06/25/2014 12:12PM

Hovdey: At age 7, it's a roll of the dice


If nothing else, the presence of Game On Dude in Saturday’s $500,000 Gold Cup at Santa Anita eases the disorientation of watching the West’s premier early-summer race for the older division run somewhere other than Hollywood Park.

The Hollywood Gold Cup is history, and Game On Dude owned the last part of that history, finishing a close second in 2011 before winning the race in 2012 and 2013. Whether he is ready to christen the Gold Cup at Santa Anita with another one of his familiar, free-wheeling performances depends on which version of the 7-year-old Game On Dude shows up: the rusty veteran who phoned in the San Antonio, the master at work in another Santa Anita Handicap triumph, or the unhappy old horse going through the motions around a bullring in the Charles Town Classic.

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It’s not easy being a 7-year-old Thoroughbred gelding accustomed to playing at the top of the ticket. Never mind the racing – the training alone can take its toll. That is why it is such a joy to watch old pros like Game On Dude still in action. As if he needs inspiration, here is what some of the greatest geldings of the last century did when they faced the realities of age 7.

Exterminator had run 73 times by the time he turned 7 and had won 35 races, among them the 1918 Kentucky Derby. As 1922 dawned, when the 7-year-old gelding known as “Old Bones” and “The Galloping Hat Rack” took the field, no one would have dreamed he’d have his best year yet. Exterminator won 10 of 16 races (plus one payday “against the clock”), highlighted by a memorable score in the Brooklyn Handicap over 1921 Horse of the Year Grey Lag.

Armed won 35 of 57 starts and $761,500 through his first four years of competition. Nearly half of that amount came in 1947, when he was 6 and acclaimed Horse of the Year. At the end of the season, Ben Jones was rightfully proud of his powerful gelding. “There’s only one thing the matter with him,” Jones said. “He’ll be 7 years old on Jan. 1.”

Jones knew his horse. Armed tailed off in 1948, winning only once in six starts before going to the bench for a year. He never won another stakes.

Kelso was already Horse of the Year four years running by the time he turned 7 on Jan. 1, 1964. Because of this, he must have wondered what he was doing in California, and ran accordingly. Kelso flopped at Hollywood Park twice, then returned to the East Coast, where he enjoyed many of his finest career moments, trading blows with the 5-year-old upstart Gun Bow. By the end of 1964, Kelso had done enough to be crowned Horse of the Year once again.

Fort Marcy’s best year was 1970, at the age of 6, when he won five major stakes on grass and was beaten either a nose or a neck in four others. In the Daily Racing Form poll, he was Horse of the Year. By contrast, Fort Marcy’s 7-year-old campaign of 1971 was fraught with frustration. He finished first only once in eight starts, and that one, the Dixie Handicap at Pimlico, was taken away on disqualification. He was retired at the end of the season.

Forego at 7 was every bit as physically imposing as he was at 4, 5, and 6, when he laced together three Horse of the Year campaigns. By 1977, his troublesome ankles were becoming even more of a challenge for trainer Frank Whiteley, who spent so much time hosing the champ’s legs that Bill Leggett of Sports Illustrated worried aloud that Forego might wilt. Still, the big horse won the Met Mile, the Nassau County, and his third Woodward, and it took Seattle Slew’s Triple Crown to keep Forego from winning his fourth Horse of the Year title.

John Henry, the 1981 Horse of the Year, began his 7-year-old season in 1982 by coming off a three-month layoff to win the Santa Anita Handicap on the disqualification of Perrault. It was a fair call, and it did not keep Perrault from going on to win an Eclipse Award as the best older male of 1982, while John Henry sputtered through a season of minor physical setbacks and only one other win before traveling to Tokyo for the Japan Cup.

The trip featured a scary bout of colic for John Henry and then an ill-advised start in the race. Bill Shoemaker nursed him home at the back of the field so that Ol’ John could live to fight another day. In 1984, at age 9, he was Horse of the Year again.

Last but hardly least, Native Diver was 7 in 1966 when he won the second of his three straight Hollywood Gold Cups. When he died 14 months later, a victim of colitis, his remains were buried beneath a monument in the Hollywood Park grandstand gardens, which later became the walking ring.

Hollywood Park still stands, weedy and crumbling, but the remains of Native Diver are gone, now interred in the Del Mar infield beneath a headstone topped by the bronze replica of the Gold Cup trophy that had graced his former resting place.

That leaves Santa Anita with a fresh canvass for its own Gold Cup, and a chance for Game On Dude to pick up where he left off on the other side of town.