10/25/2012 12:56PM

Breeders' Cup: Game On Dude blossoms into Classic favorite

Shigeki Kikkawa
Game On Dude, winning the Sept. 29 Awesome Again, returns to the Classic as the likely favorite after finishing second to Drosselmeyer last year.

A car dealer by trade, a gambler by nature, Bernie Schiappa is always looking for a good deal, particularly when it comes to buying racehorses. He’s never in the market for yearlings or 2-year-olds in training, preferring ready-made horses who are acquired, the hope goes, long before they blossom. Betting on the come, they call it at the craps table.

In the spring of 2010, Schiappa was ready to roll the dice. He dispatched his trainer, Bob Baffert, to Florida to check out a 3-year-old named Game On Dude, who had just made his second start, winning a maiden race at Gulfstream Park. Schiappa didn’t care that Game On Dude was a gelding, or that he hadn’t made it to the races until January of his 3-year-old year.

“I liked the way he broke his maiden,” Schiappa said. “And I thought Bob could move him up.”

Move him up all the way to the Kentucky Derby − that’s what Schiappa desired. But Game On Dude was not yet ready for prime time. He was down the track in the Florida Derby and the Derby Trial, too. And even though Game On Dude improved enough over the next six weeks to finish fourth in the Belmont Stakes, a long-term approach was now in order.

[BREEDERS' CUP 2012: Race-by-race coverage, video, early odds]

More than two years later, that failed Derby prospect has blossomed into the likely favorite for the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 3 at Santa Anita. Game On Dude finished second in the Classic last year at Churchill Downs. A year later, “He’s better than he’s ever been,” Baffert said in an interview at Santa Anita’s Clocker’s Corner last weekend.

“Physically, he’s come into himself,” Baffert said. “He’s just a late developer.”

Game On Dude, 5, has won four times in six starts this year, his lone losses coming on synthetic surfaces, Polytrack at Del Mar and Tapeta at Meydan in Dubai. He is clearly superior on dirt, and the dirt he likes best is at Santa Anita, where he is unbeaten in five starts and has trained sensationally since his victory last month in the Awesome Again Stakes, named for his sire.

But a focus on Game On Dude having the homefield advantage overlooks the consistency with which he has raced for the last two years. In 14 starts since the 2010 Belmont, Game On Dude has finished out of the money just twice, in this year’s Dubai World Cup and last year’s Pacific Classic, both on synthetic tracks. He has won four Grade 1 races – including the 2011 Santa Anita Handicap – and was narrowly beaten in this year’s Pacific Classic and last year’s Hollywood Gold Cup.

Yet one of his best races may have been his defeat in last year’s BC Classic. Game On Dude set the pace from the start; turned back challenges from Uncle Mo, then To Honor and Serve, then So You Think; kicked clear at mid-stretch; and was nailed in the closing yards by Drosselmeyer, who finished with a rush in the center of the track.

“There was plenty of pace in that race,” Baffert said. “There wasn’t any cheap speed. He had all that thrown at him. He just got tired at the end. That was a really demanding track, too. He had to fend all those horses off. He ran a great race.”

It’s hard to imagine, but Game On Dude was a 14-1 outsider in that race, the seventh choice in a field of 12. The perception the public had of him then is long gone. Game On Dude has been favored in all five of his North American starts this year, a streak that seems certain to continue in the Classic.

“He’s bigger, stronger,” Baffert said, ticking off the reasons Game On Dude is a more formidable presence this year. “He’s filled out. He’s always been a light-framed horse. He’s really matured this year.”

Game On Dude has matured both physically and mentally. A rather plain bay, with his only white markings some brushstrokes on his rear ankles, Game On Dude has grown into a stronger athlete this year. He trains like a metronome, steadily, never backing off. And in his last race, his first this year with jockey Rafael Bejarano, Game On Dude did not get rank turning into the backstretch, a habit that has often compromised his chances in prior races. He still wants to mix it up early but is not unreasonable about it.

“You have to let him go at his pace,” Baffert said. “You can’t grab him.”

The Classic has been the target all year for Game On Dude. With the Breeders’ Cup being at Santa Anita this year and next, and with Game On Dude being such a terror here, everything earlier this year was designed to get him to the Classic. Even the forgettable journey to Dubai, during which Baffert had a heart attack and Game On Dude finished 12th of 13, was undertaken only with the knowledge that Game On Dude would not return to action in California until he was rested and ready.

The trip to Dubai − the health scare, the racing − was “a disaster,” Baffert said. But it was serendipitous. Game On Dude only went to Dubai because it was decided to bypass a title defense in the Santa Anita Handicap earlier in March. The Big Cap unfolded with a breakneck pace − 22.26 seconds for the quarter, 44.55 for the half, 1:09.08 for six furlongs − and the highly regarded Strub Stakes winner Ultimate Eagle, caught in that caldron, hasn’t raced since.

[BREEDERS' CUP 2012: Pre-entered fields with odds and comments]

“They went so fast,” Baffert said. “A lot of those horses were never heard from again. We might have been better off.”

After Dubai, “I gave him two or three weeks off,” Baffert said. “He was pretty quiet. And then all of a sudden he started to come around.”

Since Dubai, Game On Dude is 3 for 4, his only loss coming when he was caught in the final strides of the Pacific Classic by synthetic specialist Dullahan. Game On Dude was back to the races by June 2, and he crushed his rivals in the Californian at Betfair Hollywood Park. Five weeks later, he captured the Hollywood Gold Cup. After the Pacific Classic, Bejarano replaced Chantal Sutherland, who had been aboard Game On Dude in his prior nine starts.

“She’s a nice person. It was hard, because we became friends,” said Schiappa, who is part of an ownership group that includes baseball great Joe Torre, Debbie Lanni, and Ernie Moody. “But I think we did the right thing.”

Baffert, ultimately, made the call, Schiappa said.

“It’s like Torre says, ‘You hire the manager to manage the team,’ ” Schiappa said. “We talk about things, but bottom line, Bob makes the decisions.”

Before the Awesome Again, Bejarano had ridden Game On Dude just once previously in a race, in a second-level allowance that Game On Dude won at Santa Anita in January 2011. But Bejarano had been working the horse regularly throughout Del Mar, so there was no learning curve.

The Awesome Again was an ideal prep. Game On Dude cruised home 3 1/4 lengths best, and Baffert said he “never really ran hard.”

“It was an easy race for him,” he said.

The Classic won’t be as easy. The field will be demonstrably deeper. It will be up to Game On Dude to prove he is, indeed, a superior horse to the one who competed in last year’s Classic.

“Mucho Macho Man, To Honor and Serve, they’re going to be up there with him,” Baffert said. “We’re not going to change his style. He just has to get into his groove.”