07/07/2013 10:42AM

Hats Off to the Old Pros


It seems entirely appropriate that on this long holiday weekend celebrating the independence of our country 237 years ago, it was the veterans of our sport who provided the biggest fireworks:

Game On Dude, age 6, won the Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup Handicap Saturday at Betfair Hollywood Park.

Flat Out, age 7, won the Grade 2 Suburban Handicap Saturday at Belmont Park.

Ben’s Cat, also 7-years-old, won the $200,000 Parx Dash Handicap Friday at Parx Racing.

And Big Blue Kitten, a relatively spy 5, outfinished 6-year-old Teaks North to win the Grade 1 United Nations Saturday at Monmouth Park.

The most noteworthy aspect to Game On Dude’s victory wasn’t necessarily that he won – he was the prohibitive 3-10 favorite despite having to shoulder 127 pounds – or his performance – Game On Dude walked on the lead through uncontested opening fractions of 25.00 and 49.31, leaving him with plenty in reserve to turn back Kettle Corn, to whom he was conceding a not-insignificant 11 pounds. For me, the big deal about Game On Dude is, at an age when most horses have finished racing or are past peak if they are still running, he still operates at the top of his game (no pun intended). Outside of an easily forgiven loss in the Dubai World Cup in the spring of 2012, and an ill-timed dud in the Breeders’ Cup Classic last fall, Game On Dude now hasn’t finished worse than second in 14 starts dating back more than 22 months. And every one of those 14 outings were in graded stakes, nine of them in Grade 1’s.

I know that we are all looking for that horse who will take our breath away. But with that kind of brilliance so scarce, if not completely absent, there is room in the meantime to admire the sort of consistency and longevity at a high level that Game On Dude offers.

Flat Out and Ben’s Cat are much like Game On Dude. In the case of Flat Out, again the fact that he won the Suburban wasn’t the thing. By every measure, Flat Out towered over his Suburban field, making his even money odds seem like a gift, and his 119 pound impost seem woefully insufficient. But a notable aspect to Flat Out’s second career Suburban score was how it underscored the way he has managed to maintain successful upswings of form while still operating at high levels of the sport. That just isn’t an easy thing for a horse his age to do. And the way he won Saturday was also noteworthy. If there was one question about Flat Out Saturday, it was whether there was enough early pace to make it really easy for him. So what Flat Out did was take matters upon himself, and he surprisingly forced the pace, being a more aggressive early factor than he had ever been in 24 previous career starts.

One other quick point. There will be those who will attribute Flat Out’s win Saturday to a horse winning on his course. It is true that Flat Out has had more success at Belmont Park than he has had anywhere else, winning two Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cups. But Flat Out also hit the board in two Whitneys and a Woodward at Saratoga, and was a commendable third in last fall’s Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita while racing against a speed bias. So he’s not exactly a stiff away from Belmont.

Ben’s Cat, some 10 lengths out of it early in the Parx Dash, looked every bit the winner midway on the far turn while still in a significant hole, which says a lot about the way he has conditioned those of us who have watched him at work. And sure enough, his devastating late run got him there in plenty of time. Friday’s victory was the 17th – that’s right, 17th – career stakes victory for Ben’s Cat, and his 22 overall victory from 33 career starts. What’s more, Ben’s Cat has knocked out almost $1.6 million in earnings the hard way, almost exclusively in sprints, and in largely ungraded races. Those are numbers worth celebrating.

Finally, although Big Blue Kitten is a mature 5, he was doing something for the first time in the United Nations that he had never before attempted in this country, something that circumstances, and an unsuccessful venture to Royal Ascot last year, prevented him from doing. For the first time here, Big Blue Kitten got the chance to go an extended distance on the turf, something that this son of Kitten’s Joy and an Unaccounted For mare was born to do. And Big Blue Kitten made the most of the opportunity, seizing the biggest prize of his career so far with a strong late run.

But looking ahead off the United Nations, there is reason to be optimistic about Little Mike. Little Mike set a solid pace in the U.N. before tiring in the last of the race’s 11 furlongs to finish fourth. By itself, this effort was a step forward off two forgettable outings in Dubai earlier this year. But when you consider that Little Mike had not really run a representative race since he prevailed in the Breeders’ Cup Turf last fall, Saturday’s performance certainly seems like one he can build on.

Oh, by the way, Little Mike is 6-years-old.