Game On Dude and jockey Mike Smith, right, overpower Kettle Corn and jockey… (Benoit Photo )
At least super horse Game On Dude gave a sad day at Betfair Hollywood Park a grand finale.
At least when the bulldozers start doing their work in January, those in Saturday's crowd of 6,493 for the 74th — and last — Hollywood Gold Cup, will have their memories.
And yes, if you know anything about horse racing in Southern California, you know that an attendance figure of 6,493 for a $500,000 Grade I race with the reputation and history of the Hollywood Gold Cup is a disgrace.
Hollywood Park is closing its doors after its last race Dec. 22. Clearly, racing fans have already closed their doors on Hollywood Park.
Soon, this legendary sports space in Inglewood will be shops, restaurants, movie theaters, condominiums and homes. Those are all good things, except when you ponder that they will trample on the hallowed grounds of thoroughbred greatness.
In the Gold Cup alone, the names of revered stars tell the story. This race was won by, among others, Seabiscuit, Noor, Citation, Ack Ack, Affirmed, Ferdinand and Cigar. Lava Man won it three times in 2005-07 and got a nice ovation Saturday, when he led the parade to the post. Native Diver won it in 1965-67 and is buried under a memorial and a flower garden in the paddock.
And now, by defending his title, the 6-year-old gelding with the funky name and the quote-machine trainer has joined those two as the only other multiple winner.
"He had control of the pace," said trainer Bob Baffert. "He always finds another gear."
With the victory, for Baffert and his owners — a group that includes Bernie Schiappa, the Terry Lanni Family Trust and baseball legend Joe Torre — Game On Dude went past the $5-million mark in winnings. He was such a heavy favorite that his payoff line was $2.60, $2.20 and $2.10. That's minimal value for gamblers, but greatness for the sport.
"There's so much pressure," Baffert said. "I didn't want to see him get beat because of the fans who came to see him."
There didn't seem much likelihood of that. Game On Dude was expected to go immediately to the front, which he did. And he was expected to reject any challenges, which he did when runner-up Kettle Corn gave it a try.
"He's a fighter," said jockey Mike Smith. "If you beat him, you have to go past him. And that's tough, because he'll die trying."
Baffert enjoyed the moment with the press, as he always does. Some samples:
"Dude, he's like a terminator."
In a reference to attendees Torre and TV personality Larry King: "I was the only non-celebrity in the winners' circle."
On the difference between jockeys of the past and today's riders: "They work out now. I remember, in the old days, I'd see P-Val [Pat Valenzuela] take a bite of a sugar doughnut and spit it into the garbage can, just to get a taste of the sugar."
And, assuming he was speaking only of race horses, and specifically of Game On Dude, "We need more geldings."
But even amid his understandable euphoria, Baffert saw the moment the same as many in racing.
"This is sad … sad that we're never going to be here in the summer again," he said.
He talked about how great horses provide the tradition for races, such as Cigar once did for the Dubai World Cup. He talked about he had recently studied the history of the Hollywood Gold Cup, and how Affirmed had won in 1979, carrying 132 pounds, five more than Game On Dude, but two fewer than Ack Ack in 1971.
"It's sad," he repeated. "We are in denial here, kind of like, what are we going to do now?"
Game On Dude will move on. His probable next appearances, assuming he stays healthy, will be the Pacific Classic at Del Mar on Aug. 25 and the Breeders' Cup Classic on Nov. 2 at Santa Anita.
Horse racing will move on too, despite the Hollywood Park downer. The sport has mostly shot itself in the foot over the last two decades. Hollywood Park's closure is not a mortal wound either, but the bleeding is increasingly severe.
A few years hence, somebody will wander out to the former Hollywood Park and figure out where the finish line once was, the spot where Game On Dude joined the ranks of thoroughbred greatness one Saturday afternoon in a July past.
It might be a nice backyard. Or maybe a McDonald's drive-through window.