Game On Dude as Good as Ever

Game on Dude

ARCADIA, Calif. – The late Hall of Fame trainer Woody Stephens marked his territory by warning visitors to Belmont Park in New York that the buildings got awfully tall when one crossed the Hudson River.

There will be a similar hurdle facing almost all of the runners in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic on Saturday at Santa Anita. Once you cross over the looming San Gabriel Mountains, you’ve entered Baffert Country.

No trainer has won more races at Santa Anita over the past decade than Hall of Famer Bob Baffert. In the past two years, five of those wins have come with Game On Dude, whose perfect record at Santa Anita, terrific current form, and excellent recent workouts make him the acknowledged horse to beat in the 1 1/4-mile Classic, the last and richest of the 15 Breeders’ Cup races to be run at Santa Anita on Friday and Saturday.

Game On Dude was second in the Classic a year ago at Churchill Downs. This year’s model is stronger and faster. Game On Dude has filled out physically, and that has translated into better, more consistent races. He has raced 20 times in his life, but his fastest four races, as measured by Beyer Speed Figures, have been in his last four starts.

“He’s a better horse this time this year than last year,” Baffert said the other morning at Santa Anita.

He will have to be, though, because this Classic has quite a bit of depth. There are 11 signed up to face Game On Dude, including three – Flat Out, Ron the Greek, and To Honor and Serve – trained by Hall of Famer Bill Mott, who scored an upset in the Classic a year ago with Drosselmeyer. In addition, the field numbers accomplished older horses like Fort Larned, Mucho Macho Man, and Richard’s Kid, Travers winner Alpha, and the rapidly improving Nonios.

“There are a lot of good horses in there,” Baffert said. “If they bring their ‘A’ game, they can win.”

Game On Dude will start from post 5. He usually races on or near the lead, but he is not nearly as headstrong as he was a year ago, when he seemed intent on having the lead at all costs. Rafael Bejarano has taken over as his race rider, and has gotten Game On Dude to relax in the afternoons much like he has relaxed for Bejarano in his morning workouts.

“Bejarano gets along with him really well,” Baffert said. “We’ve been trying to get him to slow down just a tad, without choking him down.”

Flat Out was the beaten favorite in last year’s Classic. Like last year, he comes into this year’s race off a victory in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. The major question for Flat Out is whether he can reproduce his outstanding Belmont Park form elsewhere.

“I don’t know why not,” Mott said.

“He ran a bang-up up race at Saratoga,” Mott said, referring to a close, third-place finish behind Fort Larned and Ron the Greek in the Whitney. “He ran super. He would have won most races the way he ran that day.”

Ron the Greek shipped west earlier this year and won the Santa Anita Handicap, but he was the beneficiary of a ludicrous pace duel that flattered his late charge.

“We knew where the Breeders’ Cup was going to be this year, so we certainly thought a lot about this race after he won that race,” Mott said.

To Honor and Serve, the Woodward winner in September, was seventh in his only prior try at 1 1/4 miles, in last year’s Classic, in which he was beaten 3 1/2 lengths.

“To Honor and Serve, Flat Out, Havre de Grace, So You Think - they were all within a neck of each other, so that puts him in plenty good company, and now he’s a year older and a little more mature,” Mott said.

Fort Larned followed up his Whitney victory with a third-place finish in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. His trainer, Ian Wilkes, is a disciple of Hall of Famer Carl Nafzger, who is one of the best at pointing successfully for major targets, so it would not be surprising to see Fort Larned run the race of his life on Saturday.

Mucho Macho Man was second last time out to To Honor and Serve in the Woodward after winning the Suburban. His last few starts all have been spaced approximately two months apart.

“He’s really fresh. That’s when he does his best,” said his trainer, Kathy Ritvo.

Richard’s Kid, the subject of a celebrated private sale this past summer that moved him from Baffert to trainer Doug O’Neill, was third to Game On Dude in the Awesome Again five weeks ago over a speed-favoring track that compromised his closing run.

O’Neill also sends out Handsome Mike, the Pennsylvania Derby winner, who has contending early speed and is drawn outside of Game On Dude, so he could be a potential pest early in the race.

Alpha flopped in the Pennsylvania Derby as the odds-on favorite, but dead-heated for a Travers win, and captured the Jim Dandy outright, in his prior two starts.

Nonios was second in the Awesome Again, splitting Game On Dude and Richard’s Kid, and he had a sharp final workout here Tuesday morning.

Pool Play is an intriguing longshot. He has raced 32 times, primarily on synthetics and turf, but he is 2 for 2 on dirt, including a victory last time out in the Hawthorne Gold Cup.

“I think he’s better than ever, better than he was going into the Gold Cup, but he’s going to have to be,” said his trainer, Mark Casse, who has nursed Pool Play back from a 2009 tendon injury.

Brilliant Speed, the winner of the 2011 Blue Grass, is making the final start of his career, and is trying to end winless streaks both this year (0 for 6) and on dirt (0 for 5).

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