ARCADIA, Calif. (AP) — Game On Dude can cap a stellar year by eclipsing his worst loss.
A victory in the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic on the second day of the thoroughbred championships Saturday will mean an undefeated 2013 for trainer Bob Baffert's 6-year-old gelding and a likely Eclipse Award as Horse of the Year.
But the 8-5 morning line favorite will have to win a race in which he finished seventh last year in what Baffert called "probably the worst race of his life," and this year's edition is looking a whole lot like 2012 and not just because of the same sunny scenery at Santa Anita Park.
Despite coming in as the defending champion, Fort Larned is once again an underdog in the Classic. While Game On Dude was busy going 6 for 6 and running away with races like the Grade 1 Pacific Classic, Fort Larned has had a tough 2-for-5 campaign in 2013. He stumbled and lost rider Brian Hernandez in the Gulfstream Park Handicap and had a pair of fifth-place finishes in the Oaklawn and Whitney handicaps, though he managed victories in the Stephen Foster Handicap and his last outing, the Homecoming Classic, at Churchill Downs.
"It's been a roller coaster ride for sure," trainer Ian Wilkes said, but "all is well" and problem-free for the 5-year-old coming into the Classic. Fort Larned is the 6-1 third choice on the morning line behind last year's second-place finisher, 5-1 Mucho Macho Man, and Game On Dude, but Wilkes believes another upset is a real possibility.
"You can never stop believing," the trainer said. "If you do you are in trouble." Hall of Famer Mike Smith will be in the saddle for Game On Dude. The 48-year-old jockey won Friday's first two races and extended his record for Breeders' Cup wins to 19 despite finishing fourth in the Breeders' Cup Distaff behind winner Beholder. He was attempting to guide Royal Delta to victory in the race for a third straight time.
"She didn't have it today. No spark, man," Smith said of Royal Delta. "She usually takes the race to somebody, but not today." Instead, the win went to Beholder and an equally seasoned Hall of Fame jockey, 50-year-old Gary Stevens, who began a comeback in January and won the Preakness Stakes before taking his first Breeders' Cup race since 2000 and his ninth overall.
Sent off as the third betting choice, Beholder relaxed while running third down the backstretch before moving up to wrest the lead from pacesetter Authenticity and going on to the easy victory. "There was never a bit of panic from her, so there was never a bit of panic from me," Stevens said.
Beholder, last year's champion 2-year-old filly, put herself in position to claim this year's 3-year-old filly title. "She's the most intelligent animal that I've ever been around," Stevens said. "She listens. She doesn't always obey, but when she's in a race, she listens to what I want to do."
Beholder's owner, B. Wayne Hughes, called Stevens' comeback "phenomenal" and credited him for the win. "We really have one of the greatest athletes on the planet sitting right here who is saying the horse is smarter than him, OK?"
Stevens' return to the winners' circle, along with Smith's wins in the $500,000 Marathon and the $1 million Juvenile Turf, made it a good day for the veteran jockeys. "We're just two old athletes that are still plying our trade pretty good," Stevens said.
"I'm so proud of Mike," Stevens said before zinging his longtime friend, "even if he did shut me off in one of those races." Beholder ran 1 1/8 miles in 1:47.77 for trainer Richard Mandella, 10 years after he won a record four Cup races in 2003.
Four jockeys and five trainers won each of the Breeders' Cup races in front of 35,833 fans. Bettors laid down $35.5 million on the five races. Saturday will bring nine more Breeders' Cup races, including the Classic and the $2 million Juvenile, a race that sets the stage for the following year's Triple Crown chase.
Havana is the early favorite and likely pacesetter as trainer Todd Pletcher seeks to win his third Juvenile in four years at the speed-favoring Santa Anita. The undefeated colt has gone straight to the lead in both his victories, including the Grade 1 Champagne Stakes last month, but Pletcher said that's not the only way his colt can run.
"We've put him behind horses in the morning and he doesn't seem to mind it," Pletcher said. But the trainer says there's no way the colt will sit too far back in the field of 14. "I think he's going to be a horse that's forwardly placed no matter what," Pletcher said.
AP Racing Writer Beth Harris contributed to this story.