By Bob Ehalt
For the most part, everything is in place.
Over the course of the next few weekends a handful of Breeders’ Cup hopefuls will put in their final preps, yet the stars are already set. The big names that will give the two-day extravaganza its charisma have concluded their prelims and will be seen next at Santa Anita Park where division championships and racing’s biggest prize of all – Horse of the Year – will be decided.
Unless that’s already happened.
As the 2012 racing season dives head-first toward the finish line, the race to decide who has been the year’s best performer might have ended in June.
The imposing shadow that will be hanging over the San Gabriel Mountains on Nov. 2-3 belongs to none other than I’ll Have Another, the Doug O’Neill-trained 3-year-old who nearly beat Miguel Cabrera to the punch in ending a Triple Crown drought.
If 2012 ended tomorrow, I’ll Have Another probably would be named Horse of the Year. He does, after all, own a perfect 4-for-4 record this year with wins in the Kentucky Derby (G1), Preakness Stakes (G1) and Santa Anita Derby (G1). Beyond that, the Doug O’Neill-trained colt also has emotion on his side as his bid for a Triple Crown sweep did not end with a loss in the Belmont Stakes (G1). His date with destiny was derailed before it even arrived through the heartbreak of a career-ending tendon injury that forced his connections to scratch him a day before the “Test of the Champion.”
That’s quite a 1-2 punch; one that would floor most of the horses in the America’s Best Racing Thoroughbred Media Poll. The door, though, has not been slammed shut.
The battle for Horse of the Year honors could indeed turn into a horse race if a couple of the leading candidates do their part by landing in the winner’s circle at the world championships next month.
Foremost among that group would be Game On Dude.
Though second in the national poll (I’ll Have Another is 5th, though some voters, like this one, do not include inactive horses in their Top 10 votes), Game On Dude can leapfrog past the leader, Wise Dan, who is scheduled to compete in the Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1). All Game On Dude has to do is capture the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1).
GAME ON DUDE
Take away his disastrous trip to Dubai, and a victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic would give Game On Dude five wins in his six U.S. starts, featuring wins in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Classic, Awesome Again Stakes (it used to be the Goodwood, if it doesn’t ring a bell) and Hollywood Gold Cup Stakes and the Grade 2 Californian and San Antonio Stakes. The lone blemish would be a runner-up finish in the Pacific Classic Stakes (G1).
That’s an impressive resume, which could spark an intriguing debate involving two pesky outside factors. Will some folks adopt a “what have you done for me lately” attitude and place more weight on November wins in open stakes than victories in restricted stakes in the spring? In a year when medications have become a major story, will there be a backlash over O’Neill’s suspension for a drug violation?
My vote would probably go to I’ll Have Another, but it’s not a foregone conclusion.
Wise Dan is more of a longshot since he’s not running in one of the marquee Breeders’ Cup races.
If Game On Dude loses and Wise Dan takes the Breeders’ Cup Mile, it would give the gelding three straight Grade 1 wins. Yet the trio of the Breeders’ Cup Mile, Shadwell Turf Mile Stakes and Woodbine Mile Stakes simply does not pass the eye test when matched against the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Santa Anita Derby.
Another possibility would be Phipps Stable’s Point of Entry, who is fourth in the poll and could notch a fourth straight Grade 1 turf win if he adds the Breeders’ Cup Turf to a list that already includes the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Stakes, Sword Dancer Invitational Stakes and Man o’ War Stakes.
POINT OF ENTRY
Hailing from one of the sport’s most famous stables probably would help his cause at the ballot box, yet his Grade 1s take on a different look when you learn that the runners-up in the first three of them were Center Divider, Al Khali and Treasure Beach, who are not exactly the “Murderer’s Row” of horse racing in 2012.
The X Factor would be Royal Delta, who currently is third in the national poll. While My Miss Aurelia and Awesome Feather are both undefeated – in their careers, not just in 2012 – neither of them has been very active this year. The Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic (G1) would be Awesome Feather’s third race of the year, and her first appearance in a 2012 graded stakes. My Miss Aurelia has also spent plenty of time on the sidelines, racing just twice so far, with a win in a Grade 1 3-year-old stakes, the Cotillion at Parx Racing, the highlight.
That’s not Horse of the Year material.
Royal Delta, meanwhile, has been anything but perfect. She’s won only three of six starts, including a loss against males in the Dubai World Cup – though she finished ahead of Game On Dude that day. But if trainer Bill Mott elects against running in the Ladies’ Classic and gambles on facing males in the $5 million Classic, a win there, coupled with memories of a convincing 9 ½-length win in the Beldame Stakes (G1) in her last start, could sneak her into the picture.
Calling that Horse of the Year scenario a longshot might be kind. The odds are quite long against it since the leader in the clubhouse is a spotless 4-for-4 in 2012 and she would be 4-for-7.
Yet at this point in the year, as we await two days’ worth of showdowns in California to settle matters, now is a time ripe for speculation. We can look into future, arrange pieces to a puzzle and merrily ponder how it all might turn out.
Everything is indeed in place.
And what are your thoughts? Who is your front-runner for Horse of the Year? Who needs to do what to catch that one? Let’s hear what you have to say.