Game On Dude, heavily favored in a six-horse field in the 1 1/8-mile race for 4-year-olds and up, had to battle early with Percussion and then hold off stretch challenges from Clubhouse Ride and Ron the Greek.
"He's just a workhorse," jockey Mike Smith said. "He's so talented. He had a bit of trouble handling the surface; he was slipping a bit and had to handle the tight turns, but he's just so good."
That he was. Game On Dude broke sharply under Smith from post 2, but Percussion fired out faster from the rail and grabbed the early lead through an opening quarter-mile in :25.96. Game On Dude ranged up outside to make it a twosome through a half-mile in :49.37 as last year's Classic winner, Caixa Eletronica, followed along in third.
After six furlongs in 1:13.38, Smith asked Game On Dude to go, and he put away Percussion. But on the last of three turns on the three-quarters-of-a-mile track, Clubhouse Ride progressing well into second, and Ron the Greek began to kick in from farther back along the rail.
Game On Dude, trained by Bob Baffert, struck the front before the top of the stretch through a mile in 1:38.85 and appeared to have the race easily in the bag. But Clubhouse Ride and Ron the Greek, to his outside and inside, respectively, gave him a late scare.
"My heart was pumping," said Joe Torre, the former manager of the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers who owns Game On Dude with the Lanni Family Trust, Mercedes Stable, and Bernie Schiappa. "It's a helpless feeling to just have to watch. It's like sending Mariano Rivera to the mound; you put your hands in your pocket and hope for the best.
"Mike Smith has such a great relationship with 'Dude.' It was exciting being here. Trust me."
The winning margin was a diminishing half-length. Clubhouse Ride, at 12-1, finished second, a nose ahead of 7-2 Ron the Greek. Percussion held for fourth, followed by Caixa Eletronica and Isn't He Perfect.
Game On Dude paid $2.60 to win and completed the distance in 1:52.27 on a fast track. There was some speculation the fractional times were inaccurate, but they appeared on the official chart.
The track was favoring speed all evening and was producing fairly quick times.
This year's Charles Town Classic offered the winner $1 million, leaving $500,000 for the remaining finishers. It was the shortest field in the race since it began in 2009.
Game On Dude, a 6-year-old Kentucky-bred by Awesome Again out of the Devil His Due mare World Pleasure, has now won four in a row dating back to the grade III Native Diver Stakes at Betfair Hollywood Park Dec. 1. He also won the grade II San Antonio Handicap and the grade I Santa Anita Handicap.
Bred by Adena Springs, Game On Dude pushed his career earnings to more than $4.7 million. It was his second appearance at Charles Town; in 2011 he finished second in the Classic behind Duke of Mischief after winning the Santa Anita Handicap.
Torre said it would be up to Baffert as to where Game On Dude runs next. "We'll let the big boss tell us that," he said.
Baffert didn't make the trip to Charles Town. Assistant Jimmy Barnes oversaw the gelding's training for several days in West Virginia.
It was a big night for Charles Town. After the Classic, the 12th of 13 races on the program, total pari-mutuel handle had topped $4.2 million, easily a record. The number was aided by large show pools that totaled almost $1 million.