The Breeders' Cup is just a couple of weeks away but the release of the pre-entries is right around the corner (Wednesday, October 21st), kicking off two weeks of handicapping madness. As we wait to get our first look at what this year's Breeders' Cup fields might look like, let's take an early look at some of the top contenders for this year's Breeders' Cup Classic and maybe some sleeper candidates.
I think it's safe to say that this year's Horse of the Year and Champion Older Horse categories are fairly wide-open, even with the excellent year put together by Game On Dude out in California. Fair or not, Game On Dude probably needs to win the Classic to really cap off his run to HOY honors, although if all the HOY contenders implode on BC weekend he could certainly be the last horse standing. He hasn't lost a race since finishing a disappointing seventh in last year's Classic and he's dominated pretty much every single race this year. The question with Game On Dude in the Classic is can he win this race is he's not able to control the pace or sit right off the early leaders?
The performance lines for Game On Dude over the last dozen or so races are pretty clear: if this gelding can get into the race early, he's tough to beat. If he doesn't, he's exceptionally vulnerable (see last year's Classic). This year's Classic looks like it's going to feature a good amount of speed with horses like Fort Larned (last year's winner and a horse that really needs to control the pace), Moreno, Mucho Macho Man, maybe Graydar, maybe Paynter. Other than Ron the Greek, Flat Out and European invader Declaration of War, many of the potential Classic starters want to run basically the same race: either race on the lead or a length or so back.
If I had one quibble with Game On Dude and his path to winning the Classic it would be the layoff; his last race was his Pacific Classic victory. I can see Bob Baffert's thinking on this move: the Pacific Classic was such a huge win for Game On Dude that it probably makes sense to give him a bit more rest in order to be completely re-charged prior to the Classic. On the other hand, I generally despise the whole "train up to the big race" philosophy. I suppose it's not as big of a deal with a veteran horse like Game On Dude, as opposed to taking things lightly with a younger, still improving colt, but I still don't love the two months off of the Dude.
One horse that won't be making an appearance in the Classic is Kentucky Derby winner Orb, a colt that's been a pretty big disappointment after winning the Run for the Roses last spring. Shug is pointing him towards the Cigar Mile, making this a rare year where the Derby winner is still in training but not running in the Classic. I can't say I blame the connections at all for that decision as Orb's JCGC run was non-existent.
I'm not sure what to make of last year's winner Fort Larned and I'm skeptical of a repeat given the fact that the rest of the field is not going to let him control the race as he did a year ago, and Game On Dude likely won't stay out of the early pace. (Not that I was complaining last year as Fort Larend helped to cap a nice BC Saturday for me.) Similar to a year ago, Fort Larned can be very good or very average on any given day and, typically, he's very average when he isn't allowed to control the race from the start as his Oaklawn Handicap and Whitney runs illustrate quite effectively. We'll see how he responds this year in the Classic but I'm not anxious to get on board unless the field turns out to be devoid of early speed (a highly unlikely scenario).
One of the more wild card possibilities for this year's Classic is G1-Juddmonts International winner Declaration of War coming over from England. The connections are trying to get him on some firmer ground, although if you look at his past races he's certainly not a disaster on soft ground and it's a question mark as to whether the dirt surface at Santa Anita is really the best fit for him. On the other hand, this is an intriguing colt in that he clearly possesses the stamina to go a mile and a quarter and he's going to be a late runner in a field that looks like it could have a ton of pace.
The question I keep coming back to with regards to Declaration of War is this: if you're going to play a closer in the Classic, would you play Declaration of War or Ron the Greek? While I firmly believe that Ron the Greek's JCGC win was probably not as strong as it looked on paper given the way the rail was playing at Belmont that day, I just can't see taking Declaration of War over a horse that's already won a race at Santa Anita by closing from off the pace, as Ron the Greek did last year.
The only reason Declaration of War might attract my attention is the price: I think he could go to post in the 20/1 or greater range which, if that's the case, perhaps you take a shot.
I keep coming back to two horses in my early Classic handicapping: Palace Malice and Mucho Macho Man. I really like the year Palace Malice has put together aside from his Derby and Travers disasters where you can come up with legit excuses for both of those performances. He even had an excuse for his poor finish in the Louisiana Derby last March, so you got to like the fact that, when given a chance to race without issues, he churns out good effort after good effort.
The Breeders' Cup Classic future book odds at the Wynn Las Vegas has Palace Malice as an 8/1 shot to win the Classic. I gotta say, I'd run to the windows with 8/1 on Palace Malice on BC Saturday and I'm hoping to maybe get something closer to 10/1.
I won't be surprised on bit if Mucho Macho Man runs this Classic field off their feet in two weeks. Overall, I've never been a huge fan of this horse; I seem to always be betting against him due him taking strong action every time out, but he's clearly a legit contender to win the Classic. I think there are two big points in Mucho Macho Man's corner: he's run two of the best races of his career at Santa Anita (and I love a good horse for course angle), and he can be effective running a couple lengths back early, allowing Game On Dude, Fort Larned and Moreno (or any other possible speed threat) to contest the early fractions.
Similar to Palace Malice, Mucho Macho Man is 8/1 on the Wynn's future BC Classic book, a generous price for last year's runner-up.
Next early look: Breeders' Cup
Ladies' Classic Distaff!