By Gene Kershner
It's not too often that the handicap division steals the spotlight from the 3-year-olds on the Derby trail at this time of the year. On Saturday afternoon the $750,000 Santa Anita Handicap at Santa Anita will do just that when three of the biggest names in racing will go head to head.
Willis Horton, owner of Will Take Charge (2-1), told the national racing media on Tuesday afternoon that "it could be the race of a lifetime to see." Last year's three-year-old Eclipse winner will get a rematch on national television Saturday evening with Breeders' Cup Classic winner Mucho Macho Man (9-5), in the race known as the Big Cap on Fox Sports 1 at 7 p.m. ET.
Not part of the original schedule of "The Jockey Club Tour on Fox," the Big Cap became a must-see once the two top finishers in last year's $5 million Classic decided to head west for round two. Adding to the drama will be hometown hero Game On Dude (5-2), who will be seeking a record third Big Cap win after winning the 2011 and 2013 editions.
Dude's trainer Bob Baffert is as excited as most racing fans for Saturday's Big Cap. "When you win a big race on a big day like that when the stands are pretty full and a lot of cheering and it’s loud, really it’s a good feeling. That, to me, that’s the good feeling story, when you see a lot of people out and they’re cheering for home and you can hear the roar of the crowd, there’s nothing better feeling than that. Winning—when you win one of those—under those circumstances, that’s what makes racing so exciting," he told the national racing media earlier in the week.
"It’s like a heavy weight title fight. Before, if it’s the same horses in California running it probably doesn’t get that much attention, but anytime you have a horse that ships in like Mucho Macho Man with the best handicap horses in the same race, that’s what brings the attention because you’ve got your Breeders’ Cup winner, you’ve got the champion three-year-old, it’s a no brainer," said Baffert.
The Southern California-based trainer is hoping for a pace scenario that will fit Game On Dude.
"We have to give him a chance and, you know, it’s got to be a reasonable pace. It can’t be a ridiculous pace but, I mean, those races are always fast anyway, so I’m sure he’ll be going pretty fast there. But, you know, it has to unfold the right way for him and if it does, then he’s very effective," he said.
The Derby trail will feature big races on both coasts with 50 points at stake for the winners. The Tampa Bay Derby, run at 1 1/16 miles, will feature several Ontario-bred horses including Coltimus Prime, trained by Justin Nixon, the Mark Casse-trained Matador and Asserting Bear conditioned by Reade Baker. We could be seeing a Queen's Plate horse emerge from Tampa Bay Downs this weekend. All three of the Ontario-bred entrants are Canadian Triple Crown nominees, although Casse admits Matador runs his best on dirt.
"Our feeling is that Matador is superior on the dirt. We feel like he trains much better on the dirt than he ever did the synthetic and that was our reason for taking him to the Sam Davis, because if you look at his previous form, you could hardly believe that he deserved to go to the Sam Davis. We need him to step up and continue to run better on the dirt for him to be considered a good horse. The question is, are we going to go back to the Queen’s Plate? We’ll have to see. He’ll have to show me more on the synthetic," Casse explained to the national racing media.
The horse to beat in Tampa, however, is also trained by Casse, winning trainer of the last two Prince of Wales Stakes at Fort Erie, and that colt is Conquest Titan. Casse moved him from Gulfstream Park to Tampa due to the colt's late running style that would not fair well on the speed-favoring drag strip at Gulfstream. A style that Casse changed to after his disappointing finish in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile.
"We went back to Churchill Downs after the Breeders’ Cup and said, look, we’ve got to do something different, and so we started taking him back and then relaxing him in his works and, you know, it shows in his chart there at Churchill that he broke slow, but that was my plan and we told [jockey] Shaun [Bridgmohan], 'Just take him back, get him to relax and try to come with one big run,' and it worked. It doesn’t happen very often, but it worked that time," said Casse.
On the Big Cap undercard is the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes, also at 1 1/16 miles, that will showcase the first race in a Derby point race for the impressive Bayern, trained by Baffert. The lightly raced son of Offlee Wild has only two career starts, both wins at Santa Anita, the latter an allowance win by 15 lengths over highly-regarded Tap It Rich.
Not surprisingly, Baffert has the second best horse in the race on paper, Midnight Hawk, who currently sits in 13th on the Derby points list with 12. He finished a well beaten third to Candy Boy in the Robert B. Lewis last week after winning the Sham Stakes in January.
Jockey Gary Stevens may have a tough decision before Derby day if Bayern continues to show his talents on the track. He also rode Candy Boy in the Robert B. Lewis, another talented colt who should have enough points to qualify for the Kentucky Derby. "He’s actually shown me more in his last two workouts after that race than he did in that actual race. He showed me some versatility and the thing about Bayern, he’s got a great mind and he’s going in the right direction, and we’ll see what happens on the weekend, but I expect a big performance from him. I don’t see any reason he won’t with what I’ve seen in the mornings the last two times I’ve been on him," said the Hall of Fame jockey.
[UPDATE 4:00 p.m. Friday: Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert announced on his Twitter account that 3-year-old colt Bayern is scratched from Saturday's San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita with an injury.]