When Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Mucho Macho Man and 3-year-old champion Will Take Charge square off in Saturday’s $750,000 Santa Anita Handicap, it will mark only the second time that the Classic’s top two finishers have a rematch in the West Coast’s most prestigious race for older horses.
The first was so long ago that Bob Baffert — who will try to win a fifth “Big ‘Cap with two-time winner Game On Dude — was 32 miles away at Los Alamitos “training quarter horses and wearing a cowboy hat.”
What he missed was Alysheba edging Ferdinand in the 1988 Santa Anita Handicap, the 1987 Kentucky Derby winner turning the tables on the ’86 Derby winner who had captured the Breeders’ Cup by a nose. Mucho Macho Man also beat Will Take Charge by a nose in the Classic at Santa Anita.
Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens didn’t have a mount in the ’88 Big Cap but remembers waiting to watch that four-horse race play out before a crowd of 70,432.
“Those are, unfortunately, bygone days and man, the buildup for that was just incredible,” he recalled. “… It was a moment I couldn’t wait for.”
Now Stevens is the rider of Mucho Macho Man, the 9-5 favorite over 2-1 Will Take Charge. Stevens points out it’s not just the Big ‘Cap, but the entire seven-stakes card that comprises arguably the biggest pre-Derby day that the sport has enjoyed in years.
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“I Tweeted the other day, this is Breeders’ Cup in March,” Stevens said. “… This is a day that anybody who doesn’t know anything about horseracing, we can grab them.”
The Santa Anita Handicap attracted a field of eight, with 2011 and 2013 winner Game On Dude the 5-2 third choice.
“It’s like a heavyweight title fight,” said Baffert.
Mucho Macho Man started his year with a 14-length romp in Gulfstream Park’s $400,000 Sunshine Millions Classic for Florida-breds.
“I actually shut him down inside the sixteenth pole,” Stevens said. “He’d done enough and they weren’t looking for any track records or anything.”
Based in the East with trainer Kathy Ritvo, Mucho Macho Man is 2-for-3 at Santa Anita, his loss coming by a half-length in the 2012 Breeders’ Cup. Stevens said that while he’s not taking anything for granted, “I’m going to ride him with a lot of confidence that I’m riding the best horse in the world.”
After not hitting the board in any Triple Crown race, Will Take Charge clinched the 3-year-old championship by winning the Travers, Pennsylvania Derby and Churchill Downs’ Grade I Clark Handicap by a head over Game On Dude. He started his 4-year-old campaign with a rallying second as Lea led most the way in setting a Gulfstream track record in the Grade I Donn Handicap.
“What a bonanza for Santa Anita,” said D. Wayne Lukas, trainer of Will Take Charge and who won the 1991 Santa Anita Handicap with Farma Way. “It’s so hard to get those top horses together any time of the year, and it just fell into place. We’re confidence. They’re confident. It will be a great race.”
Game On Dude would become the first three-time winner of the race won by legends such as Seabiscuit, Round Table, Ack Ack, Affirmed, Spectacular Bid and John Henry.
The $5.7 million-earner finished ninth in the Breeders’ Cup as the strong favorite then rebounded to lose the Clark on the final stride. In his first start this year, the now 7-year-old Game On Dude joined a stern pace and faded to fifth in the Grade II San Antonio. The top three San Antonio finishers – Blingo, Imperative and American Blend – are back in Saturday’s 1 ¼-mile race.
Baffert said Game On Dude might have been a bit fresh for the San Antonio and battling for the lead took its toll.
“I think he really probably needed a race like that and Mike Smith said he took care of him once he knew he wasn’t going to hit the board,” Baffert said. “He’s worked well, (but) it’s going to be a tough race. It’s like a Breeder’s Cup lineup, so he’s going to really have to run one of his top performances.”
This race is a happy confluence of owner Willis Horton electing to keep Will Take Charge in training at 4, owners Dean and Patti Reeves racing Mucho Macho Man at 6 and Game On Dude being a gelding.
Horton and the Reeves did lessen the financial risk by this year selling substantial interesting in the future stallions to breeding farms; Horton teaming with Three Chimneys and the Reeves with Adena Springs.
“We feel that it will be a big help to the industry to get this type of thing going early in the year instead of being late in the year,” Horton said of the rematch. “… I think we’ve got as strong a field coming up this week as any in the past. I made a decision that we’re not going to dodge any horse.”
Lukas mentioned Churchill’s Grade I Stephen Foster in June among the logical spots leading up to a return to the Breeders’ Cup Classic. And there’s another goal:
“He already has a nice little bankroll ($3.1 million); he’s already partnered in a breeding situation,” Lukas said. “The plum that’s left is to make him world champion and Horse of the Year.”
Santa Anita Handicap (Grade 1)
Post time: 7 p.m. ET Saturday at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif. Purse: $750,000. Distance: 1 ¼ miles. TV: Fox Sports 1, TVG, HRTV.
Pp Horse (weight Jockey/trainer Odds
1 Will Take Charge (123) L. Saez/Lukas 2-1
2. Mucho Macho Man (124) Stevens/Ritvo 9-5
3. Blingo (117) Gryder/Shirreffs 8-1
4. Imperative (114) Desormeaux/Papaprodromous 12-1
5. Rousing Sermon (114) Bejarano/Hollendorfer 12-1
6. American Blend (114) Talamo/Gaines 20-1
7. Game On Dude (122) Smith/Baffert 5-2
8. Hear the Ghost (114) Rosario/Hollendorfer *20-1
Jennie Rees writes for The (Louisville) Courier-Journal. Follow her on Twitter @CJ_Jennie and at courier-journal.com/racingblog.