Irish trainer Aidan O'Brien believes Declaration of War offers something different that might just make a difference Saturday in the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic.
A rider trains Declaration of War in preparation for the Breeders' Cup World Championships at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, California, on October 31, 2013
O'Brien has tasted plenty of success in the Breeders' Cup, but victory in the marquee race has eluded him -- so much so that O'Brien said Thursday that he no longer allows himself to imagine winning it.
"We know how important this race is and we've tried with so many horses. But at this stage I don't even dream about winning the Classic," he said.
The trainer has seen such superlative horses as Galileo and Giant's Causeway go down in defeat in the Classic and even witnessed George Washington being fatally injured at muddy Monmouth Park in 2007.
It's a tale of futility that US trainer Bob Baffert can certainly identify with. Baffert has trained eight Breeders' Cup winners, but never a Classic champion.
This year, Baffert hopes the third time will be the charm for Game on Dude, last year's well-beaten favorite and runner-up the year before in the $5 million, 1 1/4-mile race that caps the 14-race, $27 million Breeders' Cup slate at Santa Anita Park on Friday and Saturday.
Baffert believes maturity will make a difference for Game on Dude, who is a "much different horse" this year.
"I think mentally he's settled down a lot," Baffert said of the six-year-old gelding who drew the ninth post and was installed as the early 8-5 favorite.
"He's really mellowed out," Baffert added. "I think he's a much more relaxed horse. He's healthy. He's carrying more weight than he usually does. His races haven't been really, really hard on him."
Baffert has spaced out Game on Dude's races more this year in order to keep him fresh for the Classic, and he comes into the race undefeated since finishing seventh last year in the Classic won by Fort Larned -- who returns to defend the title.
O'Brien, too, says a light racing schedule has Declaration of War fresh for the Breeders' Cup, the result of a decision not to run him over heavy ground in Europe.
In fact, O'Brien said, it's been hard to find enough work for Declaration of War, who hasn't raced since winning the International Stakes at York in August.
The unknown factor is how well Declaration of War will handle the US-style dirt track, but O'Brien is optimistic that solid dirt runners in his pedigree are an indication that he will.
"There's loads of speed on his outside, so he's going to be in there. It will be how he handles the kickback," said O'Brien, who took Declaration of War to exercise with two other Group One winners on the synthetic track at Southwell, which he thought offered the closest approximation to a dirt track in England.
"He followed two Group One winners over a mile out of the stalls and he sat in behind the two of them and then he quickened up very well in the straight and won the work a long way," he said.
Fort Larned has endured a tough year since winning the 2012 Classic by three-quarters of a length over Mucho Macho Man.
In his season debut, Fort Larned stumbled at the break and unseated jockey Brian Hernandez. He also lost time with a hind end issue, but trainer Ian Wilkes said he never felt like giving up on a Classic repeat bid.
"You can never stop believing," he said. "If you do, you are in trouble."
That said, Wilkes said this year's field is as good or better than last year's.
"I think the three-year-olds are probably better than last year," he said. "Then you've got the European factor -- how good are those horses on the dirt? You can't rule them out. Then you've got the returning horses."
Those include Mucho Macho Man, who this year has veteran jockey Gary Stevens aboard.
Meanwhile, Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas saddles Travers winner Will Take Charge, and trainer Todd Pletcher sends Belmont winner Palace Malice.
The field of 11 -- after the late withdrawals of Ron the Greek and Graydar with hoof injuries -- includes another European challenger in Planteur, and a sentimental choice in Paynter.
Paynter, also trained by Baffert, is racing again after a string of health problems that included intestinal surgery and the potentially deadly hoof inflammation laminitis.
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