ARCADIA, Calif. -- Even Bob Baffert seemed a little giddy, or at least elated. He has witnessed such displays many times, of course, but this was special, in part because, having won just about everything else, hard as this might be to swallow, a veritable pomegranate of unlikeliness, Baffert never has won a Breeders' Cup Classic, and because Game On Dude, having narrowly lost the nation's richest race two years ago in the final furlong and having megaflopped in it last year as the favorite, will try yet again to annex his own little share of history. But, most of all, the workout Monday morning seemed special because it suggested, or did it confirm, that The Dude, who has reigned as one of the top horses in the country for the past three years, might finally get what he deserves, a title.
And so after Game On Dude's workout, his trainer rocked back on his heels and then forward onto his toes and said, "He just keeps getting better. The way he's training right now -- he's really on his game."
Jon White, the Santa Anita oddsmaker, conferred the favorite's role on the 6-year-old gelding, making Game On Dude 8-5 in the field of 12.
Baffert could never be a poker player. His emotions pull his face into disclosures. Nor does he have to open his mouth to make an announcement; his eyes say it all. And Monday morning, after Game On Dude's workout, Baffert glowed with confidence.
Hours later, at the drawing of post positions, the karma still flowing, Game On Dude got No. 9 for the $5 million Classic, a perfect spot in the gate since it positions him outside the other speedsters, Moreno and Fort Larned. And then Jon White, the Santa Anita oddsmaker, conferred the favorite's role on the 6-year-old gelding, making Game On Dude 8-5 in the field of 12.
And so The Dude, the headliner in the Classic, remains one of the big stories here as the entire sport anticipates its two-day, 14-race, $25 million extravaganza of racing, otherwise known as the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships. The Classic could very well crown the Horse of the Year, an honor that's joined at the fetlock with the Eclipse going to the season's champion older horse. The Classic could also determine the champion 3-year-old. In other words, it all comes down to this.
"We think about this [Breeders' Cup] series and the Triple Crown races 365 days a year," said Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas. At 78, he has won more Breeders' Cup races, 19, than any trainer in history. And with his horses having piled up earnings of $265 million, Lukas remains the sport's all-time leader. In the Classic, he'll saddle Will Take Charge, one of those 3-year-olds who, with a victory Saturday, could claim a title.
But many championships, at least nine, will be on the line during the extravaganza. On Friday, two-time champion Royal Delta will attempt to score a third consecutive victory in the $2 million Distaff. Beholder, Princess Of Sylmar and Close Hatches, all 3-year-olds, will question the hegemony of age, and if one of them succeeds in upsetting the 8-5 favorite, she could claim a title of her own.
And can Paynter, the best feel-good story since Lassie came home, give the screenwriters in Hollywood an ending guaranteed to have everyone in the grandstand reaching for a handkerchief? He nearly died a year ago, but he's 12-1 in the morning line for the Classic. With a sensational workout Monday, he also announced he's ready for a big effort.
And then there are the stories swirling around the people, comebacks and feuds, as well as tales of inspiration, perspiration and fascination. At age 50, long past a time when most professional athletes have settled into some sort of reminiscence mode, jockey Gary Stevens returned this year to riding. He returned in an effort to create even more memorable moments. And so, following successful stints as an actor and television analyst, he already has won a Triple Crown race, the Preakness on Oxbow, and now he's looking to add to his eight Breeders' Cup wins.
Although Stevens won his first Kentucky Derby (in 1988 on Winning Colors) before some of his younger rivals were even born (e.g., Joe Talamo in 1990), he's not taking it easy. In fact, Stevens will be one of the busiest people at Santa Anita on Friday and Saturday, with mounts on Ever Rider in the Marathon, Got Shades in the Juvenile Turf, Beholder in the Distaff, She's A Tiger in the Juvenile Fillies, Marketing Mix in the Filly & Mare Turf, Starship Truffles in the Filly & Mare Sprint, Caracortado in the Turf Sprint, Indy Point in the Turf and Mucho Macho Man in the Classic.
And then there's the Eric Guillot-Lukas feud that isn't a feud. After Will Take Charge won the Travers, Guillot, who had saddled Moreno, the runner-up, accused jockey Luis Saez of using an electrical device to encourage the winner. A thorough investigation tossed the accusation where it belonged, into one of the large, stable-area receptacles for muck.
Monday, after the drawing of post positions, Guillot, as he described it, made a formal apology on national television. But perhaps it would be more accurate to say he approached an apology, and then he backtracked, saying he would do the same thing all over again. And he'll have an opportunity, as Moreno and Will Take Charge renew their rivalry in the Classic.
Still, The Dude has made it resoundingly clear who's the star of this show. He's one of those horses that love to train, and so he'll often shine in the mornings, but on this particular morning, just five days before the Classic, he emitted sparks, coruscating through the Santa Anita stretch and then around the turn like a Fourth of July parade.
Game On Dude began the workout (at the 4½-furlong marker) several lengths, five or maybe six, behind a workmate named Amazing Hearted, a 5-year-old who has won two of his three outings. As they straightened into the stretch, Game On Dude began to make up the deficit, he quickly caught his stablemate inside the furlong marker and then he drew clear, completing five furlongs in 59 seconds and galloping out as if he was enjoying himself grandly. Without much encouragement, he ran the final quarter-mile in about 23 seconds on this watch and continued through six furlongs in 1:12 or so and then, well, he just kept going. By the time jockey Martin Garcia had him pulled up, Game On Dude had left his hapless workmate about a sixteenth of a mile behind.
"I'm very happy," Baffert said, flashing his Hall of Fame smile, his eyes brightly announcing a flood of confidence.
Monday, Game On Dude looked the star, and, even more important, he also looked like a Horse of the Year. Will he look the same in five days and after 1¼ miles? It'll be a classic Classic.