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Game On Dude puts on a big show in Big 'Cap

Bob Baffert's 6-year-old gelding has a runaway for his second Santa Anita Handicap victory in three years.

March 02, 2013|Bill Dwyre
  • Game On Dude didn't disappoint in the Santa Anita Big 'Cap on Saturday, winning the race for the second time handily by a margin of 7 3/4 lengths.
Game On Dude didn't disappoint in the Santa Anita Big 'Cap on… (Benoit Photo / Associated…)

A Ferrari made the rest of the field look like go-karts Saturday in the Santa Anita Handicap.

As the 6-5 favorite, Game On Dude was expected to be impressive, but he went well beyond that. He was dazzling, awe-inspiring. For the crowd of 26,901 at the Great Race Place, the 2 minutes and 14-hundredths of a second they got of Game On Dude was easily worth the price of admission.

The 6-year-old gelding broke to the front and never looked back, winning the $750,000 Grade I race by a record 7 3/4 lengths over Clubhouse Ride. That's 1 3/4 lengths better than the previous best margin of victory, by Brocato in 1956.

In this age of frequent injuries to fragile horses and quick retirement to the lucrative breeding barns, horse racing has few real stars. Game On Dude is now one.

"This stamped him as the great horse he is," said his trainer, Bob Baffert, no slouch himself. "I think people come out to see a great horse … and got that today."

The past had muddled Game On Dude's quest for true stardom.

He won the 2011 Big 'Cap, but Baffert had to wait nearly 15 minutes for stewards to decide to keep his number up after he was involved in heavy bumping in the stretch. In the Breeders' Cup Classic that year, he got caught at the end by Drosselmeyer and took second. Then, in 2012, Baffert skipped the Big 'Cap and took Game On Dude to Dubai for the richest race in the world, the $10-million Dubai Classic.

How did that go? Game On Dude finished a sad-sack 12th and Baffert had a heart attack in Dubai.

But once Baffert placed the reins in the hands of jockey Mike Smith two races ago, true stardom seemed closer. Saturday, it arrived.

"He knocked it out of the park today," said Smith, who, surprisingly, had never ridden a Big 'Cap winner before.

It was Smith who so expertly guided the rise to stardom of Zenyatta. And it is interesting to note the difference in styles, and the need for a different approach by Smith, to each.

Zenyatta always broke from the gate as if she wanted time to smell the flowers and listen to the birds, before she got interested and rocketed past everybody in the last furlong. Game On Dude likes it near the front, and Smith got him there quickly and expertly. By the time he passed the finish line the first time in this 1 1/4-mile test, Game On Dude was locked into a wire-to-wire frolic.

A few horses attempted a run at him as they turned for home. Smith merely punched the clutch and the Ferrari shifted gears. This acceleration, not often seen in hotly contested, big-money stakes such as the Big 'Cap, was certainly not lost on veteran race-caller Trevor Denman.

"Absorb this one," Denman intoned for the wide-eyed crowd. "A moment of history."

This day of big-time achievement by the stars of the game was marred only by the collapse and apparent heart attack of 7-year-old gelding Truism in the eighth race. The always-gruesome ritual of green curtains and white ambulance played out directly in front of the main grandstand.

Besides the Big 'Cap success for Baffert and Smith, both Hall of Famers, Ron McAnally won his 700th race at Santa Anita by taking the $300,000 Grade I Kilroe Mile, and Richard Mandella's magic filly, Beholder, ran away from the field in the $250,000 Grade I Los Virgenes Stakes. McAnally and Mandella are also in racing's Hall of Fame.

While other races, and other parts of racing, have lost their luster, Santa Anita's Big 'Cap remains a star-maker. A lot of that is because of Seabiscuit, who won the 1940 race at a time of war, when the country craved a successful underdog and got it in Seabiscuit.

Seabiscuit carried a stunning 130 pounds when he won. Game On Dude carried 125 Saturday, and that was enough to have given Baffert some pause as to whether he would even run him.

In the end, Baffert relented and it was clearly no problem.

To celebrate the day, and Seabiscuit's memory, a blanket of flowers was draped over his statue in the paddock. When Game On Dude got back to the winner's circle, he got his own floral blanket.

There are few stars in racing brighter than Seabiscuit, but Game On Dude earned a big twinkle Saturday.

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