The Battle Within the Battle

We’re all aware by now that Game On Dude controls his fate when it comes to Horse of the Year. It’s pretty simple: win the Breeders’ Cup Classic and you are Horse of the Year. Even a good second could nail down the honors. A sound defeat and it’s up for grabs. Then you can turn your attention to the Distaff and the Mile, where Royal Delta, Princess of Sylmar, and Wise Dan would have a legitimate shot at it.

Is there any scenario where a Classic horse other than Game On Dude could vault into contention? Ron the Greek, Mucho Macho Man, and Fort Larned would all have similar records, basically winning the Classic and one other grade I, but with several defeats, some of them uninspiring performances, thrown in. Flat Out would have victories a grade I, grade II, and grade III, and a narrow defeat in a grade I that he practically gave away that could wind up proving costly come voting time.

But, wait, there is another older horse no one is talking about who could stake a legitimate claim to Horse of the Year with a Classic victory, and that is Graydar. If this brilliant son of Unbridled’s Song should win the Classic, he would end the year undefeated in four starts, with two grade I wins and two grade II wins, and he would be on a five-race winning streak. The main thing that would hurt him is the lack of racing caused by the injury that cost him five months in the middle of the year.

Now we get to the battle within the battle. Although 3-year-olds Palace Malice and Will Take Charge have few graded victories this year, there is something to be said for their resilience, as they would conclude their campaigns with 10 starts each, competing in a combined 11 grade I stakes, including five Triple Crown races, and six grade II stakes, while no other Horse of the Year candidate could match that. But this is not about Horse of the Year; that is a big longshot. This battle is about the 3-year-old championship, and what it has come down to essentially is this: whichever horse finishes ahead of the other in the Classic likely will come away with the title.

While Will Take Charge has four stakes victories this year compared to two for Palace Malice, the latter crushed Will Take Charge in the Belmont Stakes and beat him head-to-head in the Jim Dandy Stakes. Will Take Charge, who finished ahead of the out-of-control Palace Malice in the Kentucky Derby, albeit eighth compared to 12th, did beat him by three-quarters of a length in the Travers Stakes, although many felt Palace Malice was the best horse after breaking badly and dropping back to last, way out of his comfort zone, and then making a big late run despite a pedestrian three-quarters in 1:13 2/5 set by Moreno.

In their one race since then, Will Take Charge beat Moreno again in the grade II Pennsylvania Derby vs. 3-year-olds, while Palace Malice ran a solid second against older horses in the grade I Jockey Club Gold Cup behind a freakish performance by Ron the Greek, while finishing ahead of grade I winners Flat Out, Alpha, Cross Traffic, and fellow 3-year-old Orb.

Before we go on, one can say that if both Palace Malice and Will Take Charge run poorly in the Classic, it would re-open the door for Orb if he should beat older horses in the grade I Cigar Mile at the end of November. If all three pretty much fail to squeeze through that door, is it possible voters would go back to Oxbow, who was atop most people’s lists as leading 3-year-old following his three strong efforts in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont?

But for now, let’s concentrate on what is directly ahead of us in the Classic. It always adds to the excitement of a race when there are two scenarios to focus on during the running. Do trainers Todd Pletcher and Wayne Lukas tell their jockeys to go for the jugular and take the all-or-nothing approach or to just make sure they give their horse an opportunity to beat the other 3-year-old, and hope that it can somehow carry them to victory? In other words, do you try to win the battle or the war? Every trainer is going to say they’re in it to win it, as is every owner. But in the back of their minds, they also do not want to cost themselves the 3-year-old title by getting overly aggressive.

From a pace perspective, that pertains to Palace Malice, a horse with excellent speed and tactical speed, more than Will Take Charge, who is going to come from farther back. But when you have a 17-hands giant with humongous strides like Will Take Charge, do you go for a hole that could possibly win you the race and risk getting stopped, knowing how difficult it would be to get him going again, or do you take the safer route to give you a higher percentage of catching Palace Malice?

If you’re John Velazquez, who will be riding Palace Malice for the first time and is well aware what this horse pulled on an unsuspecting Mike Smith in the Kentucky Derby, do you try to rein him in right out of the gate so you don’t get caught up in the expected battle on or near the front end among Game On Dude, Moreno, Fort Larned, Graydar, and Paynter or do you let the colt run his race and hope you can find a comfortable spot where he doesn’t get cooked by the pace and has enough to hold off Will Take Charge? We also saw what happened at the start of the Travers, where a clean break could very well have led to a victory, as many believe.

In the 2004 Belmont Stakes, the jockeys aboard Rock Hard Ten, Eddington, and Purge all seemed to have two agendas – make life miserable for Smarty Jones and try to get him beat and then have enough horse to beat out the other two. They accomplished the first, but killed their own horses in doing so, setting it up for Edgar Prado, who was pretty much riding conservatively on Birdstone, trying to just pick up a piece of it.

The bottom line is, as we all know, both Pletcher and Lukas are going to focus on winning the race. And they should. That is the nature of the game and the nature of all sports. But it is that other element pertaining to their situation that makes strategy and jockey decisions all the more intriguing and fascinating.

Perhaps the Americans will get the surprise of their lives and the Irish-trained Declaration of War will come charging past all of them. Stranger things have happened, and in competitive races such as this, with jockeys having to watch everyone around them and make quick decisions, many times it is the horse no one is paying any attention to that gets the dream trip and lights up the tote board.

So, good luck trying to follow all this. Just make sure you always have one eye on those familiar Dogwood silks and the big chestnut with the white blaze. You don’t want to miss the show within the show.

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