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Friday, November 2, 2012 - Page updated at 10:30 p.m.

Breeders' Cup Classic may decide the horse of year

By Andrew Beyer
Special to The Washington Post

When Game on Dude runs in the Breeders' Cup Classic on Saturday, he can probably lock up the horse-of-the-year title with a victory. Yet the nation's richest and most significant race won't necessarily be the dramatic high point in two days of racing at Santa Anita in California.

An exceptional field of females, including two undefeated stars plus last year's filly champion, will contest the Ladies' Classic on Friday. And on Saturday the remarkable 5-year-old Wise Dan will face a formidable European challenge in the Mile on grass. The results could present Eclipse Award voters with difficult choices as they try to determine the top racehorse of 2012 — particularly if Game on Dude loses.

Trainer Bob Baffert's gelding possesses legitimate championship credentials, with four wins in high-level competition this season, most recently a romp in a Grade I stakes at Santa Anita. Game on Dude accomplished that victory with the aid of an easy trip; most of his other top efforts have come over synthetic tracks, not dirt. Moreover, the 1 ¼-mile distance of the Classic has sometimes proved too far for him; he tired to finish second in last year's event against a relatively weak field.

There is a bona fide 1 ¼-mile specialist in the $5 million Classic, the veteran Flat Out, who earlier this year moved into the barn of Bill Mott. In typical Mott fashion, Flat Out has run three steadily improving races, winning the 1 ¼-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont in his last start. I bet he runs down the favorite in the stretch Saturday.

If he does, he could open the door for the extraordinarily versatile Wise Dan to become horse of the year. The gelding has won stakes from 6 furlongs to 1-1/8 miles. He has won in Grade I company on dirt, turf and synthetic surfaces. Lately he demonstrated his true forte by winning three straight 1-mile turf stakes with overpowering efforts.

In the Mile, he will face two outstanding Europeans, Moonlight Cloud and Excelebration, as well as the 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom. The latter will be the most overbet horse in the Breeders' Cup; he's never displayed the talent or turf ability to win at this level.

But running a mile on grass is typically a European specialty, and European oddsmakers make Excelebration a solid favorite Saturday. I question whether he is necessarily better than either Wise Dan or the filly Moonlight Cloud. In his most recent start, Excelebration scored a three-length victory over Cityscape, whom Wise Dan whipped by a greater margin in Canada. When Excelebration beat Moonlight Cloud in France, the filly was compromised by bad racing luck. I will be cheering for Wise Dan and betting an exacta box of Wise Dan and Moonlight Cloud.

As competitive as the Mile is, the depth of competition doesn't match the field for the Ladies' Classic on Friday. Awesome Feather comes into the race with a 10-for-10 record. My Miss Aurelia is 6 for 6. Questing delivered a stunning performance — maybe the best by any U.S. Thoroughbred this year — when she led all the way to win Saratoga's Alabama Stakes by nine lengths. Yet all of these filly stars may be vulnerable. Awesome Feather and My Miss Aurelia had their 2012 campaigns truncated by injuries, and they may not have enough seasoning.

The pace should help set up the race for Royal Delta, winner of last year's Ladies' Classic, whom Mott is bringing into the race in peak form after a 9 ½-length runaway at Belmont Park.

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