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HORSE RACING

Classic field is loaded

Contenders include Uncle Mo, filly Havre De Grace, Game On Dude, Drosselmeyer.

November 05, 2011|Lance Pugmire
  • Uncle Mo is among the top favorites to win Saturday's Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs.
Uncle Mo is among the top favorites to win Saturday's Breeders'… (Associated Press )

LOUISVILLE, KY. — As strong and sure as the trainers of the horses in the Breeders' Cup Classic are about their entries for Saturday's $5-million race, the truth will rise not from the Southern comfort of biased analysis but from the demands of the 1 1/4-mile-long dirt track at Churchill Downs.

"You need a seasoned, battle-hardened horse to win this -- tactically quick, but able to grind it out at the end," said trainer Aidan O'Brien, whose New Zealand-bred entry, So You Think, is making his U.S. debut on dirt.

Trainer Todd Pletcher, who sends favorite Uncle Mo and Stay Thirsty, the Jim Dandy and Travers Stakes winner, to the race, said he sees the Classic as a race in which his speculation will give ground to fact.

Questioned about Uncle Mo's endurance, Pletcher said, "It's always a concern," and noted the horse has run more than one mile only twice in seven races. "And when this is over, with [12] in the field, it'll be too far for [11] of them, right?"

Before the gates open on the 15th and final race of the sport's richest two days, the plans and speculation of those who packed into Churchill Downs on Friday for the first six Breeders' Cup races ran wild.

The Classic field includes gifted filly Havre De Grace, whose trainer, Larry Jones, made it plain that entering the Classic rather than Friday's Ladies' Classic was a continuation of a strategy to "chase the money" with a horse that's already earned more than $2 million.

"We have a very special horse; we wanted her to be in a position to be considered for horse of the year," Jones said. "We have to give her that chance to earn it. We're going after the biggest money possible."

Havre De Grace has won five of six races this year, including the 11/8-mile Woodward Stakes on Sept. 3 at Saratoga and the Beldame Invitational on Oct. 1 at Belmont Park by 8 1/4 lengths.

Another race favorite is Game On Dude, and most expect jockey Chantal Sutherland to take her horse to the immediate lead in her effort to become the first female jockey to win the Classic.

"I worked hard to be here, and I have the ability to win," Sutherland said. "I know there's more pushing in a race like this, but I'm ready for this journey."

Uncle Mo also is producing what owner Mike Repole contends is a Hollywood movie script by recovering from a liver ailment that stopped the Kentucky Derby favorite from running in last spring's race here, returning for this rich follow-up that Repole said he'd "never call a consolation [race]."

On Oct. 1, Uncle Mo showed he was back in top form with a staggering show of speed in a three-length victory in the Kelso Handicap at Belmont Park.

Doubts crept in when Pletcher ordered jockey John Velazquez to a slower maintenance workout of 1 minute 1 second over five furlongs recently, but Repole dismissed the criticism: "I don't know how many Breeders' Cup races the media has won, but Todd has five." Pletcher called the workout "textbook."

"I want to leave something in the tank," Pletcher said. "We watch these horses train every day. The only thing that bothered me about the criticism was that it was a good workout. ... This horse has tremendous stride and a great rhythm. I think he can stay at [1 1/4]. We'll find out."

Repole's confidence extends to Stay Thirsty. He argued either of his two entries will win.

But the field also features the West Coast's leading jockey, Garrett Gomez, on Ruler On Ice, Belmont Stakes winner Drosselmeyer, big-race rider Calvin Borel on Rattlesnake Bridge and 70-year-old trainer Scooter Dickey's talented Flat Out with Alex Solis riding.

Flat Out has won three races within the last year and finished second to Havre de Grace in the Woodward.

Churchill Downs' most successful trainer, Bill Mott, has both Drosselmeyer and To Honor And Serve, who was held out of the Kentucky Derby after unimpressive spring showings but has rallied to win two races, including the Pennsylvania Derby on Sept. 24.

To Honor And Serve drew the tough outside gate, and Mott says he "loves this momentum."

Jones, Havre De Grace's trainer, projects Game On Dude will lead early, get challenged midway by Uncle Mo, followed by Havre De Grace with Flat Out and Drosselmeyer expected late.

"You just hope for a good trip, avoid getting three wide," Jones said. "My horse has showed she's just as fast as the others. I may not go against Uncle Mo in a mile race, but this is 1 1/4, and my horse is fit. She's never laid down on us yet."

So You Think has more than $7.5 million in career earnings, and trainer O'Brien sent 11 horses to the Breeders' Cup.

The Classic "is so massive," O'Brien said, "you don't even dream of winning it."

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lance.pugmire@latimes.com

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