It’s hard to believe that it has been 30 years since the inaugural Breeders’ Cup was run at Hollywood Park. The annual spectacle featuring top-notch thoroughbred racing will be held next weekend over a two-day stretch at beautiful Santa Anita Park for the second consecutive year.
The 14 Breeders’ Cup (BC) world championship races have attracted 172 pre-entries, including 20 horses from Europe and one from Argentina, seeking purses totaling a record $27 million. The two-day event commences next Friday afternoon with five championship races followed up by nine BC races on Saturday, culminating with the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic, which will be televised in prime time on NBC. All of Friday’s and Saturday’s races, other than the Classic, will be televised on the NBC Sports Network.
Last year, 25 foreign-based horses ran in Breeders’ Cup races, winning three. This year, the North American Horse of the Year will be likely be decided by potentially one of three key races during BC weekend.
Game on Dude is the leader in the clubhouse and a win in the Classic, a race that has eluded him the past two years, would solidify his place with Eclipse Award voters. He’ll have some steep competition, notably 2012 winner Fort Larned, Belmont Stakes winner Palace Malice, Travers winner Will Take Charge and last year’s runner-up, Mucho Macho Man.
The mile and a quarter race has attracted 13 pre-entries, including two from Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott, who has won the Classic twice, with Cigar in 1995 and with Drosselmeyer in 2011. Mott has pre-entered Flat Out and Ron the Greek, both coming out of the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park. The last four Classic champions have come out of that race.
Trainer Bob Baffert expects Game on Dude to come out of the gate pedal to the metal.
“I think the break is going to be very important, very crucial and how he gets away. He’s a different horse than he was last year and Mike Smith knows him really well and he knows what he needs to do. All I can do is prepare him, have him ready and tell Mike ‘give him the keys to the car and get him around there as quick as you can,’ ” said the Hall of Fame trainer.
A filly in position to become the fourth female horse in the last five years to claim the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year is Distaff hopeful Princess of Sylmar. The Kentucky Oaks champion has followed that historic victory with wins in the two Grade 1 races at Saratoga (Coaching Club American Oaks and the Alabama) and the Beldame Stakes at Belmont. In the latter, she knocked off Royal Delta in her first race against older horses.
A win in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Distaff by Princess of Sylmar coupled with Game on Dude stumbling for a second straight year in the Classic could spell top honors for the homebred filly owned by Edward Stanco, a Schenectady native. She’ll have to beat the two-time defending Distaff winner Royal Delta, who will have the Breeders’ Cup’s leading jockey, Mike Smith, in the irons. Smith has won 17 BC races in a star-studded Hall of Fame career. He will also attempt to win his third Classic in five years aboard Game on Dude.
For some time it looked as though Princess of Sylmar wouldn’t make the trip to Southern California. “She obviously ran great in the Beldame and subsequently came out of it in good order and there’s every indication that she’s maintained her form,” said trainer Todd Pletcher. “So, it kind of came down to looking at it like why not go? She didn’t give us any indication that she wasn’t ready to give it another try.”
Bill Mott, Royal Delta’s trainer, shrugged off the loss in the Beldame on a teleconference this week for the national racing media. “You know, we got beat in the Beldame. We were second and I didn’t think she ran her very best race that day, but it was still a credible race. She got beat by a very good filly but she’s training very well since,” said Mott.
Last year’s Horse of the Year, Wise Dan, would need both Game on Dude and Princess of Sylmar to lose and he would have to win the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Mile, to have a chance at repeating. His turf race will precede the Classic on Saturday evening. Wise Dan lost his last race at Keeneland three weeks ago when the Shadwell Turf Mile was taken off the turf and run on the polytrack. He had won nine consecutive races going back to June 2012 but was beaten by just over a length by Silver Max, a horse that is also pre-entered in the Mile. His main challenger could be Olympic Glory, an Irish-bred 3-year-old colt who comes out of a Group 1 win at Royal Ascot.
It should be a special two days of racing in near perfect Southern California weather where most of the racing year end honors will be decided on the track.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.