This year's Classic lacks a grudge match, a redemption story or a headliner quality marquee matchup like we have seen in recent years.
There are two Triple Crown race winners at Santa Anita this weekend, Animal Kingdom and Shackleford, but neither is running in the Classic. They opted for the Mile and the Dirt Mile, respectively.
However, the Classic field is anything but a bunch of nobodies. It is still remarkably strong, and relatively even. A sign of the strength of the field is that the Travers winner, Alpha, comes in with a morning line odds of 20-1. Last year's Classic favorite, Flat Out, is a generous 5-1 on the morning line.
Unless you follow racing fairly closely, the favorite, Game On Dude, is not a horse with much name recognition. He was a relative unknown when he ran second in the Classic last year, at 14-1. But since then he has dusted several of these horses before, some of them repeatedly. He is a deserving favorite and will probably be closer to 3-1 by post time.
While Game On Dude has been dominating California racing, To Honor and Serve and Mucho Macho Man have been beating each other on the East Coast. Both are talented 4-year-olds with remarkably consistency.
Mucho Macho Man has not finished out of the money since last year's Belmont Stakes. To Honor and Serve has three wins, and nothing worse than fourth in his past six races, all graded stakes races.
Both horses have consistently faced the best competition on the East Coast and are top contenders today. They get morning line odds of 8-1, but should be closer to 6-1 by post time.
For the most part, Game On Dude will be asked to do what he has been doing a lot of lately -- beating quality fields going a 11/4 mile over a track he knows and seems to like. His only recent loss was to Derby third place finisher Dullahan in the Pacific Classic. As long as he brings the same game he has been bringing all year, he will be very tough to beat.
Most likely scenario: Game On Dude flashes his A-game and plays like the home-court favorite he is.
The pace of the race points to honest but not blazing early fractions. To Honor and Serve will likely set the pace, but he is not as dependent on a front-running style as he was earlier in his racing career, so he will probably conserve early in the race as much as possible, even if on the lead.
Fort Larned may also be a part of the pace, but he is also more of a stalker and should willingly concede the lead for the first half mile.
Game On Dude also will want to stay close to the front pack early on, but probably will not seek the lead unless it is handed to him.
All this points to a tightening of the field and heavy traffic in the final turn and a dash to the wire in the stretch.
The horse that looks most likely to upset at a big price is Alpha. He was second in the Wood Memorial this year and never got much of a shot in the Kentucky Derby, finishing 12th. Then he got back on form, rattling off back-to-back wins in the Jim Dandy and the Travers, both as favorites, before faltering as a heavy favorite in the Pennsylvania Derby.
Forgiving the Pennsylvania Derby dud, he has a strong profile and clearly belongs. He's facing older horses Saturday, but with a strong effort, could hit the board.
His 20-1 odds make him worth a look.
Game On Dude is good but beatable, so a boxed wager is recommended. Include Game On Dude, Mucho Macho Man, To Honor and Serve and Alpha in exacta and trifecta boxes.