From the lack of respect he seems to be getting since his second consecutive dismal performance in the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I), you would never believe Game On Dude has won two Santa Anita Handicaps (gr. I) .
There is little doubt that Game On Dude, once considered one of the fastest and most reliable horses in the country, has had his reputation tarnished by those two performances, as well as a shockingly poor effort in the Feb. 8 San Antonio Stakes (gr. II), a race he won by 6 1/2 lengths last year at odds of 1-20.
The son of Awesome Again , owned by Diamond Pride Stable, Lanni Family Trust, Mercedes Stable, and Bernie Schiappa, was the 8-5 favorite in last year's Breeders' Cup Classic, based on his sweep of the three California grade I handicaps, the Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup, and Pacific Classic, becoming only the second horse ever to win all three races in the same year.
Surely, his bewildering seventh-place finish in the 2012 Breeders' Cup Classic had been an aberration. But when he ran another clunker last year, finishing ninth, many were puzzled, considering it was his home track and he was fresh and fit going into the race. The gelding's detractors cited his lack of competition in California.
Now, Game On Dude will try for an unprecedented third victory in the Big Cap Saturday, March 8, but under far different circumstances. Considered a leading candidate for Horse of the Year last year, the now 7-year-old gelding is just trying to restore his reputation, and in order to achieve that, he'll have to run the race of his life against last year's Breeders' Cup Classic antagonists Mucho Macho Man and Will Take Charge , who will renew their budding rivalry over the same track that saw them finish noses apart in the top two places in America's richest race.
Trainer Bob Baffert is disturbed by the many negative comments directed toward Game On Dude, to whom the Baffert family and barn help have become extremely close.
"When he gets beat and people say things about him, it hurts your feelings, because it's like talking about one of your kids," Baffert said. "He's such a nice horse and so sweet to be around. He's like a pet. Little kids come up to him and he's always a gentleman. He tries so hard, and if he should win his third Big Cap, it's going to be very emotional."
Baffert realizes this is going to be a stiff test and everything has to go right for Game On Dude, who wants to be on the lead or just off it and going along at a good clip.
"He might have been a little too fresh in the San Antonio," Baffert said. "With him, pace is the key. He needs to be up on the pace, and two jockeys wanted the lead and it took its toll on both of them. He came out of the race great and has worked well since. It is going to be a tough race with those two in the lineup, so he's going to have to turn in one of his top performances.
"With his running style, everything has to go perfectly for him. He wants to go fast and be in the fight, but not at a ridiculous pace. Things have to unfold the right way, and when they do, he's very effective. I just want him to run well and stay at the top level. When they get older you have to use the right judgment and run them when you feel they're going to run well."
Game On Dude showed his ability to rebound off a poor effort when he journeyed to Churchill Downs after last year's Breeders' Cup and was beaten a nose in the Clark Handicap (gr. I) by Will Take Charge, just getting nipped in the final stride.
If there is anything to suggest that Game On Dude can rebound off the San Antonio it is the way he's been working, turning in sharp works at seven furlongs and five furlongs.
"In his last work, he worked by himself and went around there nicely and in hand," Baffert said. "He looks good physically and is coming into race the right way. I thought he might be a little short last time, but felt he could get by on his own merit. But he got tired after getting caught up in that speed duel."
So, which Game On Dude will show up on Saturday? He is going to have to withstand a two-pronged attack by two of the best horses in the country, with Mucho Macho Man making the first run at him on the far turn and Will Take Charge flying down the stretch to pick up the pieces.
If Game On Dude, a favorite in California for so many years, can manage to knock off both these towering titans and put himself in the record books, he will receive an ovation that will be richly deserved.