Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens didn't have a mount in the 1988 Santa Anita Handicap, but he can't forget how the electricity rippled through the racing landscape of the time.
Twenty six years ago, the Big 'Cap rematch between reigning Breeders' Cup Classic winner Ferdinand and Alysheba, the champion 3-year-old he had nosed out in the Classic, commanded mainstream attention.
"The build-up for that was just incredible, people were chatting about it all over Los Angeles," Stevens recalled this week. "That was a huge day to be around. Even being in the jocks room and riding, it was a moment I couldn't wait for."
Ageless wonder that he is, Stevens will be on current Breeders' Cup Classic champion Mucho Macho Man when the sequel to the above scenario transpires in Saturday's Santa Anita Handicap. Even if the hype isn't what it was in bygone days, Stevens has already declared the impending showdown better than its milestone predecessor.
Two of Thoroughbred racing's biggest wish-list items are that a) its top horses stay in training longer and, b) those horses face each other more often. Saturday's $750,000 Santa Anita Handicap delivers on both counts as Grade I winners Mucho Macho Man, Will Take Charge and Game On Dude headline a field of eight that were entered Wednesday for the 11/4-mile race.
Stevens posted on his Twitter account that Saturday's card at Santa Anita Park was "Breeders' Cup in March," a statement even the tempestuous social media community could roundly get behind.
When the Breeders' Cup Classic was held over the Santa Anita track last November, it was Mucho Macho Man holding off eventual 3-year-old champion male Will Take Charge by a nose at the wire while race favorite Game On Dude finished ninth in what was his first defeat of the 2013 season.
That the top representatives of the handicap division are converging again in early March happily goes against a current grain in racing in which rivalries have been difficult to cultivate. Their collective presence is being tagged as a potential game-changer for the year ahead.
"The way I feel about this race Saturday is this could be the race of a lifetime to see," said Willis Horton, co-owner of Will Take Charge, who drew the rail and was made the 2-1 second choice on the morning line. "We feel like this would be a big help to the industry to get this type of thing going early in the year instead of late in the year."
"You have your Breeders' Cup winner, your champion 3-year-old, it's a no-brainer," added Bob Baffert, trainer of two-time Big 'Cap winner Game On Dude. "It better get attention."
Mucho Macho Man was installed as the 9-5 morning-line favorite after drawing post No. 2 and comes into the race off a 14-length victory in the Sunshine Millions Classic at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 18 that was every bit a paid workout.
The 6-year-old son of Macho Uno has grown into his monster-sized frame and relished the going at Santa Anita, taking the Grade I Awesome Again Stakes last September prior to his Breeders' Cup win.
Fellow physical beast Will Take Charge came within inches of snatching away that Breeders' Cup triumph and cemented his own late-blooming talent 27 days later when he defeated Game On Dude by a head in the Grade I Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs.
"I'm not taking anything lightly," Stevens said of Mucho Macho Man. "But I know what this horse is capable of and I'm going to ride him with a lot of confidence that I'm riding the best horse in the world."
Where he was inconsistent early in his 3-year-old season last year, Will Take Charge has not been worse than second in his last six starts including a runner-up finish to Lea over a speed-favoring track in the Grade I Donn Handicap on Feb. 9.
Game On Dude — he of the seven career Grade I victories including wins in the 2011 and 2013 editions of the Big 'Cap — is facing the biggest questions when he breaks from post No. 7 on Saturday. The 7-year-old gelding has lost his last three starts and was a non-threatening fifth last time out in the Grade II San Antonio Stakes on Feb. 8.
"He might have been a little too fresh in the San Antonio," Baffert said. "With his running style, everything has to go perfectly for him. He wants to go fast and be in the fight, but not at a ridiculous pace. He tries so hard. If he wins his third Big 'Cap, it's going to be very emotional."
Horton has already stated his plans to keep Will Take Charge exclusively in Grade I company this year, fueling hopes the best of the best will continue to keep the same company.
"It doesn't get any better than this," Stevens said. "To me it's a better race than Alysheba and Ferdinand."
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.