A six-time grade I winner whose problems with the Polytrack at Del Mar have been well-chronicled, Game On Dude is on the verge of a breakthrough in the $1 million TVG Pacific Classic (gr. I) Aug. 25, trainer Bob Baffert believes.
This will be the third time around in Del Mar's premier event for the front-running 6-year-old gelding, the 5-2 morning line favorite. He ran fourth in 2011, when he was never able to get on even terms with the victorious Acclamation, and was second last year when caught late by the fast-closing Dullahan. But as the countdown to this fall's Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) begins in earnest, Baffert has expectations things will work out differently in the 1 1/4-mile event this year.
Game On Dude has posted a half-dozen works over the Polytrack since winning the Hollywood Gold Cup (gr. I) July 6, most recently clocking a :59 3/5 move for five furlongs Aug. 19.
"He's actually handling the synthetic much better than he has in the past," said the Hall of Fame trainer. "It's a little bit tighter in the mornings, but he's been moving really well over it. Maybe he's getting used to it or whatever, but I just loved the way he went over the track. He galloped out very strong. He's happy. He looks really healthy right now, and he just couldn't be doing any better right now.
"I'm very confident that he's sitting on a big race, and so we're just looking forward to it."
Game On Dude, to be ridden for the first time by Joel Rosario, will attempt to be the only horse other than Lava Man in 2006 to sweep all three of California's major handicap events. In addition to his one-length triumph in the Gold Cup, he romped by 7 3/4 lengths in the Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) March 2.
In between those two efforts, the big dark bay captured the Charles Town Classic (gr. II) in West Virginia and is 4-for-4 this season. The son of Awesome Again , owned by Joe Torre's Diamond Pride, Lanni Family Trust, Mercedes Stable, and Bernie Schiappa, has won 14 of 26 lifetime starts with earnings of just over $5 million.
Game On Dude drew post 11 in a crowded 13-horse field, which also attracted Dullahan and last year's third-place finisher, Richard's Kid , a two-time winner of the Pacific Classic. Others expected to draw support are San Diego Handicap (gr. II) winner Kettle Corn , Canadian invader Delegation, and late-running Jeranimo, a multiple grade I winner on turf.
"It’s a good draw because he’s on the outside looking in," Baffert said of Game On Dude.
If all start in the 23rd renewal of the Pacific Classic, it would be second largest field ever, behind only the 2014 contest that was won by Came Home against 13 opponents.
The race carries an automatic berth to the winner in the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) under the "Win & You're In" challenge series sponsored by Breeders' Cup. It is the ninth on the 11-race program with a scheduled 5:10 p.m. PDT post time. Also on the card are the $250,000 Pat O'Brien Stakes (gr. II), a Win & You're In race for the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile, and the $200,000 Del Mar Mile (gr. IIT).
Rosario rode Dullahan in last year's Pacific Classic but switches to 'Dude with Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith out of town to ride Royal Delta in the Personal Ensign Invitational (gr. I) at Saratoga Race Course the same day.
Baffert, who has also entered Arnold Zetcher's Liaison , says Dullahan presents the biggest obstacle to Game On Dude.
"Dullahan, he really moves up on synthetic, and the way that he ran last year...I really thought I couldn't lose last year and he caught us, so he's basically the horse that worries me the most in the field. He's beat us before, he likes synthetic, he's a good horse, and so that's the horse that I'm afraid of."
Donegal Racing's Dullahan is 7-2 on the morning line and comes into the race off a good closing third in the Arlington Handicap (gr. IIIT) on turf July 13. The Dale Romans-trained son of Even the Score began his campaign in the United Arab Emirates, where he displayed little in two starts including an 11th in the Emirates Airline Dubai World Cup (UAE-I) March 30.
With earnings of more than $1.7 million, Dullahan has three career wins from 17 starts, all of which have come in grade I events on synthetic tracks. The chestnut colt has lost five in a row since last year's Pacific Classic triumph.
Rafael Bejarano, the leading rider at Del Mar this season, takes the call on Dullahan.
Kettle Corn (6-1), Richard's Kid (8-1), and Jeranimo (10-1) come into the race off major wins at Del Mar.
C R K's hard-trying Kettle Corn, runner-up in the Hollywood Gold Cup, scored his first grade II victory in the San Diego, defeating the highly regarded Paynter by half a length. Trained by John Sadler, the 6-year-old son of Candy Ride has won two of five starts over the Del Mar main track with a second and a third.
Eight-year-old Richard's Kid, who won the Pacific Classic in 2009-10 under the guidance of Baffert, may have a new lease on life after his victory in the Cougar II Handicap (gr. II) July 26. The 1 1/2-mile race is one the son of Lemon Drop Kid used to prep for the Pacific Classic before. The lifetime earner of more than $2.4 million snapped a 10-race losing streak since being transferred to the barn of trainer Doug O'Neill by his current ownership group, Triple B Farms and partners.
Jeranimo, like the other leading contenders, is a confirmed closer, though most of his success has come on turf. In his most recent race, the Eddie Read Stakes (gr. IT) July 20, he rallied from seventh at the three-eighth pole to win going away by 1 1/2 lengths. Owned by B. J. Wright and Robert LaPenta, the 7-year-old son of Congaree ran in the Pacific Classic once before, finishing eighth in 2011. The veteran campaigner has won 10 of 35 starts while banking $1.4 million.
Delegation, who along with outsiders Blueskiesnrainbows and Endorsement, figures to be able to keep the pressure on Game On Dude. Shipping in from Woodbine for trainer Mark Casse, Gary and Cecil Barber's 4-year-old romped by 9 1/4 lengths on the front end in the July 1 Dominion Day Stakes (Can-III), his most recent start.
Delegation's final time of 2:01.51 set a track record at the Ontario oval, besting the previous time of 2:01.99 for Strait of Dover's 2012 Queen's Plate performance. The Speightstown gelding has won two of three at the current Woodbine meet and has six victories from 12 starts overall.
Irish-bred Farraaj, making his United States debut, brings a 2-for-2 record on synthetic tracks including a victory in the Winter Derby Stakes (Eng-III) in March at Lingfield. Trainer Roger Varlan conditions the 4-year-old Dubai Destination gelding in Great Britain.
There is a filly in the field, Byrama, who won the Vanity Handicap (gr. I) impressively at Betfair Hollywood Park in June. Trained by Simon Callaghan, the British-bred 4-year-old Byron filly is coming off a third in the Clement L. Hirsch Stakes (gr. I) Aug. 3 at Del Mar.
$1 Million TVG Pacific Classic (gr. I, Race 9, 5:10 p.m.), 3YOs & Up, 1 1/4 Miles (All Weather)
PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer, ML
1. Endorsement (KY), J R Leparoux, 124, H O Palma, 20/1
2. Liaison (KY), M Garcia, 124, B Baffert, 15/1
3. Holding Glory (BRZ), C Sutherland-Kruse, 124, A C Avila, 20/1
4. Farraaj (IRE), G K Gomez, 124, R Varian, 12/1
5. You Know I Know (KY), E A Maldonado, 124, J W Sadler, 20/1
6. Richard's Kid (MD), J Talamo, 124, D F O'Neill, 8/1
7. Kettle Corn (KY), V Espinoza, 124, J W Sadler, 6/1
8. Byrama (GB), G L Stevens, 119, S Callaghan, 20/1
9. Dullahan (KY), R Bejarano, 124, D L Romans, 7/2
10. Delegation (KY), L Contreras, 124, M E Casse, 8/1
11. Game On Dude (KY), J Rosario, 124, B Baffert, 5/2
12. Jeranimo (FL), C S Nakatani, 124, M Pender, 10/1
13. Blueskiesnrainbows (VA), M A Pedroza, 124, J Hollendorfer