Haskin's Classic Report: Mucho Macho is Now The Man

Mucho Macho Man is showing all the signs. You know those signs good horses show when all the stars are aligned perfectly and you know they’re sitting on the race of their life. Between his last race, his two works since that race, his love for Santa Anita, and his marriage made in heaven to Gary Stevens, he couldn’t be coming into the Breeders’ Cup Classic any better.

In looking at Mucho Macho Man’s current form, the first thing to remember is that he a June 15 foal, exceptionally late in the year. With his size and such a late birthday it is amazing he was able to make his career debut in July as a 2-year-old, going six furlongs. But, despite his second-place finishes in the Nashua and Remsen at 2, winning the Risen Star the following February, and finishing third in the Kentucky Derby, there is a strong possibility he is only now peaking and finally becoming the finished product.

Two of his best races have come at Santa Anita, and he obviously loves this track. Also, when he ran a solid third in this year’s Whitney, he was coming off only one race in the past 6 1/2 months. As for that one race, the Alydar Stakes, he was a fresh horse and pressed a :45 4/5 half, so he can be excused for finishing third to top-class stakes horses San Pablo and Hymn Book. And considering he only ran three-quarters of a mile in the Sunshine Millions before being eased on a sloppy sealed track he detested, he actually went into the Whitney off only one and a half races in the past nine months. He was sent off at 8-1 and pretty much ran like a horse who needed the race.

When he got to Santa Anita, the first thing he did was work five furlongs in a bullet :59 1/5, fastest of 58 works at the distance. It was like he was saying it was good to be home and he was now ready for a big effort.

Then, of course, came his dominating victory in the Awesome Again, in which he came home his final three-eighths in a swift :36 3/5. He bounced out of that race with a sharp :47 2/5 work, which is something you always want to see.

With a fast work under his belt, and with so much early speed in the Classic, Ritvo changed tactics in his next work, breaking him off slowly and having him come home fast. And he did just that. After an opening quarter in :26 1/5, he went his next quarter in :24 3/5 and then flew home his final eighth in :11 2/5 with his ears pricked. He galloped out an additional eighth in a strong :12 4/5.

So, now we come to the battle plan for the Classic, where strategy could dictate who wins and who loses. And when it comes to sports, what is more interesting to discuss than strategy and how to beat your opponent and how to avoid compromising your chances? With such a contentious pace expected, where your horse is placed and how relaxed he is early becomes all the more important.

Before the Awesome Again Stakes, I posted on Twitter and Facebook that Mucho Macho Man, since his maiden victory in that Calder sprint, was six-for-six when he had the lead at the eighth pole and 0-for-14 when he didn’t, and added that Gary Stevens was the perfect jockey for him, especially with Stevens riding like he did 20 years ago. Well, after the Awesome Again, Mucho Macho Man is now seven-for-seven when he has the lead at the eighth pole. It would seem that stat reveals a weapon that has proven to be deadly accurate. It also reveals a flaw just as accurate.

No statistic is entirely flawless, but this one is pretty startling when you come right down to it.

From the late ‘80s through the ‘90s, Stevens had a knack of waking horses up and getting more out of them than they were used to giving. He was arguably the best pace rider in the country and his strength and aggressive way of riding made him the perfect jockey for big, powerful horses like Silver Charm, Point Given, and Winning Colors.

In Mucho Macho Man’s case, the towering, long-striding colt just wouldn’t or couldn’t pass horses in the final furlong. Whether he was or is capable of it no one can say for sure. All we have are the statistics. But one thing we’ve noticed over the years is, for some reason, horses who don’t pass horses in the stretch often are difficult to pass themselves, which is why it was imperative that Stevens had Mucho Macho Man on the lead before the eighth pole. In fact, he had him on the lead before they even hit the top of the stretch. Would he have still won if he didn’t have the lead at the eighth pole? It’s difficult to tell, because the main danger was behind him and no one really put up a fight in front of him. Again, all we have are the stats.

So, how will this come to play in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, where you’re going to have classy, brilliant horses like Game On Dude, Moreno, Fort Larned, Palace Malice, and Paynter, all of whom like to be on or near the lead, as does Mucho Macho Man, who does rate kindly off the pace if he needs to?

Considering Mucho Macho Man’s statistics, one would think his task of getting to the lead by the eighth pole is going to be much more difficult in the Classic than it was in the Awesome Again. But those stats indicate that still might be the best strategy, regardless of who he has to catch and how many.

The aforementioned horses, as brilliant and talented as they are, just might be easier to pass on the turn than they would in the stretch. On the turn, the speed and pace horses still have not been asked for their run and their jockeys are trying to save as much as they can for the stretch run. It is here that they could be vulnerable to an early sweeping move, especially by a horse who gobbles up ground the way Mucho Macho Man does.

Whoever thought Ron the Greek would have the lead turning for home in the Jockey Club Gold Cup? But if you watch Jose Lezcano, hugging the rail, pushing on him around the turn and driving for the lead while Mike Smith was still sitting chilly on Palace of Malice, you can get an idea how effective the surprise factor can be, especially with a horse proven at a mile and a quarter. By the time Smith finally set Palace Malice down after turning for home, which is where most horses are set down, Ron the Greek already had a clear lead and was gone.

It is after horses are set down in the stretch that their blood is up and their competitive juices start flowing and they become more difficult to pass. Horses normally will dig in and come back again in the final furlong more than they would on the turn, especially if taken by surprise. With a horse like Mucho Macho Man, who is a big intimidating horse with a humongous stride, you have to use that advantage to try to inhale the pace horses with one fell swoop when they are not prepared to repel an attack.

If you can pull that off, you then turn the speed horses, who are brave on the lead, into horses who now must change tactics and try to catch another horse, something they are not accustomed to. And when they suddenly find themselves looking at the backside of a Goliath like Mucho Macho Man, who is kicking in with those huge strides, it becomes a whole different ballgame. And good luck to the deep closers trying to reel in a horse like Mucho Macho Man, who stays every bit of the mile and a quarter.

So, it seems as if it’s all systems go for Mucho Macho Man. Everything has gone perfectly since arriving in California and he appears to be thriving. It just might be that we’re about to see a different Mucho Macho Man than the one who ran so well in last year’s Classic and the one who likely was a bit short in this year’s Whitney.

Now, all that’s left is to wait until Nov. 2 and see where he is at the eighth pole.

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