11/29/2012 3:26PM

Hollywood Park: Game On Dude starts over in Native Diver

Tom Keyser
Game On Dude finished seventh in the BC Classic on Nov. 3 at Santa Anita.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. – When Game On Dude finished seventh in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita on Nov. 3, he went from being a Horse of the Year candidate to just another good older horse.

“It’s amazing how things can go so badly in just two minutes,” trainer Bob Baffert said.

Game On Dude typically races near the front, but was never close to the lead and finished 15 lengths behind Fort Larned as the 6-5 favorite.

“He didn’t run,” Baffert said. “We were stunned. He lost Horse of the Year.”

Owned by the partnership of Bernie Schiappa, the Lanni Family Trust, Mercedes Stable, and Joe Torre, Game On Dude is starting over in Saturday’s $250,000 Native Diver Stakes at Betfair Hollywood Park.

The calendar says Dec. 1, but the Grade 3 Native Diver is essentially the start of the 2013 handicap division for older males in Southern California.

In the Native Diver over 1 1/8 miles, Game On Dude will be favored against four rivals, all stakes winners. He faces former stablemate Richard’s Kid, who was fifth in the BC Classic; the promising 3-year-old Nonios, who was sixth in the BC Classic; the stakes winner Make Music for Me, who was fourth in the 2010 Kentucky Derby; and Kettle Corn, the defending champion of the Native Diver.

Game On Dude will have his third jockey in four races in the Native Diver, with Mike Smith replacing Rafael Bejarano. In the BC Classic, Baffert expected Bejarano to have Game On Dude on or near the lead, a style that led to wins earlier this year in races such as the Grade 2 San Antonio, Grade 2 Californian Stakes, Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup, and Grade 1 Awesome Again Stakes.

Chantal Sutherland rode Game On Dude in the San Antonio, Californian, and Hollywood Gold Cup, but was replaced after the gelding finished second to Dullahan in the Pacific Classic at Del Mar in August. The Awesome Again Stakes in August was Bejarano’s first ride on Game On Dude this year.

The frustration of the BC Classic loss is subsiding for Baffert. He was encouraged when Game On Dude worked five furlongs in 59.60 seconds at Santa Anita on Nov. 20.

“He looked good,” Baffert said. “He worked well the other day. He’s going to run well.”

Game On Dude will start from the rail. Expected to lead, he is unlikely to have significant pressure early. The question is whether he can be as effective in his eighth start of 2012 as he was earlier this year.

The chasing pack is capable of pulling an upset.

Kettle Corn and Make Music for Me won their last starts, both on turf.

Kettle Corn, trained by John Sadler, won an allowance race over 1 1/16 miles here Nov. 8, his first victory in seven starts this year.

Kettle Corn was second in the Californian and third in the Hollywood Gold Cup behind Game On Dude over the summer.

“He’s been strong” at Hollywood Park, Sadler said.

Kettle Corn won the 2011 Native Diver when the race was worth $100,000.

This year, the purse has been enhanced with a boost from the Oak Tree Racing Association, which operated autumn race meetings at Santa Anita from 1969 to 2009 and at Hollywood Park in 2010. Oak Tree added money to the purses of some stakes at Del Mar during the summer.

“I think it’s a better field than last year,” Sadler said.

Make Music for Me has not raced since winning an allowance race in May, a layoff caused by a splint bone injury. Trained by Alexis Barba, Make Music for Me is the outsider in Saturday’s field.

Nonios, trained by Jerry Hollendorfer, was second to Game On Dude in the Awesome Again Stakes, and beaten 10 3/4 lengths after a wide trip in the Breeders’ Cup. The winner of the Grade 3 Affirmed Handicap here in June, he has yet to beat older horses.

Richard’s Kid, trained by Doug O’Neill, was third in the Pacific Classic and in the Awesome Again Stakes. Formerly trained by Baffert, Richard’s Kid was second in the Hollywood Gold Cup in July.

He was acquired by his current owners in late August.

Rafael Bejarano has the mount on Richard’s Kid on Saturday.

“Rafael has ridden the horse and knows him well,” O’Neill said. “We’re in dire need of a win.”