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.

Billy Spathanas More than 1 year ago
Did you say the word Finesse ? Great word to describe Mike Smith aboard Game On Dude in the Big Cap $$ As for Mario Gutierezz , he had to change his skivies after that schooling !
hialeah More than 1 year ago
Fun read Jay, I'd just like to honorably mention another great, Citation. All he did was win the Kentucky Derby four days after winning the Derby Trial and then went on to win the Preakness two weeks later, and (as the Belmont was scheduled with a 4 week gap that year) tossed in the Jersey Derby on 2 weeks notice before annexing the Triple Crown for 5 wins in 46 days Great horses do great things. Thanks.
John More than 1 year ago
Flashback -Omega Star cold exacta !
[removed] More than 1 year ago
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John More than 1 year ago
And does the "Flim Flam Man" guarantee the return, or is that "iffy"
Cranky More than 1 year ago
Great story. Great horses and connections.
Tom Hua More than 1 year ago
Excellent writer. I love this article. Best
B More than 1 year ago
The five days for Conquistador Cielo between his wins in the Met Mile and the Belmont was an awesome achievement to accomplish and to view. I like the old school days, like Stute, when you ran a horse a few times instead of workouts, workouts, workouts. The horse still got a workout, the connections sometimes won some money and the public got to see more racing from the horses they liked. The good old days when they ran 20, 30 times a year with few works as opposed to today's racing of 5 to 8 times and working them constantly. To the bleeding hearts out there, horses break down just as much in workouts as they do racing. But you can't go home again.
Union_Rags More than 1 year ago
Those were two sweet races by two very good horses.
Chris Lowe More than 1 year ago
Not ashamed to lose a bet on Saturday's Charm to CTTT.
SINNtilator More than 1 year ago
The major difference between the examples given and what Miller did with CTTT is that none of those examples had the horse shipping 3,000 miles to race in a Grade 3, flying him 1,200 miles to FL the next day, flying him another 3,000 plus miles from FL to So. Cal 2 days later and then scheduling him to fly back another 3,000 miles to NY to run again. I sure hope Miller knows what he's doing with this horse.
Ann Ferland More than 1 year ago
Look at what Jim French did in 1971. From his New York base, on March 20 he was 3rd in the Bay Shore S at 7f; flies to Florida, March 27, third in the Florida at 9f; flies back to New York; flies to SoCal; April 3, wins the Santa Anita Derby at 9f. And on April 17, he was 4th in the Wood Memorial, before going on to run second in the Kentucky Derby 2 weeks later. He thereafter ran third in the Preakness and second again in the Belmont. Today's 3yos are wimps compared to Little Jim.