Gourmet Dinner held his form well for trainer Robert Triola during the second half of 2013, winning an allowance race at Parx Racing and finishing third on four other occasions, including in stakes on both turf and dirt at Delaware Park and Laurel.

Bernie the Maestro will try to rebound from a sixth-place finish as the favorite in the Claiming Crown Jewel here last month. Bernie the Maestro, whose owners and breeders, Ken and Sarah Ramsey, are up for a couple of Eclipse Awards themselves, won five of his 10 starts in 2013, including the Schaefer Memorial at Indiana Downs.