Top 10: 'Dude' on top in final poll

Game On Dude has been so dominant and impressive all year that at this point his winning the Breeders' Cup Classic might seem inevitable, the next domino in line. But, of course, it's not. In a Classic field that's rich in speed and experience and accomplishment, Game On Dude will be challenged from start to finish. But even if he falls short of victory and gives a determined performance, he probably still deserves to be Horse of the Year.

After all, this has been the year of the Dude. He has won all five of his outings by a total of 24.25 lengths, and in addition to being admirably consistent he has been frequently sensational, as when he won Santa Anita Handicap by nearly eight lengths and the Pacific Classic by more than eight. He hasn't "shown any signs of tailing off," said his trainer, Bob Baffert. And so even if it's not inevitable, his winning would be richly appropriate.

What's most remarkable about Game On Dude is that at age 6 he has continued to improve. At a time when most horses' talents begin to deliquesce from the prolonged exposure to the heat of competition, he has reached a new level. "He's a much better horse this year," Baffert said, pointing out that the improvement has been mental. Game On Dude has become more relaxed and composed -- you might even say confident.

And last year, Game On Dude was a better horse than the 2011 version that ran second in the Classic at Churchill Downs. In fact, he has improved each year. Based on speed figures in his best five performances, as a 4-year-old he improved about six lengths. At 5, he improved another four lengths. And this year, he stepped forward another two lengths.

Where will this steady improvement take him? Should he win the Classic, Game On Dude's earnings will soar beyond $8.3 million, leaving him $2.2 million behind Curlin, the richest horse ever to race in North America. Could the winner of this Classic become the richest of racehorses next year?

But that's getting too far ahead of ourselves. For the moment, Game On Dude is the clear Classic favorite, as evident by his wide margin among voters in the ESPN.com poll.

The Top 10 Breeders' Cup Classic Contenders

1. Game On Dude

On Tuesday, the Dude put in another bullet workout (six furlongs in 1:11.40) at Santa Anita. It reportedly was even better than the bullet he fired a week earlier (1:12.20). With so many quick horses in the field -- viz., Fort Larned, Graydar, Moreno -- post position will be very important, Baffert predicted, as will the break. Last year, Game On Dude didn't leave the gate alertly, and the race was lost.

2. Mucho Macho Man

After some inconsistency through the summer, Mucho Macho Man returned to form with his four-length victory in the Awesome Again Stakes. A giant of horse, he prefers to stalk, which means he could have ideal position just behind a contentious pace in the Classic.

3. Fort Larned

Like Mucho Macho Man, Fort Larned returned to form in his most recent outing, the Homecoming Classic at Churchill. Although he won by only a length, he showed his talent with a dazzling third quarter-mile (23.40 seconds). He, of course, led throughout to win last year's Classic, but the pace this year could be more contentious.

4. Palace Malice

Palace Malice has encountered more trouble this year than a ship sailing through a storm. Much of his trouble, of course, he created himself, as when he "ran off" in the Kentucky Derby and scorched the earth for nearly a mile. But with a better trip, he could have won the Travers and maybe the Louisiana Derby. His best efforts, even allowing for the trouble, are still a couple lengths behind the top trio's. But he continues to improve, he's reportedly training very sharply, and he, too, could enjoy a perfect stalking trip.

5. Ron The Greek

Fourth in last year's Classic, Ron The Greek is capable of the occasional standout performance, such as the one he gave at Belmont Park while winning the Jockey Club Gold Cup by nearly seven lengths. Still, such efforts are conspicuous outcroppings; he never has put two of them together. And with his late-running style he's at a disadvantage at Santa Anita, which can be unabashedly kind to speed.

6. Will Take Charge

A huge, long-striding colt who has strung together three good performances, Will Take Charge is still a couple lengths behind the top older horses. But they're within reach, and like Palace Malice, Will Take Charge is improving. Also like Palace Malice, Will Take Charge could seize the Eclipse Award as the outstanding 3-year-old with an outstanding effort. He might be at a disadvantage at Santa Anita, however.

7. Flat Out

Third in last year's Classic, Flat Out is another veteran who has continued to perform at a very high level. And, yes, with his very best, he's good enough to win. If that's hard to imagine, it's only because he generally saves his best efforts for New York.

8. Graydar

It was discovered Monday morning that a quarter crack in his left front hoof will keep the Kelso Stakes winner out of the World Championships. Instead the Todd Pletcher-trainee will be pointed to the Nov. 30 Cigar Mile Handicap at Aqueduct.

9. Declaration Of War

He just won the Juddmonte International, and he's obviously one of Europe's better older horses, but not generally considered to be among the very best. He's unbeaten on synthetic surfaces, but how will that transfer to Santa Anita?

10. Paynter

One of the best stories of the year, Paynter almost died a year ago, and here he is in the nation's richest race. But does he have a chance? He'll obviously need to improve if he's to threaten or even hit the board. But that's very possible. Baffert said Paynter has moved forward since his runner-up finish in the Awesome Again.

Also receiving votes: Also receiving votes: Last Gunfighter (12), Moreno (6), Planteur (1).

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