When I worked at Santa Anita Park years ago, we used the slogan “If you come to the races one day a year ...” — meaning the Santa Anita Handicap was on Saturday. Well, that Saturday has arrived.
The Big Cap was long considered the toughest handicap race to win in the country. The racing landscape has changed. But this year’s Big Cap will bring back much of the old electricity with three superstar horses in Mucho Macho Man (9-5), Will Take Charge (2-1) and Game On Dude (5-2).
Mucho Macho Man won the Breeders’ Cup Classic last fall at Santa Anita. He is a 6-year-old horse, meaning he has stayed in training when many other top stars have retired to the breeding shed. He is racing in the best form of his life when others start showing signs of aging.
Will Take Charge lost by an inch to Mucho Macho Man in the Classic. Then, in a memorable running of the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs, Will Take Charge beat Game On Dude by a head.
Thus, there is a history of these three stars duking it out.
Will Take Charge was named champion 3-year-old last year. The key was a stellar second half of the season in winning the Travers, Pennsylvania Derby and Clark Handicap.
Game On Dude has won the past two Big Caps, but he is not favored this year. His last start was a subpar fifth in the San Antonio. Some are whispering that Game On Dude, a 7-year-old gelding, is slowing down. But for a gelding that has won $5.7 million and given us so many thrills, he deserves a second, and even a third, chance.
The other five horses are long shots. I would suggest Blingo (8-1), who beat Game On Dude in the San Antonio last out, as one who may be finally coming into his own. He races in the familiar silks of Zenyatta for owners Jerry and Ann Moss.
The Big Cap undercard has more outstanding stakes races, including the San Felipe, Frank E. Kilroe and San Carlos.
The San Felipe for 3-year-olds is most important because it preps into the Santa Anita Derby and Kentucky Derby. With the first four runners earning 50-20-10-5 Kentucky Derby points, respectively, the only thing that matters now is a top finish.
Bayern figures to be heavily favored off two big wins to begin his career.
Trainer Bob Baffert has to take off his shoes and socks to count all his Derby hopefuls, but Bayern may be his best.
His main rival may be his stablemate Midnight Hawk. He disappointed when he finished third in the Robert Lewis as the favorite. I thought his problem that day was he was rank early, costing him valuable energy late. If Mike Smith can get him to relax, look out.
■ TAMPA BAY DERBY — Potential is the best word to describe Saturday’s Tampa Bay Derby. An inexperienced 10-horse field is headed by Vinceremos, who won the Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay five weeks ago. I’ll go with Conquest Titan, second last out in the Holy Bull, as my top choice.
Richard Eng’s horse racing column is published Friday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @richeng4propick.