ARCADIA, Calif. - Trainer Bob Baffert was the picture of contentment as he shielded his eyes from the sun and watched one after another of his gleaming starters in the Breeders’ Cup World Championships train at Santa Anita Park.
Baffert did not have to concern himself with Hurricane Sandy, though his East Coast rivals had to scramble to get their horses – and themselves – out of the New York area ahead of the storm. The worsening weather threatened to shut down air travel for several days and perhaps make it impossible for them to arrive in time for the season-ending world championships. Baffert, who lives in Arcadia, had no such concerns.
“They’re in your own backyard,” Baffert said of the 15 races, worth $25.5 million, that will be contested at Santa Anita on Friday and Saturday. “All we have to do is lead them over there.”
Bill Mott, Baffert’s primary East Coast rival, hurried to make arrangements that would allow Royal Delta to defend her title in the $2 million Ladies’ Classic on Friday. Mott’s top three contenders for the $5 million Classic on Saturday – Ron the Greek, Flat Out and To Honor and Serve – were also on a flight that carried 17 Breeders’ Cup horses and left eight hours earlier than scheduled from Newburgh, N.Y.
The Sunday flight was originally scheduled to depart from Islip, N.Y., but high wind made that impossible. After about 14 hours of travel, the horses reached Santa Anita at 9:12 a.m. Monday.
Even without Hurricane Sandy thinning the field, Baffert appears to have a powerful home-course advantage with the Classic favorite Game On Dude. The 5-year-old gelded son of Awesome Again has not been beaten through five starts at Santa Anita while amassing $905,400 of his $2,994,659 in career earnings at the track. Game On Dude led through most of last year’s Classic before Drosselmeyer beat him by half a length at Churchill Downs.
Game On Dude has won four of six starts this year, with his lone missteps coming when he ran a distant 12th in the Dubai World Cup at the end of March and when he was edged by half a length by Dullahan in the Grade 1 Pacific Classic at Del Mar in late August.
Baffert notes that the defeats came on synthetic surfaces. Santa Anita, after making a move to a synthetic track that proved to be problematic, has returned to dirt. In all, Game On Dude boasts nine victories, five second-place finishes and one third-place showing in 20 starts.
“I know he’s going to give me everything he has,” Baffert said. “He shows up every time. He just needs some luck.”
Mott had everything go his way last year, when he joined John Shirreffs (2009) as the only trainers to sweep the Ladies’ Classic and the Classic in the same year at the Breeders’ Cup. He is again set up for success. Royal Delta is an overwhelming favorite to repeat after she dominated the Grade 1 Beldame Invitational by 91/2 lengths at Belmont Park at the end of September.
Flat Out appears to be in top form after repeating in the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park, and Ron the Greek’s lone start at Santa Anita bodes well: He rolled by 31/2 lengths in the Santa Anita Handicap in early March.
To Honor and Serve also boasts a Grade 1 win this year, prevailing by a neck against a fellow Classic starter, Mucho Macho Man, in the Woodward at Saratoga in early September.