Game On Dude survived a 12-minute stewards' inquiry to win the $750,000 Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) by a nose over Setsuko March 5, making Chantal Sutherland the first female jockey to win the race in 74 renewals (VIDEO).
Twirling Candy , the 1-2 favorite in the field 11, was racing between horses coming off the final turn when he bumped severely with Game On Dude, on his inside, and Setsuko, to the outside, at the three-sixteenth pole.
Setsuko, ridden by Victor Espinoza, came away from the skirmish with the advantage but Game On Dude battled on through the final furlong to get up at the wire. The winning time for the 1 1/4-mile test was a superb 1:59.47 on a fast track.
Game On Dude, a 4-year-old son of Awesome Again --Worldly Pleasure, by Devil His Due, is owned by Lanni Family Trust, Mercedes Stable and Bernie Schiappa. Adena Springs bred the dark bay/brown gelding in Kentucky.
Stewards ruled that Twirling Candy drifted inward coming off the turn, causing his own problems, and did not change the order of finish.
"The whole chain reaction series of events was caused by the middle horse (Twirling Candy)," said steward Scott Chaney.
He said the vote was 2-1 to make no change.
Chaney explained that Twirling Candy started the incident by hitting Game On Dude's hindquarters and tipping him into the favorite. Twirling Candy then bumped Setsuko on the outside, who bumped back, he said.
Fans booed the result lustily as Sutherland and trainer Bob Baffert went to the winner's circle with Game On Dude, who scored a 14-1 upset. The announced attendance for the Big 'Cap program, which included two other grade I races, was 23,304.
Baffert won last year's Big 'Cap with his homebred Misremembered and also took the race in 2000 with General Challenge.
“I saw the race, I saw the bumping, I was watching the replay," Baffert said. "I thought Chantal rode a great race and she deserved to win it. I think the stewards made the right call. Once you’re out of horse, it doesn’t matter. It was a tough call, but after watching the replay, I knew he had a chance to stay up."
The difference between last year's win and this one?
"I'm going to get paid this time," he said. "Last year, I didn't see a dime of it (Misremembered was in his wife Jill's name). Winning the Big Cap is so exciting. It's got so much history ... and Chantal just made history. Her name is forever going to be in the record book."
Sutherland said she she was "shocked and hurt" by the fans' reaction.
“This is by far the best win in my career," Sutherland said. "Even getting a leg up from Bob (Baffert) on the horse was great. I just had such a good feeling today, I’m glad it came to fruition."
She described Game On Dude's stretch run.
“I had no problem with my horse," she insisted. "He was straight as an arrow. All I know is that in the race it felt like I got bumped from behind. My horse went off balance, and I hadn’t drifted in or anything. I knew that I got bumped in the race. When I watched the replay I thought it was clear that Joel (Rosario, aboard Twirling Candy) kind of tipped into Victor (Espinoza on Setsuko) and bumped him into me. Because he was kind of further back on me, it was by my flank, and it affected my balance.
"I hit my horse left handed, but even before that he was straight. If you watch from the rail, you can see I stayed in my path. This whole thing is exciting. I’m really happy. I think I will absorb it a little more later on. It’s been a quiet meet for me all meet, but if you’re sitting there at the right time, something great can happen. You just have to keep believing in yourself, and keep training.”
Espinoza, not surprisingly, disagreed with the stewards' call.
“It’s the wrong decision. I don’t know why it took so long to make the wrong decision," he said. "I think the stewards are blind. They need to have some education so people know what’s going on at the races. Obviously, those three stewards, they don’t know what they’re looking at.
"I don’t mind running a legitimate second, but when you knock the air out of my horse and you get beat by a head, it’s just insane.”
Aggie Engineer and First Dude tusssled on the front end for six furlongs while Game On Dude, breaking from the far outside, was forwardly placed by Sutherland in third. Fractions were brisk for the distance -- :22.95 for the opening quarter mile, :46.73 for the half and 1;10.73 for six furlongs.
Game On Dude, three wide on the final bend, poked his head in front at the quarter pole and led along the inside in upper stretch with Twirling Candy and Setsuko gaining to his outside. Game On Dude bumped hard twice with Twirling Candy under left-handed urging and drifted inward late but fought back under right-handed pressure to prevail at the wire.
Setsuko, five wide on the turn at 25-1 odds, bid for the lead in the stretch and also bumped twice with Twirling Candy, who was bounced around like a pinball between his two rivals. Setsuko drifted in late and gained a slight advantage in deep stretch but could not hold on against the late surge of Game On Dude.
Rosario said, “The inside came out, and the outside kind of stayed with me, so I got bumped (on Twirling Candy) and lost control. After that, I didn’t have anything. I lost all the momentum."
“Hopefully he’s OK," trainer John Sadler said of Twirling Candy. "We’ll live to fight another day. He’s a good horse, but it was just too rough a trip – too much banging around.”
Quindici Man, on the extreme outside with Martin Pedroza aboard, finished gamely at 69-1 for third.
“He just gives everything he can every time," trainer Craig Lews said of Quindici Man. "He’s a working man’s horse.”
With Twirling Candy off the board, the payoffs were tremendous. Game On Dude paid $31.60, $11.60 and $14.40. Setsuko returned $15.80 and $25. Quindici Man's show was worth $48.20. The exacta was $506.60, the $1 trifecta paid $10,325.60, and the $1 superfecta returned $48,248.
Game On Dude carried 115 pounds in the Big 'Cap, seven fewer than the top-weighted Twirling Candy.
Transferred to Baffert last spring after beginning his career in Florida, Game On Dude won the Lone Star Derby (gr. III) in May before retiring for the year following a fourth-place finish in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I). He returned to action Jan. 27 with a 1 1/4-length victory over an optional claiming allowance field going 1 1/16 miles at Santa Anita Jan. 27.
Game On Dude earned $450,000 for the Santa Anita Handicap win, boosting his career bankroll to $702,658. He has won four of eight lifetime starts with one second.