ARCADIA, Calif. — Trainer Todd Pletcher was giving a horse-by-horse assessment of what is now an 11-horse field for the Breeders' Cup Classic when he made a blanket statement none of his rivals would dispute.
"I mean, it's a nasty, nasty race," said the five-time Eclipse Award winner, who will saddle Palace Malice in Saturday's $5 million test at Santa Anita Park. "It's one of those things where you're not going to be surprised if a number of different horses win it."
Heralding the depth of the contenders for the Classic has become a Breeders' Cup rite of passage, this year being no exception. Nine of the 11 scheduled starters are Grade/Group I winners with seven-time Grade I winner Game On Dude bringing the most to the table in terms of his achievements and what he stands to lose/gain Saturday.
In what will be his third straight start in the Classic, Game On Dude comes in as the race favorite and with Horse of the Year honors his for the taking if his dark bay frame hits the wire first. A seventh-place finish in last year's Classic marked the first time the 6-year-old Awesome Again gelding had lost over the Santa Anita track. The Bob Baffert trainee has not lost a race since that time, winning his last six starts including an 81/2-length victory in the Grade I Pacific Classic that threw the gauntlet down to his Breeders' Cup challengers.
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Game On Dude, defending Classic winner Fort Larned, and upstart 3-year-old Moreno all are best on the front end, making the break the "X" facto over what has been a speed-favoring Santa Anita track.
Belmont Stakes winner Palace Malice and last year's Classic runner-up, Mucho Macho Man, should be sitting in that second wave of horses with Travers Stakes hero Will Take Charge and veteran Flat Out hoping to get the honest figures they need to deliver their closing runs.
"You can talk about the shape of the race, but the most important key to the race is the break," said Ian Wilkes, trainer of Fort Larned. "What if Game On Dude doesn't break well like he did last year? What if Moreno doesn't break well? What if we don't break well?"
Coolmore and trainer Aidan O'Brien are seeking their first victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic and will send out Group I winner Declaration of War on Saturday. The son of War Front most recently won the Juddmonte International Stakes by 11/4 lengths at York on Aug. 21.
"We've tried to win this race many times before and come up short," said O'Brien. "To win it would be huge, monumental, but I don't allow myself to even dream about it."