His reputation restored with a superb win in the Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I), Game On Dude looks for a repeat victory in the $1.5 million Charles Town Classic (gr. II) the night of April 19 at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races.
After losing three times in a row, including a dismal ninth in the 2013 Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I), it appeared the end of Game on Dude's remarkable racing career could be drawing near. But the 7-year-old gelding redeemed himself in a big way, registering his third Santa Anita Handicap win March 8 while overpowering the first two finishers in the BC Classic, Mucho Macho Man and Will Take Charge .
Now Game On Dude rolls into the Charles Town bullring for trainer Bob Baffert ranked number one in national Thoroughbred polls and with a chance to surpass $7 million in career earnings if he can collect the Classic's $1 million first prize. The son of Awesome Again arrived at the West Virginia track April 15.
The sixth running of the Charles Town Classic, the richest race in the country outside of the Triple Crown and Breeders' Cup, will be televised by HRTV. Post time for the 12th of 14 races on a stakes-filled card, is scheduled for 10:30 p.m. EDT.
The 4-5 favorite on the morning line, Game On Dude will face a good field of six opponents under Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith. Headlining the opposition in the 1 1/8-mile Classic are Moreno, who will make his seasonal debut in the Classic after a scintillating 3-year-old season, and Clubhouse Ride , long a nemesis of Game on Dude and runner-up in the Classic last year.
Owned by Joe Torres's Diamond Pride, Lanni Family Trust, Mercedes Stable, and Bernie Schiappa, Game On Dude recorded a 117 Beyer in winning the Big 'Cap for a record third time by 1 3/4 lengths. The big victory followed a tiring fifth-place effort in the San Antonio Stakes (gr. II) a month earlier in his first start of the year.
"He got tired (in the San Antonio), and I thought that race would set him up for the next one, so I honed in on him," said Baffert of his training approach for Game On Dude. "I used that as a steppingstone to the Big 'Cap. At the three-eighths pole when those horses came to him, for a split second I said, 'If they engulf him, we're watching Game on Dude's last race ever.' My wife (Jill), who loves him, put her head down and said, 'I can't watch.' I said, 'He's not done! He's kicking on!' and she picked her head back up."
The Hall of Fame conditioner says Game On Dude, after turning in a six-furlong bullet move in 1:11 flat April 13 at Santa Anita Park, is ready to roll. The stout dark bay comes into the race with a 16-6-1 mark from 31 starts with earnings of $6,163,893. He carries 123 pounds, five more than each of his opponents.
"He's doing really well," Baffert said. "He worked great the other day, and he's happy."
Game on Dude first contested the Charles Town Classic in 2011, finishing second to Duke of Mischief . He won last year's renewal by half a length over fellow Southern California invader Clubhouse Ride. Game On Dude stalked the pace set by Percussion, a high-class allowance runner in the barn of Todd Pletcher, before getting the lead. He then held a determined Clubhouse Ride safe through the final quarter mile.
He'll likely face a more formidable pace foe this year in Moreno, whose seasonal debut in the Oaklawn Handicap (gr. II) April 12 was delayed by a minor fever after arriving in Arkansas from California. After shipping to Keeneland, Moreno breezed a half mile in :49 3/5 on Polytrack April 15 and was on his way to Charles Town later that day.
"He had 13 races last year, and now he's a fresh horse," trainer Eric Guillot said of the 2013 Dwyer Stakes (gr. II) winner. "My main concern is he's a 'looky-lou' —meaning he looks around during the race—so he's got earplugs and blinkers. Game on Dude? He's the horse to beat. No question."
Moreno has just two wins in 15 lifetime starts but sprinkled in runner-up finishes last year in the Travers Stakes (gr. I)—by a nose to Will Take Charge—and the Pennsylvania Derby (gr. II). The 4-year-old Ghostzapper gelding finished 10th in the Breeders' Cup Classic in his most recent start Nov. 2 after fighting on the lead for the opening six furlongs.
Joel Rosario will ride Moreno from post 2.
Clubhouse Ride got a steady diet of Game on Dude in 2013, finishing second to his rival in the San Antonio, Santa Anita Handicap, and Charles Town Classic before getting a break from his tormentor and winning the Californian (gr. II) at Betfair Hollywood Park last June. The 6-year-old son of Candy Ride hasn't won since, a span of seven straight, but gave a good accounting when finishing a close third to Sahara Sky in the seven-furlong San Carlos Stakes (gr. II) March 8.
Tyler Baze has the return mount on Clubhouse Ride, who will leave from the rail.
"He's coming up to this as well as I could hope," says trainer Craig Lewis. "He's feeling good, acting good."
Long River, owned by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum's powerful Godolphin Stable, enters the Classic off a second-place finish by a neck to Romansh in the Excelsior Stakes (gr. III) March 22 at Aqueduct Racetrack for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin.
The 4-year-old son of A.P. Indy, out of 2006 Breeders' Cup Distaff (gr. I) winner Round Pound, has won four of 10 starts and $278,072. He was on the Triple Crown trail last year before suffering a minor bone chip. He returned after more than seven months off and closed out 2013 with two minor stakes victories.
McLaughlin likes that Game on Dude and Moreno might heat up the teletimer on the lead in the three-turn Classic, knowing his runner likes to come from off the pace.
"Maybe we can sit third, fourth or fifth and make a run," McLaughlin said. "Game on Dude is obviously the horse to beat and a nice horse. He's coming off a big effort in California but has to fly (to West Virginia). We're coming off a big effort at Aqueduct. There are a million and five reasons to come. He deserves a chance, and it's a grade II, and we're trying to win a graded stakes with our horse. There's no reason not to run."
Irad Ortiz Jr. has the mount.
Local star Lucy's Bob Boy will make his first start in the Classic for trainer Sandra Dono following a nice four-furlong breeze in :48 2/5 April 14. The 5-year-old gelded son of Flatter is an incredible 17-for-21 with three seconds in races at Charles Town. He has won his past two starts at the track, a 6 1/2-furlong allowance race by 8 1/2 lengths and the 1 1/8-mile A Huevo Stakes by 8 3/4 lengths on the lead.
Imperative, a 4-year-old gelded son of Bernardini , finished ahead of Game on Dude when second at 26-1 in the San Antonio and then checked in seventh in the Santa Anita Handicap. Hall of Fame jockey Kent Desormeaux will ride for trainer George Papaprodromou.
Rounding out the field is Ruler of Love for trainer Joan Scott. The 4-year-old Peace Rules colt finished second last year to Departing in the Super Derby and West Virginia Derby (both gr. II). Jose Montano will ride.
$1.5 Million Charles Town Classic (gr. II, Race 12, 10:30 p.m.), 4 & Up, 1 1/8 Miles
PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer
1. Clubhouse Ride (KY), T Baze, 118, C A Lewis
2. Moreno (KY), J Rosario, 118, E J Guillot
3. Game On Dude (KY), M E Smith, 123, B Baffert
4. Ruler of Love (FL), J Montano, 118, J Scott
5. Long River (KY), I Ortiz Jr., 118, K P McLaughlin
6. Lucy's Bob Boy (WV), A Bocachica, 118, S A Dono
7. Imperative (KY), K J Desormeaux, 118, G Papaprodromou