Haskin's Classic Report: Is it Their Time?

Bob Baffert, Todd Pletcher, Aidan O’Brien and Kathy Ritvo are on a mission: get rid of that agonizing, heartbreaking second-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Classic that is hanging over their heads and win this darn thing already.

All four trainers have finished a close second in the Classic and will be trying to land their first victory this year with horses who have a legitimate chance to win. Baffert, in fact, has finished second twice, 14 years apart, and saddles two horses this year, including the morning line favorite Game On Dude. O’Brien also has finished second twice.

You can’t say Baffert, Pletcher, and O’Brien haven’t been trying. All three combined are 0-for-34 in America’s richest race. Ritvo, of course, is a mere 0-for-1, having lost by a half-length with Mucho Macho Man last year after a stirring stretch duel with eventual winner Fort Larned.

Baffert, O’Brien, and Ritvo all had a Classic victory right in their hands, but it slipped away just feet or inches from the wire.

If Silver Charm hadn’t followed Swain toward the outside fence in 1998 and open the door for Awesome Again to come through, there is a very good chance Baffert would have had his Classic victory a long time ago.

He probably thought he had it won in 2011 after Game On Dude shook free from a pesky Uncle Mo in the stretch and looked like a winner. But Drosselmeyer, winner of the previous year’s Belmont Stakes, came flying way out in the middle of the track and caught Game On Dude, who never saw him, in the final yards.

If Mick Kinane hadn’t lost his rein right at the height of his battle with Tiznow, who knows if O’Brien wouldn’t have had his first Classic triumph in his first attempt.

He caught a big break in 2008 when the Classic was run on a synthetic surface and Henrythenvigator ran a bang-up race to finish second. What made the defeat tough to swallow was that he had beaten the winner, Raven’s Pass, three of the four times they met in Europe.

Pletcher sent out a live horse in Travers winner Flower Alley in the 2005 Classic, and Flower Alley did run a winning race, but had the misfortune of running into eventual Horse of the Year Saint Liam, who beat him only a length in a tough struggle.

And finally, Ritvo had Mucho Macho Man, who has had a problem passing horses in the final furlong, at the top his game in 2012, but the towering colt just couldn’t get by Fort Larned in one of the most thrilling stretch battles in the Classic in years.

Baffert and O’Brien have proven that you can never take anything for granted just because you came close early on. Both have been trying to make up that narrow margin of defeat for more than a dozen years.

For Pletcher, he’s never even come close to winning the Classic since Flower Alley. Of the nine horses he’s run in the past eight years none has finished better than sixth. He appeared to have Quality Road in top shape in 2009, but the then 3-year-old went beserk first behind and then inside the gate and had to be scratched. This year, Pletcher has a Belmont Stakes winner in Palace Malice, and in the past four years. Belmont winners have finished first, third, and fourth in the Classic.

While Pletcher is coming into the Classic on a path he’s taken before, the Jockey Club Gold Cup, Baffert, O’Brien, and Ritvo are all trying something new.

Baffert and O’Brien have decided to skip a prep race, passing up the Awesome Again Stakes and the Champion or Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot, respectively, and send a fresh horse into the Classic off 2 1/2-month layoffs. Even they have no idea whether this new tactic will work or not. It has been done before. In 2006, Kiaran McLaughlin was forced to miss the Jockey Club Gold Cup with Invasor after the colt came down with a virus right before the race. The Uruguayan import wound up winning the Classic off a three-month layoff, defeating heavy favorite Bernardini, and nail down Horse of the Year honors.

Ritvo, instead of taking the conventional route and prepping back East as she did last year, decided to ship Mucho Macho Man to California well in advance and give him his prep in the Awesome Again, which he won comfortably. By doing this, she pretty much eliminated the possibility of a sloppy track, which Mucho Macho Man detests, and give the horse a race over the track, which he showed he loved in last year’s Classic.

So, will any of these trainers remove the specter of those second-place finishes? You know one thing: Baffert, Pletcher, and O’Brien certainly are not going to stop trying.

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