Try and think of thoroughbred racing as the NCAA basketball tournament. There are regional brackets that lead to the championship, in this case the Breeders' Cup World Championships. More specifically the Breeders' Cup Classic.
Now this year, the western regional has pretty much been decided with Game On Dude the top seed and already slotted for the finals. The only way that Game On Dude couldn't make it to the Classic on Nov. 2 at Santa Anita is through injury.
The 6-year-old gelding is now waiting to see who his competition will be coming out of the eastern regional.
The handicap division is much more competitive in the east with several high quality older thoroughbreds set for Saturday's Whitney Invitational at Saratoga. The 1 1/8-mile race can be considered a "Sweet Sixteen" event, except instead of being single elimination, a loss doesn't drop a horse completely out of the tournament.
"Let's hope we can have a little bit more luck this year," said trainer Ian Wilkes, who send out defending Whitney champ Fort Larned. "He's coming into the race great. To win back-to-back Whitneys would be quite an accomplishment. Discovery won it three times in a row (1934-36), and (Commentator 2005, 2008 and Kelso 1961, 1963, 1965) won it multiple times. To stay in good form and be able to have a chance to do that says something about the horse."
Fort Larned, coming off an impressive win in June's Stephen Foster Handicap, is the 7-5 morning-line favorite versus seven other horses. He'll have to contend with Mucho Macho Man who was second to the 5-year-old in last year's Breeders' Cup Classic.
"This year, we had a slow start," said Kathy Ritvo, who trains Mucho Macho Man for Reeves Thoroughbred Racing. "We ran into a track that was not to his liking. Then, he came up with a virus. We restarted everything because he's such a good horse. He came back and had a really good race in the Criminal Type at Belmont. It was similar to his race in the Alysheba last year before he won the Suburban. It was a good race, and it turned out to be a tough race. We were proud of his effort. I think it has set him up perfectly."
In the Classic last November, Fort Larned was 9-1 while Mucho Macho Man was a more highly thought of 6-1.
Ron the Greek, 6-1 for Saturday along with Mucho Macho Man, has been battling all comers the last two years with mixed success. He won last year's Santa Anita Handicap and Stephen Foster, and was fourth in the Classic. This year he has one win in four starts, already losing twice to Game On Dude and once to Fort Larned.
"I think he's like a lot of horses - I don't think he runs his best race every time," said trainer Bill Mott of the Brous Stable 6-year-old. "It seems like about every third shot he jumps up and runs a good one. Last year, actually, we felt after it was all said and done that the Whitney was probably his biggest race of the year, even though we were second. We got beat by a horse (Fort Larned) that was much better than us on the day."
Leading trainer Todd Pletcher has the 5-2 second pick in 4-year-old Cross Traffic who just started his career in January. The colt has seconds in the Westchester Handicap and Met Mile.
"I'm happy that we drew outside Fort Larned (post 3) as I anticipate the two of us will be significant pace factors in the race," Pletcher noted on his colt getting post 4.
Alpha, 10-1 in the program, is undefeated at Saratoga in three starts, including victories last year in the Jim Dandy and Travers (dead heat).
"He loves it here (at Saratoga)," said trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. "He's training great, but we found a tough field to run against. We hope the track is in our favor. He really looks great. He didn't run great (in Dubai), but he didn't run great in his last two for us. They did a good job, he looks fabulous, he couldn't be doing any better - it's just a tough race."
Trainer Charles LoPresti has 2012 Horse of the Year Wise Dan in his barn. The 6-year-old gelding has been running in turf races, although his connections have been thinking of having him start in a main track event.
In his place, LoPresti will have Successful Dan go in the Whitney. The 7-year- old gelding was fourth in the Stephen Foster and will be making his career start at Saratoga.
"He has a lot of talent and when he's right, he's really good," said LoPresti. "We've had some problems with him, but I think we've got him good right now. He likes it here. He's training really well. He's had two good breezes over the track. I think he's going to have a big effort. I hope he will, anyway."
The Whitney is the first of several upcoming races for the handicap division in the east. In four weeks comes the Woodward at Saratoga and at Belmont Park the Jockey Club Gold Cup on Sept. 28.