05/31/2012 2:06PM

Hollywood Park: Older male division leadership up for grabs in Californian Stakes

Shigeki Kikkawa
Game On Dude hasn’t started since finishing a disappointing 12th in the Dubai World Cup.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. – The $150,000 Californian Stakes at Betfair Hollywood Park on Saturday is essentially a race for leadership of the circuit’s older male division.

Going into the race, it is a vacant position.

Game On Dude won the Grade 2 San Antonio Stakes at Santa Anita in February, but was 12th in Dubai World Cup in March. The Californian Stakes over 1 1/8 miles is his first start since that race.

Since then, Morning Line, a Grade 1 stakes winner in New York last year, won his California debut in the Grade 2 Mervyn LeRoy Handicap over 1 1/16 miles here May 5. He won by a half-length over Prayer for Relief, a three-time stakes winner last year who is part of the Californian field.

Those three are joined in the Californian by wintertime stakes winner Kettle Corn (Grade 3 Native Diver Handicap here in December) and Uh Oh Bango (Grade 2 San Pasqual Handicap in January).

The Californian is the last prep before the $500,000 Hollywood Gold Cup on July 7.

Game On Dude is likely to go favored in the Californian. The runner-up to Drosselmeyer in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs, Game On Dude is expected to have the lead in the Californian. The 5-year-old gelding starts from the rail in the field of five.

“If he wants to be close, that’s great,” said Chantal Sutherland, his regular rider. “I’ll let him find his rhythm.”

In the Dubai World Cup, Game On Dude raced in the middle of the 13-horse field for the first mile, made a bid toward the leaders with three furlongs remaining, and faded through the stretch.

“He tried to make a good move, and I thought he’d do it,” she said.

Sutherland thought the warm conditions in Dubai worked against Game On Dude.

Bob Baffert trains Game On Dude and Prayer for Relief.

Prayer for Relief has lost his last six starts, but left Baffert encouraged by the Mervyn Leroy.

“He’ s rounding into form,” Baffert said.

Morning Line was being readied for his 2012 campaign in March. In the Grade 2 Mervyn LeRoy over 1 1/16 miles, the sometimes temperamental 5-year-old horse was stubborn before the start, but then led throughout for his first stakes win since the Grade 1 Carter Handicap at Aqueduct in April 2011.

Morning Line’s last win over 1 1/8 miles was the Grade 2 Pennsylvania Derby in 2010.

“He acts like he’ll go all day,” trainer John Shirreffs said. “Any horse than can run a mile and a sixteenth like that off a layoff can go a mile and an eighth.”

The presence of an expected front-runner such as Game On Dude does not concern Shirreffs.

“Morning Line is comfortable off the pace,” he said. “He doesn’t need the lead.”

Shirreffs said the Californian can move Morning Line one race closer to a start in the Gold Cup.

“That was the reason to go in Mervyn Leroy,” he said. “It’s steps. You have to have a good strong foundation.”