By Julian Linden
(Reuters) - Game On Dude has been installed as the overwhelming favorite to win Saturday's $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic, the feature event in the annual two-day racing carnival that gets underway at Santa Anita Park on Friday.
Game On Dude finished an agonizingly close second in last year's one-and-a-quarter mile classic at Churchill Downs in Kentucky and has been elevated to the 9-5 favorite to make amends this week in North America's richest horserace.
A consistent performer at the highest level, the five-year-old-gelding has won four of his six starts this season and has the advantage of running at his home track in Arcadia, California but the shortened odds are as much a reflection of the lack of a star opponent than his own accomplishments.
Although the Breeders' Cup is billed as the world championship of thoroughbred racing, most of the world's top horses will be missing this year and there is not a single foreign-trained galloper in the main race.
British superstar Frankel was retired two weeks ago, ending his unbeaten career at Ascot, while Australian sprinting sensation Black Caviar, who is also unbeaten, remained at home despite making the long trip to England earlier this year.
Even America's top horses are absent, including last year's winner Drosselmeyer. He never raced again after his surprise win under the Twin Spires but the cream of this year's new crop is also missing.
I'll Have Another, who won this year's Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, was retired to stud after suffering an injury on the eve of what would have been his tilt at the elusive Triple Crown.
Union Rags, which won the Belmont Stakes after I'll Have Another was scratched, is also missing from the fields, even though there is a total of more than $25 million on offer from the 15 races.
There is still a strong European contingent in the program with 26 horses making the long trip to the United States, most of them opting for the races on grass while the locals prefer dirt.
Game On Dude is prepared by Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, who is chasing his first victory in the race, having enjoyed success in most of the other top races in the United States.
"He's a better horse this year," Baffert said after Game On Dude drew post number five in the 12-runner field. "He seems more relaxed. He's getting better with age."
Last year's beaten classic favorite Flat Out was listed as the second picked at 5-1, alongside Fort Larned, while Ron the Greek was next at 6-1, followed by Mucho Macho Man and To Honor and Serve, who were both 8-1 chances.
Flat Out, Ron the Greek and To Honor And Serve are all prepared by master trainer Bill Mott, who has won three times before, including last year.
"We train them all as individuals and we want to give each horse their best chance," Mott said.
"All three horses are trained for different owners and all three horses have earned their way into this race."
Mott also trains Royal Delta, the 9-5 favorite for Friday's $2 million Ladies' Classic. Royal Delta won the same race last year and the filly is back to defend her title as a four-year-old.
The only female horse to win the Classic was Zenyatta, in 2009. Mott considered entering Royal Delta, but opted for the easier race although he said he might run her in the Classic next year.
"I felt that running against the girls was probably the way to go," he said. "I guess it's a conservative approach but we have discussed Royal Delta running next year."
More than a dozen New York-based horses had their travel plans changed at the last minute to allow them to get on a flight before Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc on the East Coast. All arrived safe and are ready to run in the meeting.
Six races will be held on Friday, then the remaining nine on Saturday.
(Reporting by Julian Linden; Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes)