Grade I Santa Anita Handicap Analysis, Santa Anita Park – 3/8/2014

The Grade I Santa Anita Handicap will be run Saturday at Santa Anita Park, with post time set for 7:00 ET. This is easily the most anticipated Big ‘Cap in recent memory, and rightfully so. Three of the best older handicap horses in the country will tangle at “The Great Race Place” this weekend, with each of them looking to take the lion’s share of the $750,000 purse.

Will Take Charge is coming off a loss in his season debut in the Grade I Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t put forth a monster effort. The winner of the Donn, Lea, broke the track record for nine furlongs at Gulfstream and recorded a 114 Beyer Speed Figure in doing so. WTC recorded a 111 BSF in his four year old debut, and I think it could be argued that his race was as impressive – if not more than – the winner Lea’s. The son of Unbridled’s Song was at a tactical disadvantage, as Lea sat the perfect trip stalking the pacesetter while Will Take Charge had to rally from off the pace – something that can, at times, be nearly impossible at Gulfstream Park. The fact that he only finished a length and a half behind the winner is something that should be commended, not criticized. The workout tab for WTC has been steady over the past couple weeks, and the bullet he fired on March 2 at Oaklawn leads me to believe he’s sitting on a big one for the Big ‘Cap.

Mucho Macho Man is the reigning Breeders’ Cup Classic champion. He’s coming off a 14 length victory in his seasonal debut in the Sunshine Millions Classic at Gulfstream Park. He’s two for three over the Santa Anita Park dirt, with his only loss being a half length loss in the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Classic. He’s got Gary Stevens aboard. All of this is a recipe for a short priced favorite – but is it warranted? There is no denying MMM is a quality runner; his credentials don’t lie. That said, I can’t help but try to poke some holes in this horse. His victory in the Sunshine Millions was nothing more than a paid workout – the second and third place finishers were 199-1 and 106-1, and the rest of the field was as vanilla as it gets. In the Breeders’ Cup Classic, he held off Will Take Charge by a nose – even though WTC was fanned roughly eight wide into the stretch while MMM ran comfortably in the four path (truth be told – if Declaration of War changes leads neither MMM or WTC win, but I digress). Add in his “lackluster” workout this past week over the Santa Anita main track, and I’ve got too many concerns of my own about this horse to back at a short price. He’s fully capable of winning this year’s Santa Anita Handicap, but I’m going to play against him.

Blingo is coming off a nice victory in the Grade II San Antonio Stakes last month at Santa Anita, rallying from off the pace. He’ll have to do the same this weekend while facing tougher, but that’s not my biggest concern with this horse. As a son of Artie Schiller out of a Sure Blade mare, his pedigree doesn’t necessarily scream, “Long on the dirt”. He’s a nice horse, but I’m not convinced he’ll be able to run with horses of this caliber and also stay the final furlong. Pass.

Imperative ran admirably when finishing second to the aforementioned Blingo in last month’s San Antonio. He sat close to a hotly contested early pace and got first run on the closers, yet couldn’t quite hold off Blingo in deep stretch. His last out BSF jumps off the page in that it was 12 points higher than any other figure he’d ever received, and I don’t think it’s any coincidence that it came when trainer George Papaprodromou put this horse back on the dirt. Being a son of Bernardini out a mare who has dropped her share of winners routing on dirt, it’s no surprise that Imperative thrived when he got back on the surface that he was bred to be successful on. Maybe he’ll take another step forward on Saturday – but it’s going to have to be a MAJOR step forward if he’s going to win a race like this.

I wish I could make a case for Rousing Sermon in the Big ‘Cap…but I can’t. He’s a nice horse that has won a fair amount of races, but none of them have been against this level of competition. I’d give him a slight chance to round out a trifecta or superfecta, but that’s about it. If he wins, it’ll be a shocker.

American Blend…see above on Rousing Sermon…pass.

Game On Dude is the reigning champion of the Santa Anita Handicap, and his victory last year was arguably the most impressive win in the race’s history. He continued on to have another very successful campaign, in which he also won the Charles Town Classic, Hollywood Gold Cup and Pacific Classic. That was all well and good, but everyone wanted to know if this was finally the year GoD would win his Breeders’ Cup Classic. At this point we all know that didn’t work out very well for him, but he did return to finish a game second to Will Take Charge in the Clark Handicap at Churchill last November. Major concerns arose with GoD’s seven year old debut as he was a soundly defeated fifth in the San Antonio, losing to Blingo and Imperative – both of whom he’ll run into again on Saturday. I’ve never been a huge fan of Game On Dude, but there is one major thing that makes him intriguing in the Big ‘Cap…he appears to be lone speed. It’s no secret he runs his best when he’s loose out front, and unless Gary Stevens sends Mucho Macho Man after him to contest the pace, Mike Smith may find himself lonely on the front end. Rumors of Game On Dude’s being “over the hill” may have been very premature…we’ll find out Saturday.

I’ve always been a fan of Hear the Ghost, but this spot looks entirely too difficult for him. He was no match for horses like Shakin It Up and Govenor Charlie, both of whom would need to run the race of their lives to even be in the same ballpark as the main contenders. I believe he has some upside, but the water appears too deep for Hear the Ghost.

At the end of the day, I truly think Will Take Charge is the best horse in the field. He will be incredibly tough to beat in this spot and, I believe, will have the best 2014 out of any horse in this race. However, circumstances have come about where the race shape sets up rather favorably for one horse in particular, and that horse is Game On Dude. If Gary Stevens sends Mucho Macho Man after him to contest the lead, Game On Dude is likely in trouble – but that could also potentially leave Mucho Macho Man vulnerable to the oncoming Will Take Charge. I can’t see Stevens using up his horse just to try to run with Game On Dude early. Unless one of the outsiders tries to get brave and run with Game On Dude, I think he sets a comfortable pace and has just enough left in the tank to hold off Will Take Charge to repeat as champion of the Santa Anita Handicap.

SELECTION: #7 – Game On Dude, Mike Smith; ML 5-2

Matt Bernier picMatt Bernier was the youngest qualifier to the National Handicapping Championship (NHC) this past year and he is one of the stars of the Esquire series Horseplayers.   Agameofskill.com is thrilled to offer his educational analysis of major stakes races.

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