Game On Dude, the only horse ever to win three runnings of the Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I), has been retired after compiling earnings of nearly $6.5 million, trainer Bob Baffert announced Sept. 18.
Because of his two inexplicably poor efforts in the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I), Game On Dude, despite his numerous historic achievements, has been one of racing's most under-appreciated horses.
In addition to his unprecedented three Santa Anita Handicap victories, he became only the second horse in history to sweep California's three grade I handicaps (Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup, and Pacific Classic) in the same year, and at the age of 7 won the Big 'Cap in a near-American record time of 1:58 flat, which was the fastest time in the race's 79-year history and only one-fifth off the track record set by the great Spectacular Bid in the 1980 Charles H. Strub Stakes (gr. I).
In all, the gelded son of Awesome Again —Worldly Pleasure, by Devil His Due, captured eight grade I stakes and 14 graded stakes in all, and was second in the grade I Breeders' Cup Classic, TVG Pacific Classic, Hollywood Gold Cup, and Clark Handicap.
Game On Dude has been a barn favorite for many years, and Baffert had mixed emotions at the thought of never seeing "The Dude" race again and not occupying his familiar stall at Santa Anita Park, where he received numbers of visitors.
"He ran a great race in the Pacific Classic, but it's gotten to the point where there is always going to be some horse who is going to be sacrificed by running with him and forcing him into ridiculous fractions, as was the case at Del Mar," Baffert said. "It's starting to wear on him a little bit to the point where it's not fun for him anymore. We always felt if he couldn't compete at the grade I level and wasn't enjoying what he was doing, it would be time to retire him.
"He's become such a big pet around the barn, and watching him get beat like that is just killing us. It's really tough. I could have freshened him up and run him in the Breeders' Cup, but with all that speed in there, I just didn't want to do that to him, especially at his age. He probably could have been competitive, but I've always told the partners (Joe Torre's Diamond Pride, Lanni Family Trust, Mercedes Stable, and Bernie Schiappa) this day would come and we would do the right thing by retiring him."
Baffert thought that day had come during this year's Santa Anita Handicap when Game On Dude blazed through fractions of :45.39 and a mile in 1:32.57 only to have racing's two Goliaths, Will Take Charge and Mucho Macho Man, begin to close the gap on him. But it soon became obvious The Dude was not quite ready for the porch and rocking chair.
"When they passed the three-eighths pole and they started closing in on him, I told Jill (Baffert's wife), 'Here they come.' She put her head down and said, 'I can't watch.' Then all of a sudden I saw he still had run in him and said, 'He's still alive.' And he kicked away and won. But I tell you what, if he had gotten beat that day, that would have been it. Every race I watched this year I felt this could be the last one."
Baffert said no decision has been made on where Game On Dude will live out the rest of his years.
"We really have no plans," he said. "We'll just listen to options and get together and make a decision. But for now, he's just going to hang around the barn for a while. He still gets visitors every day and just to see him there brightens up your day."
When ranking Game On Dude among the greatest geldings, it is his accomplishments that must be considered more than his defeats. Kelso, Forego, and John Henry—arguably the three greatest geldings of our time, or perhaps of all time—lost 91 races among them. In Kelso's Horse of the Year clinching races, whether it was the Woodward Stakes, Jockey Club Gold Cup, or Washington D.C. International, he faced an average of 6.3 opponents, not all of them top-quality stakes horses.
These three titans of the turf earned their Horse of the Year titles based on body of work, and even when it came down to one big race in September or October, they had one, two, or at the most three really top-class stakes winners with whom to contend, not 10 or 11 foes, most of whom were grade I stakes horses, as Game On Dude has. The gelding's notable defeats all came after a tough campaign, in which he ran hard and fast every step of the way. But early in the year, when he was still fresh, he was nearly unbeatable.
The criticism that Game On Dude ran mostly in California does not hold water, considering John Henry, as well as horses like Swaps, Native Diver, Zenyatta, and Lava Man ran mostly in California and Forego and Kelso ran mostly in New York. And this was before the Breeders' Cup and having every top horse in the country gunning for you.
Game On Dude was bred by Adena Springs and was a $210,000 RNA at the 2008 Keeneland September yearling sale. He was then purchased privately by Ernie Kuehne.
"Mike Mareina, my trainer, and I looked at him at the Adena Springs consignment," Kuehne recalled. "We vetted the horse but never bid on him. We've done a lot of business with Adena Springs and I knew they had put a $300,000 reserve on him. I told them I wasn't willing to pay that much. We were at the hotel and looked at the RNA's, then went back to the sale to talk to them. They got Frank Stronach on the phone and we negotiated a deal for $240,000."
When Game On Dude broke his maiden by three lengths at Gulfstream Park in his second career start, he caught the eye of Bernie Schiappa and Don Brauer, who is always on the lookout for young horses for Baffert.
"I spotted the horse and contacted Don Brauer," Schiappa said. "He's the one who puts the numbers together. We decided to take the gamble after we watched the replays of his races and studied the numbers. He was already a gelding. I called Don and he did the rest."
Brauer added, "There were two divisions run that day and Nick Zito won the other division. They both looked like good races. I know Bob likes Awesome Again and I contacted him. He looked at the video and really liked the horse. He came down to Florida for the sale and saw the horse. He thought they were asking a lot of money for a gelding. Bernie reviewed the films again and said, 'Let's go for it.' We had him vetted and got the deal completed."
Kuehne said he had no regrets selling him. "We thought he was a good horse, but to be honest with you, after Mike had him at the training center in Ocala, he felt he wouldn't handle off going," he recalled. "He didn't think he was a grass horse and he didn't think he'd handle a synthetic surface. And on top of that he was a gelding.
"We received several calls from people who were looking for a Florida Derby (gr. I) and Kentucky Derby (gr. I) horse. But in the end, all the credit to them. They paid $600,000 for a gelding who couldn't run in the mud. And I don't like a horse who has to take his racetrack with him. As it turned out, he could run on a wet track, but only if it was sealed. I think the main reason they bought him is to get a Kentucky Derby horse for Terri Lanni. So, as I said, you have to give them a lot of credit; they stepped up."
Mareina recalled, "He was tall and lanky and wasn't really coordinated, so we took him home and broke him. One day he got scared and stuck his foot through the webbing. He was getting stupid and silly and we felt he was going to wind up hurting himself, and we'd end up with nothing. He was getting rank on the track, so we cut him.
"Every work got better and better, and in his last two we worked him with a really nice 3-year-old and he outworked him both times and galloped out huge. He wound up winning his second start, just cruising out there going a mile. That's when the legend started. Todd Pletcher sent some people over to see him and Tony Dutrow was interested. That maiden race turned into a million-dollar race. Any young horse who can run like that, it's a million-dollar race. I'm glad he's done so well for Baffert and has stayed sound all these years."
Baffert ran Game On Dude right back in the Florida Derby off his maiden win and he ran terribly, but came out of the race with mucus in his lungs. He also ran poorly in the Derby Trial Stakes (gr. III), but that was on a very muddy track, so Mareina wasn't surprised.
A victory in the Lone Star Derby (gr. III) was followed by an excellent fourth, beaten only 2 1/2 lengths, in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I). But he didn't run again as a 3-year-old. At 4, he scored a gutsy victory in the Santa Anita Handicap under Chantal Sutherland and that is when the legend of Game On Dude really began.
He could beat you by a nose, as he did in his first Big 'Cap win, or by a half-length, as he did in the Goodwood Stakes, but he could also demolish his opposition, as he did winning the Pacific Classic by 8 1/2 lengths, the Santa Anita Handicap by 7 3/4 lengths, the Californian Stakes (gr. II) by 7 1/4 lengths, and the San Antonio Stakes (gr. II) by 6 1/2 lengths and 5 1/4 lengths.
He retires with 34 starts, 16 victories, seven seconds, and a third for earnings of $6,498,893.
If one wanted to describe Game On Dude in a short sentence, it would be, "He knew only one way to run—fast!"