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Sep 07, 2012

Up the Backstretch: Horse of the Year contenders

By: By Don Agriss, Horse Racing Editor

(Sports Network) - Eight weeks out from the Breeders' Cup World Championships on Nov. 2 and 3, saying with any certainty that a particular horse will be voted 2012 Horse of the Year is a stretch.

We know the three-year streak of females being HOY will end. Last year's champion, Havre de Grace, has been retired and will not get a second consecutive crown.

The main obstacle to assigning leadership among thoroughbreds is the lack of races any of them run. Between now and the Breeders' Cup none of the better- known horses will race more than once, with some simply training to the World Championships.

Right now the leader among the Horse of the Year candidates is Game On Dude. The 5-year-old gelding, trained by Bob Baffert, has been first in the NTRA Poll since winning the Hollywood Gold Cup on July 7.

However, his second-place finish to 3-year-old Dullahan in the Pacific Classic on August 26 delayed any coronation that may have been planned. Game On Dude's next start has yet to be announced, but he could train up to the Breeders' Cup Classic.

Dullahan's Pacific Classic victory thrust him into the HOY picture and 3-year- old champion talk. Trained by Dale Romans, Dullahan was lurking on the fringes of the 3-year-old category with his Blue Grass win and third in the Kentucky Derby. However, before taking the Pacific Classic at 5-1, he came up empty in both the Belmont Stakes and Haskell.

"I don't know if we'll run in the (Breeders' Cup) Classic," Romans said recently. "If it's (my decision), I'll try him on turf next, and decide if he wants to go a mile and a half. Either the Joe Hirsch or the Jamaica would be good, but if we want to get the mile and a half, the Joe Hirsch would be the one. There's (the Presque Isle Mile on synthetic on Sept. 7), but it's only a mile."

Romans also trains Arlington Million winner Little Mike, who can get consideration by winning the Breeders' Cup Turf along with a prep.

Sitting second in the poll for the last two weeks is Wise Dan. The 5-year-old gelding has apparently found a home on turf after winning the Fourstardave at Saratoga. This year, he won the Ben Ali on synthetic and was second in the Foster Handicap on dirt.

A pair of 4-year-olds, To Honor and Serve and Mucho Macho Man, are in the hunt. This past Saturday, they hooked up in the Woodward Stakes at Saratoga and fought through the stretch with 2011 Pennsylvania Derby champ To Honor and Serve winning by a neck over last year's Kentucky Derby third-place finisher.

"We want to go to California and we want to go to the Breeders' Cup," said Bill Mott, To Honor and Serve's trainer. "We'd have to decide whether we'd run in the (Dirt) Mile or the Classic. I think the connections, obviously, if at all possible and if we had a chance, would like to run in the Classic."

Acclamation, 2011 champion older male, has been sidelined with an injury and looks doubtful to return in 2012.

Ron the Greek has been in the NTRA Poll for most of the year with wins in the Santa Anita and Foster Handicaps. The 5-year-old has been second in this year's Sunshine Millions Classic, Oaklawn Handicap and Whitney.

Fort Larned, Whitney Handicap winner, is just now entering the HOY discussion. Prior to winning the Whitney he won the Cornhusker Handicap, but was eighth in the Foster. His final start heading to the Breeders' Cup should be the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park on Sept. 29.

Representing the ladies in the talks are 4-year-old Royal Delta and 3-year-old Questing. Royal Delta, 2011 Ladies' Classic champ, barely won the Delaware Handicap and came up short in the Personal Ensign. Questing won the Alabama by nine lengths after claiming the Coaching Club American Oaks.

Those are the leading HOY contenders as the summer race meets end and we enter the autumn stakes series.

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