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Breeders' Cup Classic is a two-horse race, or is it?

Breeders' Cup Classic is a two-horse race, or is it?
Trainer Steve Asmussen chats with exercise rider Angel Garcia Thursday during a morning workout for Gun Runner at Del Mar. (Gregory Bull / Associated Press)

This year’s $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic has a lot of similarities to last year.

There’s a storied matchup of two great horses.

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One of the horses will retire to stud before the next breeding season.

And, once you have a winner, you’ll be able to recognize the victorious trainer from a distance because of his distinctive mane.

But what is different is it’s not a sure thing that one of the two matinee horse idols — Arrogate and Gun Runner — will win the race. But it’s very likely it will be one of those two trainers.

Confused?

Steve Asmussen, he of the unkept head of flowing gray hair, has Gun Runner, currently the No. 1 ranked horse and the 9-5 morning-line favorite.

Bob Baffert, known for his white hair, has Arrogate, the defending Classic, Pegasus and Dubai World Cup champion.

But Baffert also has three other horses, two of which are given a good chance to pull an upset.

At the start of the year Arrogate, North America’s all-time top earning horse with more than $17 million, was seen as unbeatable. After defeating California Chrome in both the Classic and Pegasus he went to Dubai and ran a last-to-first race that is a considered a different kind of classic. Gun Runner was second.

Then he came to Del Mar and threw down a stinker in the San Diego Handicap, finishing fourth. He later finished second to stablemate Collected in the Pacific Classic.

“I just want to put him in a position to run a big race,” Baffert said of Arrogate, who will be running his last race. “We saw him struggle on this track. The tight turns for some horses can really make a difference, especially with Arrogate because he’s got that big long stride.

“If it were a longer stretch it would be a lot better. Once they turn for home you better be pretty close.”

The track sets up well for Gun Runner and Collected. Both have early speed, which mitigates the short stretch.

“Collected just loves this place,” Baffert said of his 4-year-old colt that is undefeated in four races this year.

Gun Runner has won four of his five races this year, his only loss coming to Arrogate in Dubai. His won his last race, the Woodward at Saratoga, by 10¼ lengths.

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The 2017 Breeders' Cup is underway in Del Mar, and opened to a packed house.

“I really enjoy the respect that people in racing have for Gun Runner and what he’s done,” Asmussen said. “That’s probably the most fun, when I go through an airport someone will make sure that everything is good with Gun Runner. That’s the beautiful thing about our sport, that a horse on this level achieves.”

There’s one more Baffert horse that you can make a strong case for and that’s West Coast. In many ways, he could be a replica of Arrogate. Both did not compete in the Triple Crown series because they were late developers and both won the Travers Stakes in convincing fashion.

West Coast has won six of eight races this year and finished second twice. He will have a new jockey in Javier Castellano. Mike Smith is his regular jockey but Smith elected to ride Arrogate, who he also has first call on.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if West Coast were to win,” Baffert said. “I’ve won it with 3-year-olds and he looks good.”

Baffert’s fourth horse in the race is Mubtaahij, who finished fourth in the Dubai World Cup and earned a spot in the Classic by winning the Awesome Again at Santa Anita.

“I’m pretty fortunate to be in this situation with four really nice horses,” Baffert said. “I just feel right now that they are all doing well.”

Baffert can’t play favorites because of different owners, but you can tell where his heart lies.

“Arrogate … has accomplished so much,” Baffert said. “What more can you do with a horse like this who has won everything? I’d like to have him around until he’s 10 years old.

“He’s been so good to us, to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic by running down California Chrome. … And then to come back and win the Pegasus and do what he did in Dubai. My job is to make sure he runs his race and hopefully goes out a winner.”

If Arrogate, or one of Baffert’s other horses wins, it will be his fourth straight Classic victory.

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