07/05/2012 2:17PM

Hovdey: Game On Dude can gain some redemption in Hollywood Gold Cup

Shigeki Kikkawa
Game On Dude had a poor outing in the Dubai World Cup but has rebounded.

“Conveniently located three miles east of the Los Angeles International Airport, Hollywood Park, formerly a thoroughbred racetrack, is the largest undeveloped parcel of land in the Greater Los Angeles area.”

– recent press release from Merit Property Management

If the land developers and their management company could just hold off with the shovels, the rest of us would like to squeeze in one more Hollywood Gold Cup on Saturday afternoon, especially since the last anyone checked Hollywood Park is not “formerly” a racetrack just yet.

Thanks for that.

[HOLLYWOOD PARK: Get PPs and watch Saturday’s full card live]

Beneath this cloud of finality, the Gold Cup program at least gives the game a chance to appreciate one of those old-timey racehorses who transcends all the woes swirling around him. Game On Dude is his name, and he has become one of those utterly honest professionals whose entertaining story continues to unfold. If development plans for the track go forward later this year as announced, and he goes down in history as the last of the 74 Hollywood Gold Cup winners, history can have no complaints.


Then again, the race kind of owes him one after last year’s running when Game On Dude was beaten by a stablemate in the last strides of the mile and a quarter. Bygones are bygones, though. First Dude (supposedly named for Alaska’s Todd Palin rather than the Coen brothers’ Jeff Lebowski) got the nod that day but never raced again, while Game On Dude soldiered on to win the Goodwood at Santa Anita and finish a gallant second in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs.

Game On Dude, a gelded son of Awesome Again, returned this year at age 5 to win the San Antonio and the Californian in a waltz, efforts that kept him alongside the best older horses in East and Midwest. Between those two appearances, however, came his trip to the UAE for the Dubai World Cup, which sounded like a good idea at the time but is probably best forgotten.

It impossible to hold a bad race in Dubai against any horse. Among the outstanding runners who flopped in those big-money desert events have been Lava Man, Twice Over, Behrens, Sagamix, Red Rocks, Miesque’s Approval, English Channel, Vodka, Paco Boy, Island Fashion and, on the same night in the same race where Game On Dude ran up the track, Royal Delta.

Neither is it fair to criticize any owner for giving it a shot. The $10 million purse of the World Cup is a heady temptation that renders the $750,000 Santa Anita Handicap purse anemic and makes the $500,000 offered for the Gold Cup look like couch change.

But at least you’d like a run for the money. Here is how Bernie Schiappa, one of Game On Dude’s owners, has pieced together the evening’s events of last March 31 in Dubai, when Game On Dude ran his first poor race in nearly two years.

“It was a debacle,” said Schiappa. “He was the last one to load that night, and you could see the gate was shaking, and Chantal was saying ‘No, no, no.’ The horse next to us had a blanket and a blindfold loading into the gate and was being rambunctious. The handler with our horse let go of him to grab the horse next to us. When he did that Game On Dude was spooked and went back on his hind legs and leaned against the back doors of the gate. When they popped the doors he banged against the gate then banged against that horse next to him. We were out of the race.”

Any chance Game On Dude had to use his valuable early speed to impact the race went poof in the desert night. His rider, Chantal Sutherland, gave him a try then conceded defeat, bringing him home 12th of 13 to fight another day. There was also a suggestion that Game On Dude was not comfortable running over Meydan’s Tapeta surface, but Schiappa refused to take the bait.

“I always say I don’t care if it’s Tapeta, rocks, or dirt – a good horse runs on anything,” he said. And his horse has, running good races on fast dirt at Santa Anita, Belmont Park, Lone Star, and Churchill Downs, in the slop at Charles Town, and over synthetic at Betfair Hollywood Park.

“Anyway, at that point the horse was secondary to the health of my friend,” Schiappa said, adding one more note of Dubai. “Bob’s health was far more important than the race.”

Game On Dude’s Middle East adventure was in most regards dwarfed by the heart attack suffered by his trainer, Bob Baffert, while in Dubai.

“Thank god he came back alive and healthy,” Schiappa said. “And the horse came back and ran a great race.”

The partnership of Schiappa, Ernie Moody, Terri Lanni, and Joe Torre bought Game On Dude out of an impressive maiden win in early 2010 with every hope and dream he would take them to the Kentucky Derby. But after disappointing runs in the Florida Derby and the Derby Trial, they had to settle instead for a lesser Derby at Lone Star and a promising fourth-place finish in the Belmont Stakes. End of 2010.

The 2011 season commenced with an allowance win at Santa Anita. Then came Game On Dude’s breakthrough performance in the Santa Anita Handicap, in which he survived a lengthy inquiry to preserve a nose victory over the unlucky Setsuko. The victory was made all the more poignant for those closest to the horse because of Lanni’s struggle with the last stages of cancer. Lanni, the former head of MGM Grand and a director of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, died on July 14, 2011, five days after Game On Dude’s narrow loss in the Gold Cup.

Torre, the former Dodgers and Yankees manager, is now an executive with Major League Baseball. He will be otherwise occupied on Saturday in Kansas City with festivities leading up to the July 10 All-Star game. But then, he’s already been there and done that. Torre was an eight-time All Star who played on seven winning National League teams.

Schiappa promised Torre would be tuned in.

“Owning a horse like Game On Dude is like owning a franchise, a football team or a baseball team,” Schiappa added. “It’s that exciting, I can tell you that, because horses like him come few and far between.”