03/06/2014 4:07PM

Santa Anita Handicap: Mucho Macho Man, Will Take Charge in BC Classic rematch

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Shigeki Kikkawa
Mucho Macho Man trains at Santa Anita on Sunday. He comes into the Santa Anita Handicap off a 14-length romp in the Sunshine Millions Classic at Gulfstream.

ARCADIA, Calif. – Mucho Macho Man was fresh from a win in the Awesome Again Stakes here last September and approaching the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita, when trainer Kathy Ritvo and jockey Gary Stevens had a prerace strategy talk before the big race on Nov. 2.

“Kathy said, ‘Is there anything we can do to make your job easier,’” Stevens recalled on Thursday. “I said, ‘Bring the same horse over you did for the Awesome Again in the Classic.’

“She said, ‘We’re bringing a better horse.’”

[DRF Live: Get live reports and handicapping insights from DRF writers and handicappers this Saturday]

Mucho Macho Man won the Classic by a nose, holding off a fast-closing Will Take Charge.

Saturday at Santa Anita, they meet for the first time since that race in the $750,000 Santa Anita Handicap at 1 1/4 miles. Stevens has no shortage of confidence in Mucho Macho Man, who races for Dean and Patti Reeves and Santa Anita racetrack owner Frank Stronach.

Stevens was aboard the 6-year-old Mucho Macho Man for his 2014 debut in the Sunshine Millions Classic at Gulfstream Park. Mucho Macho Man won the race for Florida-breds by 14 lengths.

“I think it’s great to be coming off a big race like that,” Ritvo said on Wednesday. “He’s strong. It gives you a lot of confidence. He thinks he’s the man.”

The Big Cap is the ninth race on a strong 11-race program that begins at noon Pacific. There are four other stakes on the program – the Grade 2, $300,000 San Felipe Stakes for 3-year-olds, the $75,000 China Doll Stakes for 3-year-old fillies on turf, the Grade 2, $250,000 San Carlos Stakes for sprinters, and the Grade 1, $350,000 Frank E. Kilroe Mile on turf.

The Big Cap drew a field of eight, and there is more to the race than Mucho Macho Man and Will Take Charge.

Game On Dude, who won the Big Cap in 2011 and 2013, will try to become the first three-time winner in the 77th running of the race. The stakes winners Blingo, Hear the Ghost, and Rousing Sermon are each after a first win in a Grade 1. American Blend and Imperative have yet to win a stakes, and it would be a shock if either won the Santa Anita Handicap, the richest race of the meeting for older horses.

Game On Dude has won 15 of 30 starts and earned $5,713,893. Mucho Macho Man has won 9 of 24 starts and earned $5,580,410. Will Take Charge has won 6 of 16 starts and earned $3,155,148.

Game On Dude was favored to win the BC Classic last November, but faded from the lead on the backstretch and finished ninth. Trained by Bob Baffert, Game On Dude was a game second to Will Take Charge in the Grade 1 Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs on Nov. 29, leading by 2 1/2 lengths in the stretch before losing by a head.

In his 2014 debut, Game On Dude was fifth as the 3-10 favorite in the Grade 2 San Antonio Stakes. Ridden by Mike Smith, Game On Dude was part of an early speed duel with Blueskiesnrainbows and faded from contention through the stretch, losing to winner Blingo by 6 1/2 lengths.

“I think he might have been a little too fresh,” Baffert said earlier this week. “Both jockeys were trying to make the lead and turned it into a runaway. It took its toll.

“I think he probably needed a race like that. Mike Smith said he took care of him when he knew he wouldn’t hit the board. He wasn’t too hard on him.”

Game On Dude is expected to set the pace in the Big Cap. Now 7, Game On Dude led throughout the 2013 race, winning by a record margin of 7 3/4 lengths.

“He’s got a certain running style and things have to go well for him or he’s not effective,” Baffert said. “He likes to go fast, but not too fast. He has to be in the fight early. It will be a reasonable pace. It has to unfold the right way for him.”

Will Take Charge, trained by D. Wayne Lukas, was second in the Grade 1 Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 9 in his 2014 debut, closing well through the stretch to finish 1 1/2 lengths behind Lea. The winner of the Travers Stakes at Saratoga last August, Will Take Charge drew the rail in the Big Cap and will be ridden by regular rider Luis Saez.

[Santa Anita Handicap: Get PPs, watch Saturday's card live]

Will Take Charge, who won the Eclipse Award as the nation’s outstanding 3-year-old male of 2013, races for Willis Horton and Three Chimneys Farm. Horton watched the Donn in frustration, wishing Will Take Charge had not raced behind horses on the inside part of the track.

“We had three horses in front of us and two outside and we never could get through,” Horton said earlier this week. “He made up a tremendous amount of ground on a speed-biased track.

“We’ll be laying close in the Santa Anita Handicap. We feel strong that we’ll win that race on Saturday, even though we’ve got stiff competition. This could be the race of a lifetime to see.”