Comebacks were the order of the day during Breeders’ Cup 30 at Santa Anita Park Saturday.
Three defending champions returned to the winner’s circle: Groupie Doll ($8) in the Filly & Mare Sprint, Jim Rome’s Mizdirection ($7.40) in the Turf Sprint and Wise Dan ($3.60) in the Mile.
But the biggest comeback of all was saved for the marquee race on the card, the $5 million Classic as Mucho Macho Man ($10) returned to make up for last year’s runner-up finish to Fort Larned —- who finished fourth Saturday —- with 50-year-old jockey Gary Stevens, who returned to riding this year after a seven-year absence from the saddle, and trainer Kathy Ritvo, who had a heart transplant five years ago.
Mucho Macho Man had to survive a thrilling, three-horse driving finish as the 5-year-old beat 3-year-old Will Take Charge by a nose in 2 minutes, 00.72 seconds and it was another head back to European Declaration of War.
”The race was a mile‑and‑a‑quarter, and not a mile‑and‑a‑quarter and a stride, so it was perfect,” Stevens said. “Had I known it was that close, I probably wouldn’t have celebrated. But we’re not wrong very often. He had his head down. He was fully stretched out, and just a tremendous training job by Kathy and a tremendous effort from a great, great horse.”
Ritvo was just hoping her horse had made her the first woman to train a Classic winner.
“When I saw Gary shake his stick, I was confident,” she said.
On the other end, trainer D. Wayne Lukas had to suffer the heartbreak of a close loss.
“The first time by, I said no (Will Take Charge) lost,” Lukas said. “The second time, I thought he won it. The third time they ran it by, I said, ‘No, he was second. ‘ ”
Stevens said it was the culmination of his career to win his first BC Classic.
“This was a tremendous experience to win this race at my age,” Stevens said. “I never expected to be in this situation. This is the ultimate feeling. It’s the icing on the cake of my career.”
With happiness of the Classic, also came some sadness from trainer Bob Baffert’s camp, which had an up- and-down day.
Game On Dude, the betting favorite for a second straight year in the Classic, finished a disappointing ninth after contesting the pace early and faltering on the turn for home.
“When I saw (Game On Dude) going real fast on the backstretch, I knew I was going to be in trouble,” Baffert said. “Then when Mike (Smith, jockey) asked him, there was nothing there.”
Earlier on the program, Baffert won two races, but his day got off to a bad start when prized 2-year-old filly Secret Compass broke down on the turn for home with a fractured leg in the Juvenile Fillies and had to be euthanized. Jockey John Velazquez was injured in the incident, taken to the hospital, where he underwent emergency surgery to have his spleen removed.
Baffert won the Juvenile with New Year’s Day ($23) and Sprint with Secret Circle ($7), but it was still a melancholy afternoon.
“When you lose a horse like that, it just takes all the wind out of our sails,” Baffert said. “These horses are so close to us … For it to happen, we’re all still in shock. Just the win (in the Juvenile) is exciting, but you still, in the back of my mind, I’m thinking about that filly.”
Ria Antonia ($66.60) won the ill-fated Juvenile Fillies when original winner She’s a Tiger, ridden by Stevens, was disqualified for bumping her in the stretch.
The Europeans again dominated on the turf, save for Wise Dan’s win, as Dank ($5) took the Filly & Mare Turf and Magician ($27) won the Turf over fellow Euro The Fugue.
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