ARCADIA Gary Stevens delivered the perfect encore for his Breeders' Cup comeback by taking the championships' marquee race.
With Stevens aboard, Mucho Macho Man also made the most of his second chance. Runner-up in the 2012 Classic, the New York-based star returned to Santa Anita to win Saturday's $5 million Classic, America's richest race.
"This is the culmination of a career," said Stevens, who ended a seven-year retirement to return to racing at age 50. "(Before his comeback) I never won a Breeders' Cup Classic. I really thought it was never going to be. I can't believe it happened. It's just so awesome."
Before this weekend, Stevens hadn't won a Breeders' Cup race since 2000. Now, he has 10 Cup wins, including Friday's $2 million Distaff aboard Beholder. Stevens almost had another victory Saturday but was disqualified in the Juvenile Fillies.
In the 1 1/4-mile Classic, Stevens managed to get every inch out of Mucho Macho Man, who won a three-horse photo finish by a whisker. Will Take Charge held second with Euro star Declaration of War a neck back in third.
Stevens and Mucho Macho Man, who paid $10 to win as the second betting choice, provided a heart-pounding finish for the horse's connections. Kathy Ritvo, a heart transplant survivor, became the first woman to train a Classic winner. Atlanta's Dean and Patti Reeves own the 5-year-old Florida-bred.
"I was just hoping he got it," Ritvo said. "I'm just very blessed to be here. It's been an amazing trip."
Mucho Macho Man's triumph dashed again the championship hopes of favorite Game On Dude, who finished a tired ninth in the 11-horse field.
With Mike Smith aboard, Game On Dude battled defending Classic winner Fort Larned and long shot Moreno from the start.
"When I saw him going real fast on the backstretch, I knew I was going to be in trouble," said Bob Baffert, Game On Dude's trainer.
Going into the far turn, that trio softened each other up enough that they had nothing left when Stevens made his move on Mucho Macho Man.
"I think Mike was in shock how easy I went by," Stevens said.
Mucho Macho Man cleared the field by two lengths but then had to hold off the closers. His final time was a respectable 2 minutes, 00.72 seconds.
"I heard them coming," Stevens said. "He had his head down; he was fully stretched out. (But) when I hit the wire, I had no doubt."
It was another memorable moment for the announced crowd of 58,795, who enjoyed summer-like weather in the 80s. The two-day event drew a total of 94,628. Saturday's crowd saw international stars Dank (Filly & Mare Turf) and Magician (Turf) win their divisions as well as past champions Mizdirection (Turf Sprint) and Groupie Doll (Filly & Mare Sprint) defend their titles.
But Baffert's day started as badly as possible. In Saturday's first Breeders' Cup event, he lost his best 2-year-old filly, Chandelier Stakes winner Secret Compass. She fractured an ankle during the Juvenile Fillies and fell terribly going into the far turn. Secret Compass had to be euthanized on the track. In the mishap, jockey John Velazquez suffered a ruptured spleen. He underwent emergency surgery at nearby Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena.
Adding to his pain, Velazquez missed the remainder of his mounts, including 2012 Horse of the Year Wise Dan in his defense of the $2 million Mile.
As he had before, Jose Lezcano picked up the ride on the Mile champion. Wise Dan ($3.60) didn't notice any difference. The 6-year-old gelding surged late to win the Mile on turf in 1:32.47 and give Lezcano his third Cup win.
Trainer Charlie Lopresti was proud of his champion but concerned for Velazquez.
"This one's for John," Lopresti said, "but we had every confidence in Jose and we had to go with Plan B."
With Game On Dude's poor performance in the Classic, Wise Dan likely will repeat as Horse of the Year, too. His major rival is filly star Beholder.
Before the Classic debacle, a 2-year-old colt and returning sprint star put Baffert's rollercoaster day back on top. Jockey Martin Garcia was aboard both for his first Cup wins.
New Year's Day ($23), a son of Street Cry, galloped past favorite Havana to win the $2 million Juvenile. Owners Gary and Mary West celebrated their 45th wedding anniversary in the winner's circle.
"It's a very emotional win," Baffert said. "We're all still in shock. The win is exciting, but in the back of my mind, I'm still thinking about that filly.
"This game can be brutal; the highs and lows can be so steep," he said. "I've had some great moments and some really sad moments. We love these animals no matter where they run."
Two races later, Baffert and Garcia teamed up again to win the $1.5 million Sprint with Secret Circle. With only one prep two weeks ago, the 2011 Juvenile Sprint champion successfully came back from an 18-month layoff. The 4-year-old colt is co-owned by former Sacramentan Mike Pegram and partners Karl Watson and Paul Weitman. It was Baffert's fourth Sprint win.
"He's one of the best horses I ever rode really fast," Garcia said. "These wins mean a lot to me. It will open a lot of doors."
As for Stevens, more doors are opening again, but he may take a short vacation. He earned more than $400,000 this Breeders' Cup weekend.
"This is retirement to me," Stevens quipped. "And these are great retirement checks."
Call The Bee's Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.