Smile Politely

The final curtain for Horse of the Year

BCAnd now it all comes down to this. With the Horse of the Year title on the line, all that’s left is a single race. Just one final test before one of these horses takes the crown in what is sure to be the race of the year. The Breeders’ Cup Classic has become a sort of championship of the last horse standing, with so many defections to develop over the past few months. What’s left of the best horses in the nation will be joined by a lone foreign invader, the champion horse from Oz, So You Think. So who do you think will conquer the richest race in North America? Will it be the comeback of the year for former champion, Uncle Mo? Or will Havre de Grace leave the boys in the dust beneath the twin spires? All will be revealed this Saturday, when a single horse will emerge from the darkness to cross the beam of light and into history.

Uncle MoSadly, the field for this Breeders’ Cup Classic isn’t the superstar-studded field of last year’s edition. There’s grade I material in here, to be sure, but few actual multiple grade I winners in the field. In fact, only three of the 11 American horses can even claim to have more than one grade I victory to their resume: Game on Dude, Havre de Grace, and Uncle Mo—and of these three, Uncle Mo has yet to win a grade I this year. Despite this fact, the 3-year-old colt is going off as the favorite in the Classic. Nevermind he’s never actually run the 1 ¼-mile distance of the Classic; he enters this race still waving his faded BC Juvenile champion banner, and hoards of cloudy-eyed bettors have rushed to the windows to show him their support. Is Mo a good horse? Certainly. Is he a Classic horse? That remains to be seen, though his most stalwart supporter, his owner Mike Repole, seems to think so; in fact, Repole has shown favor toward Mo over his Travers winner, Stay Thirsty, who is also entered in this race. If Mo can win America’s championship race after battling a severe illness that took him out of training for a month, without a prep over 1 mile, he deserves to be called a “miracle horse.”

Game on Dude is a contender to be reckoned with. His critics will look at the West Coast division and sneer at his competition, but one glance at the older East Coast division should wipe away any class criticisms. With trainer Bob Baffert in his corner, and a good post position, Game on Dude has plenty of upside. He favors dirt, which tosses out his 4th-place finish in the Pacific Classic to three horses who like the turf; he has won over the Classic distance, and he is a son of Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Awesome Again. His jockey, Chantal Sutherland, would be the first female rider to win the Classic if Game on Dude gets her to the finish line first. Sutherland’s only other Breeders’ Cup mount will come Friday on Great Hot in the Filly and Mare Sprint, which does her no favors in preparation for riding in the Classic. Churchill has rewarded those horses and riders in the past who have traversed its course and have learned its quirks.

If you listen to backstretch buzz, word is the flashiest Classic contender in the morning this week was Flat Out. The newly-minted grade I winner became a serious contender here after tasting victory in the Jockey Club Gold Cup last time out over several rivals in this field, including Drosselmeyer, Stay Thirsty, and Ice Box. Then again, the horses he beat in that grade I test were Drosselmeyer, Stay Thirsty, and Ice Box. Outside of Stay Thirsty, who may not have liked the muddy track and ran a bizarre race, Flat Out hasn’t beaten much this year. Havre de Grace laughed at Flat Out and the rest of his division in the Grade I Woodward this September. He will have to be at his absolute peak to beat the best in this field, because he isn’t in their ozone. With the scratch of Prayer for Relief, Flat Out inherits the rail post.

So You ThinkNew Zealand-bred So You Think is debuting on American soil off of two losses in group I competition in Europe, including a 4th in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. Before that, he won the Group I Irish Champions Stakes and the Group I Coral Eclipse Stakes (where he defeated 2010 Arc winner Workforce), both at 1 ¼-miles over a good turf course. Australia’s 2010 3-year-old Champion has a record of 12 wins in 19 starts and is a multi-millionaire. Though no one knows how he’ll perform over traditional dirt, So You Think specializes in the Classic distance and is the rock star of this field. In a year where the American older horse division is anemic at best, it would be little surprise if a European invader stole the show on the world’s stage. In his purple and white silks, the Breeders’ Cup colors would look good on him.

Havre de GraceAs far as American contenders go, the horse that makes the most sense is Havre de Grace to win the Classic. She’s proven she can handle the distance, has beaten the brains out of everything not named Blind Luck, and rolls her eyes at the opposite sex. Her 2011 campaign, in short, reflects the kind of record any horse would be lucky to have. Watch for her to close from mid-pack and wear down the tiring leaders. It would be an emotional victory, for sure, to see trainer Larry Jones in the winner’s circle with a Classic-winning filly at Churchill Downs; no one will ever forget the story of Eight Belles and the heartbreak that almost took him out of the game.

This has been a year of upsets, and it would only make sense if the Classic went out with a shocker. For your best longshot bets, look to the jockey king of Churchill Downs, Calvin Borel, who is aboard the lightly-raced Rattlesnake Bridge, and To Honor and Serve, another 3-year-old who has a lot of upside. To Honor and Serve had to watch the Triple Crown from the bench, but came back in a big way once he recuperated late this summer; he drew away strongly in an optional claimer at Saratoga in a return to form, then went on to win the Pennsylvania Derby in his next start over some of the other players in this field, including Rattlesnake Bridge and Ruler on Ice. Of course, there’s always poor overlooked Stay Thirsty, who is being touted as nothing more than a horse who prefers New York, as he has not performed well outside of the state. While this may be the case, his victories at Saratoga speak for themselves, and he has grown enough to be considered among the best of his crop. If Stay Thirsty won the Classic over Uncle Mo, one would think Repole would be forced to stop treating him like the red-headed stepchild.

In a year where inconsistency itself has become the norm, the Classic is almost sure to deliver some sort of surprise ending. America’s richest race holds several contenders with a realistic shot of taking the big enchilada, but each must dash a question mark above his or her head. The Breeders’ Cup Classic may prove to be the race that finally reveals our Horse of the Year, or it could leave us with more questions. But no matter who steps into the winner’s circle beneath the lights this Saturday, they will have beaten some impressive names in a field where everyone has a fighting chance.

*My picks: So You Think, Havre de Grace, Uncle Mo

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The Grade I $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic will be broadcast live from Churchill Downs on ESPN. Post time is scheduled for approximately 7:00pm ET.

Coverage of Breeders’ Cup Saturday begins at 2:00pm ET on ABC, switching over to ESPN at 3:30pm ET.

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