Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Two weeks remain until the running of the $750,000 Santa Anita Handicap and the 1 1/4-mile stakes is shaping up as an early Easter or Purim present to racing fans.
With the announcement last Saturday that Breeders' Cup Classic winner Mucho Macho Man was going to come from Florida for the Big 'Cap, the field will likely have the very best main track runners in training this year.
"This is great news not only for those of us here at Santa Anita, but for the entire industry," said Keith Brackpool, Santa Anita chairman. "For more than 75 years, the Big 'Cap has been synonymous with championship racing at the highest level and we want to sincerely thank (owners) Mr. and Mrs. Reeves and (trainer) Kathy Ritvo for making the decision to run here. We are excited and very hopeful this is going to be an unforgettable day and we welcome all of those who are intending to run."
There had been speculation that Mucho Macho Man would follow other U.S.-based thoroughbreds and run in the $10 million Dubai World Cup on the Arabian peninsula in late March.
"With a horse like him, you have to look at all of your options," said Finn Green, racing manager for the Reeves. "At this stage of his career, there are business considerations that you have to examine. The business considerations came out that it's best to keep the horse here."
Expected to join Mucho Macho Man in the Big 'Cap are defending winner Game On Dude, Eclipse Award winner and Classic runner-up Will Take Charge, San Antonio Stakes champ Blingo and Donn Handicap winner Lea.
Following the San Antonio victory over Game On Dude, Lea owner Jerry Moss was exuberant on his horse's potential.
"It seems like this horse is still growing, but we're real happy with the way he's developed," Moss exclaimed. "John Shirreffs has just done an amazing job with this horse. The time he's put into him is really amazing. He got the horse right, dealing with all his idiosyncrasies."
If you recognize Moss and Shirreffs, that's because they were the people behind champion female and 2009 Breeders' Cup Classic winner Zenyatta.
Game On Dude has to turn around an already disappointing 2014. Favored in the last two Breeders' Cup Classics, the 7-year-old has lost his last three starts, including last November's Clark Handicap to Will Take Charge.
"I was a little disappointed in the ride. You have to have some confidence in your horse," said Jim Barnes, assistant to trainer Bob Baffert, after the gelding finished fifth in the San Antonio with Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith riding.
Coming back to Santa Anita was really not much of a stretch for Mucho Macho Man's connections. Last year, he won the Awesome Again Stakes right before his nose victory in the Classic.
"I'm elated to be able to ride Mucho Macho Man in the Big 'Cap," Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens said. "The plan at the end of last year was to come here and I'm glad they're sticking with the plan. His race in Florida was sensational and we know he's run two incredible races here at Santa Anita."
A finalist for both 2013 Horse of the Year and Older Male champion, Mucho Macho Man won the Florida Sunshine Millions Classic last month at Gulfstream Park by 14 lengths. He is now the top thoroughbred in training during the initial weeks of the year.
"Kathy has done an unbelievable job with this horse," Stevens noted.
So, with last year's top two finishers in the Breeders' Cup Classic and the defending Big 'Cap winner being joined by several other major race victors, the 77th Santa Anita Handicap should jump-start 2014's racing season.
"We're hoping to put together a star-studded field, maybe even a repeat of the Breeders' Cup Classic," said Santa Anita vice president racing/racing secretary Rick Hammerle.