The race to be Champion

Mucho Macho Man wins Saturday's Woodward, and Ron The Greek the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Game On Dude wins what used to be called the Goodwood until gremlins changed the name to the Awesome Again Stakes. And then, amidst much anticipation and a clanging of champagne glasses, before an international audience and an array of cameras, they converge at Santa Anita on the Breeders' Cup Classic to determine who's Horse of the Year.

"I think they're very close," said Kathy Ritvo, who trains Mucho Macho Man, about the race to be Horse of the Year and its leading contenders. Expressing admiration for Game On Dude and Ron The Greek, she said she expects Horse of the Year to come down to one race, the Breeders' Cup Classic. And it probably will.

Rachel Alexandra, Zenyatta and Havre de Grace, the last three to claim the golden statuette, all had it won before the Breeders' Cup. Rachel Alexandra, of course, didn't race in the Classic; Zenyatta and Havre de Grace ran well enough to confirm preconceptions. But this year, unless the Zombie Armageddon intervenes or something nearly as bizarre happens, the Breeders' Cup Classic will be a winner-take-all affair.

At least those are the expectations here. Of course, this game has as much respect for expectations as a road roller has for saltines.

Dullahan, the Pacific Classic winner whose three career victories have all been on a synthetic surface, should get a plastic Eclipse Award.

As for other possibilities, bizarre and otherwise, Wise Dan might be the most versatile horse in the country, but accomplishment, not versatility, wins the golden Eclipse Award. Dullahan, the Pacific Classic winner whose three career victories have all been on a synthetic surface, should get a plastic Eclipse Award.

And then there's Questing, the latest sweetheart to turn the sport's head. On the one hand, her Alabama victory was spectacular; on the other, she zigged and zagged down the stretch while on the wrong lead. And as she was spreading pheromones all over the track and among the media, drawing clear to win by nine lengths, her jockey, Irad Ortiz Jr., applied the whip at least five times. If he doesn't know what to do with his hands, he should try a pipe. After that, I wouldn't be surprised if she doesn't win another race this year.

Point Of Entry has looked sensational in his recent victories, but Kotashaan (1993) aside, turf horses rarely win the sport's top honor. Even with five Grade 1 wins, for example, Theatrical wasn't Horse of the Year in 1987, when the honor went to Ferdinand.

Fort Larned and Royal Delta are still prominently in the race. But the 1 1/4 miles of the Classic could be out of Fort Larned's reach, and Royal Delta would need to recover her best form. Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner I'll Have Another remains a default setting, but Alpha, who might be the best 3-year-old still in training, could have put himself in the mix with his dead-heat victory in the Travers. Yes, it's hard to imagine the diminutive colt winning the Classic -- if Papa Smurf rode a horse, he'd ride Alpha. But the little guy's a bundle of determination. He's not the best horse around, but he's one of the most admirable.

And so from here, the race for Horse of the Year looks as if it could come down to Mucho Macho Man, Game On Dude and Ron The Greek at Santa Anita. But to set up that showdown, Mucho Macho Man needs a victory a Saturday.

A giant of a horse, he won the Suburban Handicap in sensational style by more than two lengths, his third victory in four starts this year. The key to his success this year, Ritvo explained, has been spacing his races, giving the huge horse time to recover from huge efforts.

"He loves to train," Ritvo said about Mucho Macho Man. "He gallops a couple miles every morning, and he gets a lot out of his gallops. He hasn't been tired after any of his races."

Although she said it's possible that Mucho Macho Man will have another race between the Woodward and the Classic, it's more likely that Saturday's race at Saratoga will be his last before the showdown. That's why for him a victory is essential, if indeed there's going to be showdown.

A line on Horse of the Year

1. Game On Dude: 7-2
2. Mucho Macho Man: 9-2
3. Ron The Greek: 5-1
4. Wise Dan: 6-1
5. I'll Have Another: 8-1
6. Royal Delta: 10-1
7. Fort Larned: 12-1
8. Questing: 15-1
9. Dullahan: 20-1
10. Alternation: 30-1
11. Shackleford: 50-1
12. Alpha: 50-1
13. Point of Entry: 50-1
14. Acclamation: 50-1
15. Executiveprivilege: 99-1
16. All others: 10-1