Updated on 03/07/2013 11:44AM

Hovdey: Game On Dude, Comma to the Top show how it's done

Tom Keyser
Comma to the Top won the Tom Fool at Aqueduct just seven days after running third in the San Carlos at Santa Anita.

Old school was in session last weekend at Santa Anita Park and Aqueduct, where Game On Dude and Comma to the Top delivered PowerPoint presentations on the comprehensive subject of what a really good Thoroughbred can do when correctly prepared and politely asked.

Out West, Game On Dude won his third straight stakes for trainer Bob Baffert and owners Bernie Schiappa, Joe Torre, Ernie Moody, and the estate of Terry Lanni in the $750,000 Santa Anita Handicap. And yes, it was as easy as it looked. His record margin of 7 3/4 lengths sounds good on paper, and in this case it comes up as absolutely legitimate because of the knock-down, drag-out battle for second money between Clubhouse Drive and Called to Serve.

From the far turn home, the race was one of Trevor Denman’s processions, as good horses like Ron the Greek and Guilt Trip gave futile chase. Still, it was Game On Dude’s first quarter that was far more interesting than his last.

Breaking from post 9, Mike Smith gave his opposition the chance to lead the way to the first turn, but no one showed their cards. This is not the way to play hold ’em with a rider like Smith, who has never met a pace he couldn’t finesse. Angling sharply left, he took the initiative from Mario Gutierrez and the Pennsylvania Derby winner Handsome Mike, a colt with natural gas. Gutierrez may have had a case that Smith took his path, but sometimes old-school lessons come hard. Game On Dude was in control, which meant the race was all but over.

Three hours earlier on Long Island, Comma to the Top put on a show of his own in the Tom Fool Handicap. At six furlongs, compared with the Santa Anita Handicap’s 10, there was little room for error.

Comma to the Top and Joel Rosario were on their own through an opening quarter in 22.92 seconds, after which they were joined at the hip by Cornelio Velasquez on Head Heart Hoof. The field spread at the top of the stretch, affording Eddie Castro the chance veer left with Consortium for a run on the rail, while Junior Alvarado had Saturday’s Charm in gear on the far outside.

At that point Comma to the Top seemed destined to finish a noble fourth, with a pat on the head for the effort. After all, he had run just seven days earlier in the seven-furlong San Carlos at Santa Anita, finishing a stubborn third. This did not, however, take into account Comma to the Top’s deeply ingrained nature. In the wild, he would be a herd leader, a fighter of rival stallions, a brave defender of mares. Yes, Comma to the Top is a gelding, but don’t tell him that.

So when Consortium tried him on the inside he was swatted away, just as Head Heart Hoof finally crumbled deep in the lane. When that happened, Rosario gave Comma’s head a quick cock to the right to behold Saturday’s Charm closing hard. That’s all it took to hold on by a nose.

Among those cheering for the homeboy back at Santa Anita were Comma to the Top’s principal owner, Gary Barber, and trainer Pete Miller (both had fillies in the Las Virgenes Stakes coming up within minutes of the Tom Fool). Barber accepted handshakes as if Comma to the Top had just cured the common cold, while Miller nearly hyperventilated breathing sighs of relief.

“I was getting murdered in the chat rooms, bringing him back in just a week,” Miller said. “You should have seen some of the comments, how I was abusing the horse, how cruel it was to ship him and run him back in a week.”

This is the world in which modern trainers must maneuver, where once they were extolled for their daring and horsemanship for giving a horse a shot to make some sort of history. A few of the iconic moments include:

Wayne Lukas winning Hollywood Park’s American Handicap on July 4 and Citation Handicap on July 10 with Effervescing in 1978.

Woody Stephens winning the Metropolitan Mile on a Monday and then the Belmont Stakes the following Saturday with Conquistador Cielo in 1982.

John Veitch winning the Discovery Handicap on Saturday and then the Breeders’ Cup Classic seven days later with Proud Truth in 1985.

And then there was Warren Stute, whose respect for his horses was rivaled only by his faith in his own ability to gauge how much they could handle. Figonero, Snow Sporting, and June Darling were the best known of his major stakes winners who defied the idea that Thoroughbreds need weeks of nursing between successful starts.

“I mean, there wasn’t any real thought about the Tom Fool until after he came out of the San Carlos,” Miller noted. “And he needed to be acting like he never ran. It’s interesting, though, because I think you can run a horse back in a week and do well, but not in two weeks. One thing’s for sure – he’ll get a break now.”

Translation: Comma to the Top runs next in the Carter Handicap at Aqueduct on April 6.

As for Game On Dude, the Santa Anita Handicap was a dazzling piece of business that placed him alongside Milwaukee Brew and fellow geldings John Henry and Lava Man as the only two-time winners of the race. The only blot on his record over the past 12 months – other than his misadventure to Dubai for the 2012 World Cup – was his demoralizing effort last November in the Breeders’ Cup Classic over the same course and distance as the Handicap. A few more races like last Saturday and the Classic will fade away as the exception that proves the rule.