By Andrew Dalton
The Associated Press
ARCADIA, Calif. — Real rematches in the Breeders’ Cup Classic are rare, with injuries and the breeding shed leading to early retirements and heavy turnover among the world’s top thoroughbreds.
But Saturday’s $5 million championship looks eerily similar to the 2012 edition, 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 after a spotty year, with trainer Bob Baffert’s Game On Dude again the clear favorite after an undefeated 2013 that could earn the 6-year-old gelding an Eclipse Award as Horse of the Year.
While Game On Dude hasn’t lost since finishing seventh in what Baffert called “probably the worst race of his life,” Fort Larned has had a rough-and-tumble time since the 2012 Classic. He stumbled and lost rider Brian Hernandez in the Gulfstream Park Handicap, had a pair of fifth-place finishes in the Oaklawn and Whitney handicaps, and 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,” said trainer Ian Wilkes, but “all is well” and problem-free for the 5-year-old horse 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 the 8-5 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. In this business, you have to stay optimistic.”
Stealthy Panther:Game On Dude’s younger half-brother and stablemate Paynter is among the genuine long shots in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, but Baffert this week called the 4-year-old colt his “stealth” runner in the race.
Baffert has had big moments with dark horse candidates before. Saddling the unbeaten favorite Indian Charlie in the 1998 Kentucky Derby, he instead won with his small, overlooked colt Real Quiet for the second of his three Derby victories.