ARCADIA, Calif. (AP) — 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."
Wilkes said a repeat would be "very gratifying and a testament to the horse," though "You can never replace the first time."
STEALTHY PAYNTER: 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.
Like Real Quiet, Baffert said this week that Paynter, 12-1 on the morning line, would be "right there" in the homestretch.
Paynter has a pedigree that points to the Breeders' Cup Classic. The colt, like Game On Dude, is a son of 1998 winner Awesome Again.
His last race was the stakes named for his father at Santa Anita on Sept. 28, but he ran a distant second to Mucho Macho Man.
HAVANA STYLE: Havana, the favorite for trainer Todd Pletcher as he seeks to win the $2 million Breeders' Cup Juvenile for the third time in four years, appears to be a sure thing to go straight to the lead Saturday.
The undefeated colt has run out front in both his victories, including the Grade 1 Champagne Stakes at Belmont on Oct. 13, and Santa Anita's dirt surface appeared Friday to strongly favor early speed.
But Pletcher said that's not the only way his young colt can run.
"We've put him behind horses in the morning and he doesn't seem to mind it," Pletcher said.
But the trainer says there's no way the young colt will sit too far back in the field of 14.
"I think he's going to be a horse that's forwardly placed no matter what," Pletcher said, but added "I think he'll have the ability to sit off it a bit."
Havana's challengers include the 6-1 Strong Mandate from the stable of Pletcher's mentor D. Wayne Lukas, and another pair from Baffert's barn, 6-1 Tap it Rich and 8-1 New Year's Day.
BATTLERS FOR BRITAIN: Friday's first two Breeders' Cup races were most notable for jockey Mike Smith's back-to-back wins, his unprecedented 18th and 19th in Breeders' Cup races, but his mounts had something else in common.
Each was based in Britain, and both were making their U.S. debut.
Smith won aboard the aptly named London Bridge in the Breeders' Cup Marathon, following it with a victory on Outstrip in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf.
Later Friday the Irish-bred and England-based Chriselliam, ridden by Richard Hughes, also won his U.S. debut in the Juvenile Fillies.
London Bridge, at least, won't be taking his winnings back to Britain. Assistant trainer Mikael Magnusson, who saddled the colt Friday for trainer Jo Hughes, said the 3-year-old colt is bound instead for another former colony.
"We sold the horse prior to the race," Magnusson said, "he will now go and race in Australia."