ARCADIA, Calif. -- Early each morning, long before the sun has made its appearance, I'm at the rail watching horses. If there's a workout imminent, while pulling out my watch I'll scurry down the apron and up into the stands for a better view.
Watching horses and listening to them, hoping for any hints or suggestions or intimations -- that's the major preoccupation of Breeders' Cup week. Many racehorses can be more communicative than their trainers and even downright loquacious. Horses have much to say, if only we'll listen to them. Some are more eloquent than others, of course, and a few can be taciturn or guarded. But they're not deceptive. We sometimes misunderstand what they're saying, but racehorses never deceive, which is why you won't find a racehorse running for Congress. For the most part, horses honestly announce themselves and their intentions.
This year, however, to this eye anyway, no horse has been so emphatic. Not even Groupie Doll.
Last year, for example, a few days before the Breeders' Cup, in a workout, Groupie Doll made a major announcement. Gliding easily and gracefully through three-eighths of a mile in 34.40 seconds, with a strong final quarter-mile and a powerful gallop-out, she said to all the world that there was no way she could lose, that nothing shy of an earthquake's swallowing the field could prevent her from winning the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint.
This year, however, to this eye anyway, no horse has been so emphatic. Not even Groupie Doll, who has trained well and looked good, but just not quite like last year's version. Last year she looked as though she had just arrived from another planet itching for an argument. Nevertheless, most of the horses here for the Breeders' Cup have looked very bright, healthy and strong, and they have trained well, as they should, of course, since they're the best horses in the country. And some have impressed more than others.
The most impressive horse seen from this corner this week has been Game On Dude, whose workout Monday sparkled. His trainer, Bob Baffert, has beamed all week, too, and not with gratuitous optimism. From the look of his horses, he should have a big Breeders' Cup.
Like most of the trainers that have a horse in the Classic, Baffert said the break will be the key to the race. Last year, Game On Dude, who has a tendency to rock back and forth while standing there waiting in the starting gate, missed the break and his Classic ended simultaneously with its starting.
In his recent races, however, he has been "tailed" in the gate, and as a result he has left there more alertly. If he breaks sharply Saturday, he should be able to secure an ideal stalking position behind Moreno and Fort Larned, last year's winner.
Mucho Macho Man, who's a giant of a horse, could also get a comfortable stalking trip. Much could depend on how far Moreno runs with Fort Larned and how fast they're forced to run early. A hot pace could set the table for Palace Malice, Will Take Charge, Paynter or maybe even Declaration of War. (Don't underestimate the European; he was in this country as a 2-year-old preparing for a dirt campaign until an injury sent him home.)
Yes, this Classic is very contentious, with several possible outcomes. But Game On Dude has trained beautifully and energetically, as if he's ready to give the effort of a lifetime. And so from here, the Classic looks like Game On Dude, Mucho Macho Man, Palace Malice, Fort Larned. But Declaration of War and Will Take Charge, who have made a very positive physical impression, and Paynter, who had a sharp workout in the company of Flashback, an outstanding 3-year-old, are appealing long shots.
Some other long shots that have recommended themselves in the mornings here: Untapable, She's A Tiger, Dance Card, Handsome Mike and Mexikoma.
The first of the day's Breeders' Cup races at Santa Anita is the 4th. She's a Tiger will have to use her speed to avoid a wide trip around the first turn, and if Ria Antonia flashes the speed she has implied she possesses, the pace could warm up. But, remember, Santa Anita is profoundly speed biased; so a fast pace doesn't ensure a late-running victory. Still, Aretemis Agrotera could enjoy a perfect stalking trip. But Sweet Reason, who'll have to overcome the Santa Anita speed bias, is the one to beat. Because of the odd configuration of the Belmont Park track, where she had no rail to her inside, she ducked in from the No. 1 post position in the Frizette and lost all chance, spotting the field about five lengths. Her best effort wins here. Untapable is training very well here.
Selections:Artemis Agrotera, Sweet Reason, Untapable, She's A Tiger.
Filly & Mare Turf
Dank appears to be one of the more likely winners of the day. Her explosion in the Beverly D suggested her best effort is a few lengths better than anything this group might be capable of producing. As one trainer said referring to Dank, "If the European that won the Beverly D runs her race, then we're all running for second." Romantica, another European, likes hard ground, which she didn't get in her last outing at Longchamps but will have at Santa Anita. Tiz Flirtatious loves this course. Marketing Mix, the runner-up a year ago, also likes Santa Anita, but she'll need her best to threaten.
Selections: Dank, Romantica, Tiz Flirtatious, Marketing Mix.
Filly & Mare Sprint
Groupie Doll returns, but she isn't quite the same as the otherworldly mare that put on such a great show last year. Sweet Lulu is appealing. She never has lost sprinting and has abundant early speed that could allow her to control the pace. Book Review, a rather unprepossessing sort, looked slightly better to this eye when she worked in company with multiple stakes winner Executiveprivilege this week. And Book Review loves this difficult distance. Dance Card has made a very positive impression here.
Selections: Sweet Lulu, Book Review, Groupie Doll, Dance Card.
Races down the hill are always exciting, and this one should be especially so. Keep in mind that outside post positions have an advantage in this unique race, as if Mizdirection, who won this race last year when returning from a six-month layoff, needs any help. She returns this year from a five-month layoff. Most important, she's unbeaten down the hill here at Santa Anita. Handsome Mike looks as good as I've ever seen him, he's training sharply, and he has won down the hill. At long odds, he could invite an investment. Unbridled's Note had a little traffic trouble in his last, but the effort should set him up nicely for a top effort. Chips All In has won four of five on the Santa Anita turf. Capo Bastone, who has worked with Verrazano and Princess of Sylmar, is another intriguing long shot.
Selections: Handsome Mike, Mizdirection, Unbridled's Note, Chips All In.
This could be an easy one to overthink and overanalyze; or it could just be impossible to figure out. Most of the speed in the race has drawn outside: Havana, No. 13; Strong Mandate, No. 14; and Diamond Bachelor, No. 12. And they'll all have to use their speed, to some degree anyway, to avoid a wide trip in the first turn. That could set the race up for Mexikoma or Tap It Rich running late. Still, it's useful to remember that this surface fawns over speed. And Havana has been working behind horses in the morning; so maybe he'll rate kindly an settle into a stalking position. He's probably best at this distance. When he won the Champagne Stakes, he ran the opening half-mile in 45.54 seconds, the fastest split of the day. And he was the only front-running winner that day at Belmont, suggesting the surface wasn't especially generous to speed or helpful to his cause.
Selections: Havana, Tap It Rich, Mexikoma, Strong Mandate.
The Fugue, who's the fifth-rated older horse in Europe, probably should have won the Filly & Mare Turf last year, but lacked running room for about an eighth of a mile. Not very big, she's nevertheless powerful and has made a positive impression here with just a little activity. She has won her last two, and having avoided soft ground in Europe, she comes here relatively fresh. Indy Point's Arlington Million was a throwout. He hit himself (basically struck his front legs with his back) and came out of the race with a slight injury. He returned to form in the John Henry Stakes and has looked terrific here in the mornings. Little Mike, last year's winner, also has looked good, and as his last race indicates, he obviously has returned to top form. Point Of Entry will try to win this off a lengthy layoff following a serious injury. Early in the year, he was probably the best turf horse in the country, and although he has impressed in the mornings, he hasn't quite looked like the monster that came here a year ago, when he ran second after some traffic trouble.
Selections: The Fugue, Indy Point, Little Mike, Point of Entry.
Justin Phillip probably should have won the Vosburgh: He broke in front, but then, after being taken back, he ended up three-wide; and in late stretch, where he made the lead, Private Zone ducked out and bumped him. With that effort as preparation, Justin Phillip seems ready for a huge effort. But he'll have to overcome his inside post position, where it could be difficult to work out a stalking trip. Secret Circle, who returned from a layoff with a powerful allowance victory, never has lost sprinting; he has looked very sharp. Private Zone also has trained sharply. And Sum of the Parts, who's fresher and sharper than he was a year ago when finishing fourth in the race, has high speed.
Selections: Justin Phillip, Secret Circle, Sum of the Parts, Private Zone.
Wise Dan, the reigning Horse of the Year, just seems better than these horses. Sometimes the game is that simple. He hasn't lost a race on the turf since 2011. Of course, he lost his most recent outing, on the Polytrack at Keeneland, where Silver Max was able to control the pace unchallenged. But Silver Max will feel some pressure here from Obviously obviously, and so Wise Dan should enjoy a perfect trip tracking the top pair. No Jet Lag has won both starts in North America by finishing like a tornado and should enjoy any action that develops up front. Olympic Glory, the most accomplished of the Europeans, is said to prefer softer ground and hasn't made a good impression. Silentio and Bright Thought have impressed in the mornings.
Selections: Wise Dan, Silver Max, No Jet Lag, Obviously.