Game On Dude erased any doubts about his ability to get 1 1/4 miles and proved once more that he's the king of Santa Anita Park with a breathtaking, front-running score in the $750,000 Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) March 2 (VIDEO).
With the Hall of Fame duo of trainer Bob Baffert and jockey Mike Smith handling the big 6-year-old Awesome Again gelding, Game On Dude led from start to finish for a record 7 3/4-length victory before an ontrack crowd of 26,901.
Game On Dude, who also won the race in 2011, became the fourth two-time winner of the Big 'Cap, following John Henry (1981-82), Milwaukee Brew (2002-03) and Lava Man (2006-07).
"I was able to get him in a beautiful rhythm today and that's the key with this horse," said Smith, who collected his first win in the Santa Anita Handicap.
Owned by Joe Torre’s Diamond Pride, Lanni Family Trust, Ernie Moody’s Mercedes Stable, and Bernie Schiappa, Game On Dude ran his record to 12-5-1 in 24 starts.
Baffert, who also won the Big 'Cap in 2010 with Misremembered , has now won the race three times in the past four years and four times overall.
Game On Dude has now won seven of eight lifetime starts at Santa Anita while posting his third victory in nine tries at the 10-furlong distance. He carried top weight of 125 pounds to victory Saturday.
"He's always been able to go a mile and a quarter," Baffert said. "I think Mike really gets along with him well. He must have given him a breather along there somewhere … but the thing about 'Dude,' he's got to go along at a fast clip. The horse is just a great horse. What he showed today was amazing. I give a lot of credit to Mike Smith, but everybody who rode him got along with him well."
Bred in Kentucky by Adena Springs, the dark bay is out of the Devil His Due mare Worldly Pleasure.
Clubhouse Ride, who rallied early on the far turn to provide a bit of a challenge before 'Dude resumed command at the quarter pole, nipped Called to Serve for the runner-up spot. Last year's Big 'Cap winner, Ron the Greek, was a non-threatening fourth.
The winning time was 2:00.14, slightly off Game on Dude's clocking of 1:59.47 in 2011.
Breaking from post eight in the field of nine after the early scratch of John Scott, Game On Dude got away cleanly to get the early edge. Smith angled 'Dude sharply to the inside cming through the stretch the first time in what Smith said was intimidation move against Handsome Mike, who didn't challenge early after that while racing second.
"When I saw the advantage, I took advantage of it," said Smith, who said Game On Dude got no closer than a length of Handsome Mike.
Given a comfortable 2 1/2-length advantage early, Smith slowed the pace after an opening quarter mile of :23.64, getting a half-mile in :47.19 and six furlongs in 1:10.97. Game On Dude, racing in relaxed fashion down the backstretch, caught a breather going into the far turn before Rafael Bejarano, aboard Clubhouse Ride, felt he could not allow the race to continue to unfold the way it was.
Clubhouse Ride drew to within the hip of Game On Dude early on the turn, but 'Dude "took a deep breath and he was gone," Smith said.
At the quarter pole Game On Dude was back in charge by 2 1/2 lengths, and the fun for his supporters was just beginning. Game on Dude poured it on through the lane, opening up by five lengths at mid-stretch under a strong hand ride from Smith. The rider shook the reins a couple of times past the eighth pole as a reminder to Game On Dude to keep going. But on this day, there would be no threats.
"He knocked it out of the park today, he really did, it was extremely impressive," Smith said.
Clubhouse Ride held on gamely for second over Called to Serve, whose belated rally came after encountering a bit of traffic with Gary Stevens aboard.
"There was no beating him (Game On Dude)," Stevens said. "I should have been an easy second. We got in tight at the three-eighths pole and he doesn't like it down inside. When I got him out, he re-broke for me. It took him a while to get his momentum going again. I'm disappointed we didn't finish second."
Second choice Ron the Greek, who was stuck with the rail post, was never a factor under Jose Lezcano while racing closer to the pace than usual in his bid for a Big 'Cap repeat. He rallied four wide into the lane to finish 1 1/2 lengths behind Called to Serve.
"(Game On Dude) has a lot of speed," Lezcano said. "I got my horse in a position he wanted to be in, and he gave me a good race. The only thing is that (Game On Dude) is so fast; nothing compares. We ran hard the whole way, but we couldn't keep up with him."
Game On Dude paid $4.60, $3.40, and $2.10 while keying a $63.40 exacta with Clubhouse Ride, who returned $13.40 and $6.80 while receiving 10 pounds from the winner. New York shipper Called to Serve paid $3.40.
Ron the Greek was followed home by Strub Stakes (gr. II) winner Guilt Trip, Richard's Kid, Handsome Mike, Deacon Speakin', and Stephanoatsee.
The winner's share of the Big 'Cap purse, $450,000, extended Game On Dude's career earnings to $3,702,158. Game On Dude's only loss at Santa Anita came in last fall's Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I), when he was steadied at the start and weakened late after attempting to rally from off the pace.
Since that loss, he has rattled off three consecutive wins, beginning with the Native Diver Stakes (gr. III) at Betfair Hollywood Par Dec. 1. In his main tuneup for the Big 'Cap, Game On Dude rolled by 6 1/2 lengths over Clubhouse Ride in the San Antonio Stakes (gr. II) at 1 1/8 mile Feb. 3. He recorded his fifth grade I victory and 10th graded stakes triumph overall.
Asked if this was Game On Dude's best race, Baffert responded: "When he won the Santa Anita Handicap (in 2011), that was a great race, too. He did all that bumping and came back. That was a great race. He's had some great races. He's getting older, he's getting better, he's been training well."
Baffert said there's been no decision about Game On Dude's next race, but "Charles Town (the grade II, $1.5 million Classic on April 20) is really enticing. It's a million (dollars) to the winner and we know he likes that track (he was second in the race in 2011). I'll see how he comes out of this race."