Game On Dude is a 6/5 favorite to win Santa Anita's Big 'Cap on… (Benoit Photo / Associated…)
For the first time in its 76-year history, the Grade I Santa Anita Handicap will feature two past winners — last year's Ron The Greek and 2011 champion Game On Dude.
"I'm confident my horse is going to run a big race," said Bob Baffert, who trains Game On Dude.
That certainty about the 6/5 favorite for the $750,000 Big 'Cap on Saturday is rooted in Game On Dude's recent performances, a 1 1/4-length win in the $250,000 Native Diver Stakes on Dec. 1 and a more-impressive 6 1/2-length triumph Feb. 3 in the $196,000 San Antonio Stakes.
Game On Dude's Beyer speed figure was an outstanding 116, as he completed the 1 1/8-mile course in 1 minute 47.53 seconds — nearly five seconds faster than he ran the Native Diver.
"He's hit another gear, is really sound and talented," said Mike Smith, Game On Dude's jockey. "As some horses get older, they get better. He seems to have really stepped his game up, with the high speed and the way he finished.
"He ran within himself and is extremely fit, a healthy happy horse coming into this race."
Game On Dude will carry the race's highest weight, 125 pounds, to Ron The Greek's 122.
Having Smith aboard is further comfort for Baffert, who watched Game On Dude, with Chantal Sutherland riding, be passed late in the stretch by Smith's horse Drosselmeyer in the 2011 Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs. The horse then got off to a sluggish start with Rafael Bejarano aboard, finishing seventh in last year's Classic at Santa Anita.
"The start is very important to him, he always breaks a little flat-footed, never flies right out of there," Baffert said. "But now he's got a good post, [No. 9] and he'll have time in that long run to get in a good spot.
"He has to be in the clear after 50 yards. In the Classic, he ran into a wall of horses and it ruined his psyche."
Smith has been aboard for the last two victories, and Baffert said the jockey is "a good gate rider," who again showed his mettle in the late push that got Game On Dude the December victory.
Game On Dude is partially owned by former Dodgers manager Joe Torre.
Ron The Greek, a Florida-based horse trained by Bill Mott, is expected to come charging off the pace. In the Jan. 19 Sunshine Millions Classic, Ron The Greek won by 11 1/4 lengths with a 115 Beyer speed rating.
In 2011, "I had the better horse and just outran him," Smith said, "but he's gotten so much stronger. You look at the time of the last race, how he did it, kicked away at the end and it didn't seem to take anything out of him.
"You'd have to ask [Baffert] why he chose me to ride him, but I'm glad he picked me."
In a field that includes Gary Stevens aboard Called to Serve, Baffert's Guilt Trip with Joe Talamo aboard and Stephanoatsee eager to try the added distance, Baffert said he's hopeful another horse pushes Game On Dude for the early lead.
"If he's too slow early, it seems like he doesn't have that kick," Baffert said. "But I believe my horse has always been a 1 1/4-mile horse. Ron The Greek is good too, but he needs the right pace, good luck and he's stuck on the inside.
"We have to bring our 'A' game, but this is a good horse who has a chance to run his best race right here."