ARCADIA, Calif. (March 5, 2014)—Separated by just a nose in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita Nov. 2, Classic winner Mucho Macho Man and runner-up Will Take Charge will again clash in the most highly anticipated Santa Anita Handicap since Alysheba and Ferdinand ran 1-2 in 1988, as they head a field of eight older horses set to contest the 77th running of the Grade I, $750,000 Big ’Cap presented by San Manuel Indian Bingo & Casino at 1 ¼ miles on Saturday.
A dazzling 14-length winner versus Florida-breds in the 1 1/8 miles Sunshine Millions Classic Jan. 18 at Gulfstream Park, the Kathy Ritvo-trainee will again be guided by Gary Stevens, who has orchestrated the three-game winning streak that began with a 4 ¼ length victory in the Grade I, 1 1/8 miles Awesome Again Stakes at Santa Anita on Sept. 28.
Ridden with confidence by Stevens in the Classic, he opened up a one length lead with an eighth of a mile to go and was all-out to hold off the late surge of the D. Wayne Lukas-trained Will Take Charge, who would go on to win Eclipse honors as America’s top 3-year-old colt in 2013.
“MMM” flew to Santa Anita from his Florida base on Jan. 23, and appears to have acclimated well under the watchful eye of Ritvo and Reeves Thoroughbred Racing Manager Finn Green. “MMM” worked five furlongs between races Sunday with his regular exercise rider Nick Petro aboard, in 1:01.53.
“I thought the work was really good, exactly what we wanted,” said Green. “He was several feet off the rail and he went easy, he was actually playing around. He was very, very happy.”
Second, beaten a half length in the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita, “MMM” is owned by Reeves Thoroughbred Racing and Stronach Stables. With an overall record of 24-9-5-6, he has earnings of $5,580,410.
Ritvo will be making her first Big ’Cap appearance, while Stevens will be riding the race for the 19th time—having won it a total of four times, dating back to the Charlie Whittingham-trained Ruhlmann, in 1990.
Although never a factor throughout last year’s Triple Crown, Will Take Charge won the prestigious Grade I Travers Stakes Aug. 24 at Saratoga. He then took the Grade II Pennsylvania Derby on Sept. 21 leading into his heartbreak defeat in the Classic. Lukas waited 27 days before showcasing his stable star again on Nov. 29, and “WTC” responded with head victory over two-time Big ’Cap winner Game On Dude in the Grade I, 1 1/8 miles Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs—all but cementing his claim to top 3-year-old colt honors.
In his 4-year-old debut Feb. 9, “WTC” was second, beaten 1 ½ lengths as the 3-2 favorite in Gulfstream Park’s Grade I Donn Handicap and the decision to ship west and run in the Big ’Cap was made shortly thereafter.
Currently based at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas, “WTC” has worked three half miles since the Donn, including a bullet half on Sunday in 47.80, best of 74 at the distance. Lukas put him on a Tex Sutton charter flight Monday morning and the 4-year-old colt by Unbridled’s Song arrived at Santa Anita at 5:15 p.m. on Tuesday.
Weighted at 123 pounds, Luis Saez will again ride “WTC,” as he has guided him to three wins in his last five starts. Owned by Willis D. Horton and Three Chimneys Farm, LLC, “WTC” has six wins and four seconds from 16 starts—good for career earnings of $3,155,148.
Saez will be riding in his first Big ’Cap, while Lukas has started 13 horses, winning with Farma Way, ridden by Stevens, in 1991.
A two-time winner of the Big ’Cap, Bob Baffert’s Game On Dude won the race by a record 7 ¾ lengths last year en route to wins in the Grade II Charles Town Classic April 20, the Grade I Hollywood Gold Cup July 6 and a record breaking 8 ½ length win in the Grade I Pacific Classic Aug. 25.
With that glowing scorecard in-hand, he was dispatched as the 8-5 favorite in the 11-horse Breeders’ Cup Classic Nov. 2, but was done midway around the far turn and finished ninth, beaten 11 lengths. Although he bounced back with a big second to “WTC” in the Clark Handicap, Game On Dude was fried in what many observers deemed a suicidal pace duel in the Grade II San Antonio Stakes Feb. 8, finishing fifth as the 1-5 favorite.
Game On Dude has had four works since his San Antonio disappointment, his most recent a five furlong move in 1:00.60 on Monday. Should he bounce back and win on Saturday, Game On Dude would become the first horse to ever win the Big ’Cap three times.
Assigned 122 pounds and owned by Joe Torre’s Diamond Pride Stable, LLC, the Lanni Family Trust, Mercedes Stable, LLC and Bernard Schiappa, Game On Dude, a 7-year-old gelding by Awesome Again, has 15 wins, six seconds and one third from 30 starts. He has earnings of $5,713,893.
Mike Smith, who has ridden Game On Dude in eight out of his last nine races—five of them wins, will be riding his 10th Big ’Cap. His lone victory came aboard Game On Dude last year. Baffert has won the race three out of the last four years and four times overall, dating back to General Challenge in 2000.
Owners Jerry and Ann Moss, who tasted victory in the Big ’Cap with Ruhlmann in 1990, will hope to stay on a roll with longshot Blingo and jockey Aaron Gryder, who guided the 5-year-old gelding by Artie Schiller to an off-the-pace win at 15-1 in the San Antonio.
With Game On Dude and Blueskiesnrainbows blistering the track through fractions of 22.75, 46.26, 1:10.17 and 1:35.23, Gryder and Blingo were on the move around the far turn and rallied wide to win going away by a half length.
Although a winner of two ungraded stakes, the La Puente at Santa Anita in April, 2012, and the I’m A Banker at Belmont Park on Oct. 14, 2013, Blingo was lightly regarded going into the San Antonio and doubts remained as to whether or not he preferred turf or dirt.
Conditioned by John Shirreffs, Blingo has had two local works since the San Antonio, his most recent a sharp five furlongs in 1:00.80 on Monday. He has four wins from 11 starts and earnings of $364,408.
Shirreffs will be saddling his sixth Big ’Cap starter, while Gryder will be riding the race for the second time.
Second, beaten a half length by Blingo in the San Antonio, reformed claimer Imperative is on the improve for trainer George Papaprodromou, as he earned a career best 98 Beyer Speed figure at odds of 26-1.
Claimed four starts back for $50,000 on Dec. 21, Imperative donned blinkers for the first time in the San Antonio, but rated kindly under Kent Desormeaux, who was aboard for the first time. A 4-year-old gelding by Bernardini, Imperative will be trying natural dirt for only the third time in what will be his 14th career start. Owned by KM Racing Enterprise, Inc., Imperative has two wins, four seconds and a third place finish, good for earnings of $134,370.
A deep closer, American Blend is one of several hoping for a hot Big ’Cap pace. A late closing third in the San Antonio, he was a second condition allowance winner at 1 1/16 miles two starts back on Jan. 1. Trained by Carla Gaines and owned by his breeders, Mr. and Mrs. Warren B. Williamson, American Blend is a 6-year-old Quiet American gelding who will be trying 1 ¼ miles for the first time.
American Blend has three wins, a second and two thirds from 11 starts with earnings of $163,530.
Mr. and Mrs. Larry D. Williams homebred Rousing Sermon has kept good company and can stalk or come from off the pace. An even fifth in his most recent start, the Grade II, 1 1/16 miles San Pasqual Stakes Jan. 11, Rousing Sermon, the lone California-bred in the field, was third, beaten a length by stable-mate Blueskiesnrainbows, in the Grade III Native Diver Stakes.
In his only other attempt at the deep waters of a mile and a quarter, Rousing Sermon, a 5-year-old horse by Lucky Pulpit, was eighth, beaten 8 ¼ lengths, in the 2012 Kentucky Derby.
A winner of last year’s Grade II San Felipe Stakes, Hear the Ghost was a leading Derby candidate, but was forced to the sidelines until resurfacing in a 6 ½ furlong allowance race at Hollywood Park Nov. 7. Second at even money in his comeback try, the 4-year-old Ghostzapper gelding was then second as the 5-2 favorite in the Grade III Native Diver Handicap Dec. 14.
Trained by Jerry Hollendorfer, Hear the Ghost stumbled at the break and was third at 7-5 in the Grade II, 1 1/16 miles Strub Stakes and disappointed again on Feb. 1, when third at 3-5 in a one mile allowance. Including the San Felipe, Hear the Ghost has been ridden in his last five races by Corey Nakatani, but will be handled for the first time by Joel Rosario in the Big ’Cap. Owned by Halo Farms and Hollendorfer, Hear the Ghost is 7-2-3-2, with earnings of $294,000.
Hollendorfer will also be represented by Rousing Sermon, who will be ridden by Rafael Bejarano. This trainer/rider combination have enjoyed great success at the current meeting and they combined to win the 2008 Big ’Cap with Heatseeker. Rousing Sermon and Hear the Ghost will provide Hollendorfer with his fifth and sixth starters in the race, while Bejarano will be making his eighth appearance.
The complete field for the Santa Anita Handicap, to be run as the ninth race on an 11-program Saturday, with jockeys, weights and morning line in post position order: Will Take Charge, Luis Saez, 123, (2-1); Mucho Macho Man, Gary Stevens, 124, (9-5); Blingo, Aaron Gryder, 117, (8-1); Imperative, Kent Desormeaux, 114, (12-1); Rousing Sermon, Rafael Bejarano, 114, (12-1); American Blend, Joe Talamo, 114, (20-1); Game On Dude, Mike Smith, 122, (5-2), and Hear the Ghost, Joel Rosario, 114, (20-1).
First post time on Big ‘’Cap Day is 12 noon. Admission gates will open at 10 a.m. Santa Anita will guarantee $500,000 in Saturday’s 50 cent Late Pick 4.