ARCADIA (CBSLA.com/AP) –– There’s little Bob Baffert hasn’t won in horse racing. The trainer can count nine victories in Triple Crown races, including three Kentucky Derbies, and seven Breeders’ Cup wins in his Hall of Fame career.
Game On Dude has been pretty good, too, with a 5-0 record this year.
But neither Baffert nor Game On Dude has won the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic.
They’re going to team up for the third straight year on Saturday at Santa Anita. Game On Dude is the early 8-5 favorite in the 1 1/4-mile showcase race of the two-day, $25 million world championships.
Co-owned by Major League Baseball executive Joe Torre, Game On Dude is already the richest active horse in North America with earnings of $5,602,158. He’s on a six-race winning streak, including five in a row this year, and hasn’t lost since the 2012 Classic, when 9-1 shot Fort Larned pulled the upset.
Torre has referenced how the Classic is much like a Game 7 of the World Series and comparing rider Mike Smith to the future Hall-of-Fame closer, Mariano Rivera.
“It’s exciting,” Torre told CBS2/KCAL9. “We know these horses are athletes. I’m looking at it like the 7th game of the World Series. You have the team you want and you hope the race goes well. Just from my conditioning from being in the postseason so often, you try to put the anxiety off until you can’t help yourself. To me, it’s very much like being in a championship game because that’s what the Breeders Cup is all about. These are horses from all over the world. If you’re going to get tested and come out on top, that will be something they can’t take away from you, so we’re looking forward to it.”
Torre will now hand the ball to Mike Smith and hope he can clinch an Eclipse award for the Horse of the Year award.
“During the course of a baseball game you still have a hands on situation, but when you get into the 9th inning where you decided to bring in your closer, like Mariano Rivera, now I just put my hands in my pockets because there is no more managing involved. You’re pretty much trusting like how I’m going to be trusting Mike Smith Saturday and of course Game on Dude to finish the race on top.”
Among his rivals are Belmont Stakes winner Palace Malice, last year’s runner-up Mucho Macho Man, defending champion Fort Larned, Travers winner Will Take Charge, Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Ron the Greek, and last year’s third-place finisher Flat Out.
“You wouldn’t be surprised if a number of different horses win it,” said trainer Todd Pletcher, who has Palace Malice. “It’s a nasty race.”
Of course, Game On Dude was the 7-5 favorite last year on his home track, and finished seventh in what Baffert described as “probably the worst race of his life.” Two years ago, he lost in the closing strides at Churchill Downs.
“He needs to win this Classic to make that special statement,” Baffert said. “I think he can do it.”
Game On Dude has proven durable and he continues to race because, as a 6-year-old gelding, there’s no rushing him off to the breeding shed. Torre was on hand to see Game On Dude’s last start, a win in the Pacific Classic by a record 8 1/2 lengths.
Mike Smith will be back aboard Game On Dude, and they’ll break from the No. 9 post in the 12-horse field.
“If he gets a good break and gets in that high cruising speed of his, he can do it,” Baffert said. “I’m feeling it this year.”
He’s taking a second shot at ending an 0-for-9 skid in the Classic with Paynter among the field of 12. Paynter was near death in July 2012, the result of multiple medical issues that included the hoof disease laminitis and that caused his weight to drop dangerously low.
After months of recovery, Paynter returned to the races in June and won. He’s 0-for-3 since then, including a runner-up finish to Mucho Macho Man in the Awesome Again last month at Santa Anita.
“I think he’ll be right there Saturday,” Baffert said.
Bill Mott, another Hall of Fame trainer, is saddling two horses in the Classic — Flat Out and Ron the Greek.
Flat Out was third and Ron the Greek fourth last year, after both made closing runs behind Fort Larned and Mucho Macho Man, who dueled on the lead.
The top four finishers and Game On Dude return for another try in the Classic, giving North America’s richest race as solid a field as it had last year.
“It’s great that those horses can stick around and be back for more,” Mott said.
D. Wayne Lukas, the dean of American trainers who at 78 is enjoying a career boost, will try to win the Classic for the first time since 1999 when he saddles Will Take Charge.
“You have a good blend of early speed, middle-of-the-race stalkers and late runners,” Lukas said. “It should be an honest pace and a good race.”
Baffert was winless with nine Breeders’ Cup starters last year. Lukas, the career leader in money won among trainers in the event, had one win a year ago.
Mott also had one winner, Royal Delta in the $2 million Distaff for the second straight year. She is back to defend her title in Friday’s 1 1/8-mile race, along with stablemate Close Hatches.
“I don’t particularly like running against myself,” Mott said. “I don’t see why anybody would want to do that, but there are certain instances, if you’re in the Kentucky Oaks or the Kentucky Derby or the Breeders’ Cup, you just have to do it.”