There are a lot of Hall of Famers involved with Game On Dude, installed on Monday as the 8-5 morning-line favorite and set to run from post position No. 9 in Saturday's $5-million Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita.
There's Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert. There's Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith. And there's probable Hall of Fame baseball manager Joe Torre, a part owner.
Baffert is feeling some Yankees-like pressure after Game On Dude's dud performance in last year's Classic, a seventh-place finish at odds of 8-5.
"He's a totally different horse this year," Baffert said of the 6-year-old gelding. "He's not the same horse that ran here last year — thank God. He's bigger, he's filled out and he's a happy horse. I've spaced his races out and that's allowed me to keep his weight on."
There will be plenty of competition. Fort Larned, last year's upset winner, is back to defend his title in the 11/4-mile race. Mucho Macho Man, the second-place finisher, has red-hot jockey Gary Stevens and is coming off a triumph in the Grade I Awesome Again Stakes last month at Santa Anita.
It's a 12-horse field that also includes European invader Declaration of War, Belmont Stakes winner Palace Malice, the improving 3-year-old Will Take Charge and Paynter, another Baffert trainee who almost died after a bout with colitis and laminitis.
"These races are not a gimme," Baffert said. "Everything has to go smooth. The horse has to fire, the jockey has to fire. I feel confident he's ready to run."
There were 162 horses entered, including 16 European-trained runners, for five Breeders' Cup races on Friday and nine on Saturday with $27 million in purses and awards. The reigning Horse of the Year, Wise Dan, was installed as the even-money favorite in the Mile.
The $2-million Distaff drew a small field of six, but three of the entrants are battling for an Eclipse Award as the top filly in the world — Beholder, Princess of Sylmar and two-time defending champion Royal Delta.
Stevens, who launched his return from a seven-year retirement in January, has been named on nine horses. Smith is scheduled to ride in 13 of the 14 races. Joel Rosario, just back from a broken foot, has 12 mounts.
Two potential favorites won't be running this weekend. Graydar, set to run in the Dirt Mile, has a quarter crack in his left front hoof. Points Offthebench, slated for the Sprint, had to be euthanized on Saturday after breaking down during a workout at Santa Anita.