07/05/2011 1:38PM

Hollywood Park: New style as a closer paying off for First Dude

Audrey C. Crosby
First Dude, with Martin Garcia up, races as a closer on his way to victory in the Alysheba Stakes at Churchill Downs on May 6.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. – Credit Don Dizney and Bob Baffert for giving First Dude a career makeover this year.

A colt who had finished second or third by racing on or near the lead in six consecutive major stakes for 3-year-olds in the spring and summer of 2010 has become a two-race winner this year in races for older horses as a threat from off the pace.

The new style may give First Dude a more significant role in the nation’s older male division.

On Saturday, First Dude will be after his first Grade 1 win in the $500,000 Hollywood Gold Cup, the premier race for older horses at the Hollywood Park spring-summer meeting. A victory would likely lead to a start in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs in November, a race in which he was eighth last year at a different time of his career.

“It’s what we aim at,” Dizney said of the Breeders’ Cup. “If we can run well [Saturday], it would give us a good indication of where we’re at.”

Dizney bred First Dude, who had one win in 10 starts and earnings of $844,640 in 2010. After First Dude finished a troubled fourth in the Sunshine Millions Classic at Gulfstream Park last January, Dizney was ready for an experiment. He opted for a coastal switch, sending First Dude from trainer Dale Romans in Florida to Baffert in California.

“I wanted to change everything about him and send him out to Bob and see if the Pacific Ocean air was better for him than the Atlantic Ocean air,” Dizney said earlier this week. “I wasn’t upset with Dale, but I wanted to change things around.”

Two months later, Baffert decided on a different strategy change. First Dude had raced on or near the lead for much of his career, and Baffert decided it was time to try the colt from off the pace.

“When you’re one-dimensional, you basically have a gun to your head,” Baffert said. “You have to hope you don’t have a crazy jockey in there that can mess you up. You want to put them in a spot where they have a chance.”

After winning once in his first 14 starts, First Dude won consecutive races this spring – an allowance race at Santa Anita in April and his first stakes win in the Grade 3 Alysheba Stakes on Kentucky Oaks Day at Churchill Downs in May.

For Dizney, the win ended a remarkable, but frustrating, string of stakes results for First Dude that began in April 2010.

First Dude was third in the Blue Grass Stakes, but missed the 2010 Kentucky Derby because of insufficient graded stakes earnings. Dismissed at 23-1 in the Preakness Stakes, First Dude led in early stretch but could not hold off the Baffert-trained Lookin At Lucky, who edged First Dude by three-quarters of a length.

“I thought we’d win all the way,” Dizney said of the Preakness.

First Dude later finished third in three consecutive Grade 1 races – the Belmont Stakes, Haskell Invitational, and Travers Stakes. Favored to win the Pennsylvania Derby at Parx Racing in September, he finished second by a neck to Morning Line.

“He was an iron horse last year,” said Dizney, who lives in Palm Beach, Fla. “He ran in all the big races.”

First Dude made one more start at 3, finishing eighth of 12 as a 37-1 outsider in the Breeders’ Cup Classic after leading for the first six furlongs. He was sent to Baffert in early February, days after the Sunshine Millions.

Little changed in First Dude’s California debut. First Dude set the pace for the first six furlongs of the Santa Anita Handicap, but faded to finish 6 1/2 lengths behind the Baffert-trained Game On Dude.

“We sent him out there, and he melted,” Baffert said.

The disappointment of that race was reversed a month later in a $58,000 allowance race over 1 1/16 miles. Against much weaker competition, First Dude closed from sixth to win by 2 1/2 lengths. After the race, Baffert declared that “experiment worked. That’s the way he wants to run.”

The result was confirmed with the Alysheba result.

Baffert said the new style gives First Dude added versatility and will help in the Gold Cup over 1 1/4 miles and other races at longer distances.

“He can do either,” Baffert said of racing near the lead or off the pace. “You just can’t rush him. I think he’ll be able to go farther this way.”

Saturday’s race can confirm First Dude’s transition and give him a chance at greater accomplishments this fall.