Experts thought Game On Dude had lost a step, but the gallant old gelding proved them wrong with a history-making third victory in the $750,000 Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) March 8 at Santa Anita Park (VIDEO).
Under Mike Smith, Game On Dude was on the lead from the start of the 1 1/4-mile race at odds of 7-2, holding 2013 sophomore male champion Will Take Charge at bay through the stretch drive to win by 1 3/4 lengths. It was eight lengths back to third-place finisher Blingo as 6-5 favorite Mucho Macho Man faded to finish out of the money.
On a picture-perfect day at Santa Anita, Game On Dude gave a special effort. His final time of 1:58.17 broke the stakes record of 1:58.60 established by Affirmed in 1979, but was slightly off the track mark of 1:57.80 set by Spectacular Bid in the 1980 Charles H. Strub (gr. I).
Seven-year-old Game On Dude came into the race tied with John Henry, Milwaukee Brew, and Lava Man as the only two-time winners of the Big 'Cap.
Bob Baffert, who trains Game On Dude for Joe Torre's Diamond Pride, Lanni Family Trust, Mercedes Stable, and Bernie Schiappa, won the Santa Anita Handicap for the fifth time. Game On Dude, a son of Awesome Again out of the Devil His due mare Worldly Pleasure, was bred in Kentucky by Frank Stronach's Adena Springs.
"I was in awe," Baffert said. "I became a fan at the eighth pole. I just sat there and listened to the crowd cheering and watching 'The Dude' do his thing. He was smoking."
Winning for the 16th time from a 31-race career, Game On Dude paid $9.60, $3.60, and $3.60. Will Take Charge returned $3 and $2.60 and completed a $29.20 exacta, with Blingo paying $5.40 to show. Game On Dude received a rousing ovation from the crowd of 27,121 as he returned to the winner's circle following the race.
"When he gets in that groove, nobody can beat him" Baffert said.
Game On Dude atoned for a fifth-place finish in the San Antonio Stakes (gr. II) to open the 2014 season Feb. 8, and also avenged his ninth-place finish as the favorite behind Mucho Macho Man in last fall's Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I).
This year's much-anticipated Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) brought back Mucho Macho Man and Will Take Charge, who were separated by a nose in the 2013 BC Classic, and gave Game On Dude a chance to redeem his Clark Handicap (gr. I) loss by a head to Will Take Charge late last year. Mucho Macho Man, whose only start since the Breeders' Cup produced a 14-length verdict in the Sunshine Millions Classic at Gulfstream Park Jan. 18, was made the favorite over last year's 3-year-old champion and multiple grade I winner Will Take Charge.
With those two in there, 'Dude' was almost an afterthought in this year's eight-horse field in spite of his Big 'Cap triumphs in 2011 and 2013. But the big dark bay had been working superbly coming into the race after his disappointing San Antonio effort in which he was cooked in a pace duel. His recent drills included a bullet seven-furlong move in 1:25 4/5 over the track Feb. 26.
Smith knew warming him up before the race that Game On Dude was going to be tough to beat, saying, "He was on his toes today, he was on fire.
"I knew they would have to better than him today to beat him. Like I've said before, when he shows up he can run with anybody in the world. We may throw a dud every now and then but then he makes up for it."
Breaking from post 7, Game On Dude cleared the field and was able to angle over to the inside coming through the stretch the first time as only Hear the Ghost from the far outside challenged him for the early lead. Hear the Ghost, last year's San Felipe Stakes (gr. II) winner, led by a head through the opening quarter mile (:22.91) before Game On Dude asserted his control for Smith by 2 1/2 lengths up the backstretch. Game On Dude clipped off a half mile in a snappy :45.39 and six furlongs in 1:09.39.
Mucho Macho Man, advancing into second up the backside for Gary Stevens, launched an early bid into the far turn as 3-2 second choice Will Take Charge and Luis Saez followed them closely on the outside. But Game On Dude answered the challenge, reaching the quarter pole in an eye-catching 1:32.57 and still maintaining a 1 1/2-length advantage.
"When they came at me he dropped to the ground." Smith said. "When he needs to, he fires."
Coming off the rail a bit in the stretch, Game On Dude dug in as Will Take Charge put his head in front of the weakening Mucho Macho Man. But Game On Dude was resolute over the willing Will Take Charge, who was urged on by Saez but unable to make an impact on the winner in the final furlong.
"He ran so hard," said Saez of Will Take Charge. "He's very good and was in good position all the way."
Stevens said Mucho Macho Man was in good shape heading into the turn but he realized soon after that this wasn't going to be his day. "The race really started at the half-mile pole when Luis engaged me and I couldn't go with him. I was basically empty at the three-eighths pole. That's a bad feeling in a race like this."
Winning his eighth grade I race, Game On Dude increased his lifetime earnings to $6,163,893.
The last time Game on Dude was not favored in a race was the 2011 Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I), a span of 16 straight races. He posted his eighth lifetime win at Santa Anita from 11 starts on his home track.
After such a milestone victory, what could be left, another shot at the Breeders' Cup Classic, in which Game On Dude has been defeated three previous tries.
"Yes, fourth time's the charm," said co-owner Schiappa.
"Bernie's in charge of dreaming," Baffert laughed.
"To me, it's an emotional win for the horse," the Hall of Fame trainer added. "It kills me when they knock on him, but we came in here quiet and that's the way I like to come in."