Updated on 07/11/2012 11:23AM

Hovdey: Santa Anita Handicap needs no defense

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Benoit & Associates
Gladding, with Rafael Bejarano up, wins the 2011 San Antonio.

Somehow the 75th running of the Santa Anita Handicap on Saturday will survive without defending champ Game on Dude, who is now being pointed for the $10 million Dubai World Cup half a world away instead of the $750,000 race back home.

True, The Dude was the only face in the potential field with any kind of national following. His race in the 2011 Breeders’ Cup Classic was first-rate, and his comeback win in last month’s San Antonio marked him as every bit the horse he had been at his peak last season. He would have been the firm choice on Saturday. It would have taken a very good performance to have handled him. And a victory would have circled Game On Dude as the early favorite over the same course and distance for the Breeders’’ Cup Classic come next November.

But to paraphrase Bill Holden’s character from “The Wild Bunch,” $10 million cuts a lot of family ties. Bon voyage, Game On Dude. Enjoy the desert.

:: LIVE VIDEO: Watch the Santa Anita Handicap day card LIVE on DRF.com

His leaving leaves 13 relative unknowns gunning for the vacated Santa Anita Handicap title, topped by the runaway Strub Stakes winner, Ultimate Eagle. A son of Mizzen Mast, he was a terror on the turf last year at 3, and he’ll try to make the rest of them chase where he’s already been. But the mile and a quarter at a stout pace can wither even the strongest spirit.

For want of a nose-bob – or perhaps a tweak of a steward’s conscience – Setsuko would be taking the field Saturday as the defending Handicap champ. The messy running of the race last year, in which Game on Dude, Twirling Candy, and Setsuko banged around like BBs in a boxcar, remains one of the most unsatisfying major events in the history of the California sport. Nearly every camera angle was open to interpretation, or at least that’s where the stewards left things when, after a long deliberation, they posted no change. Yes, the crowd booed.

Which is why it’s too bad that an apparently superior version of Game On Dude is not back to walk his beat again, in an effort to become only the fourth horse to win two Handicaps since it was first run in 1935 (the others: John Henry, Milwaukee Brew, Lava Man). His victory of 2011 does not deserve an asterisk, but it could have used a sequel with a less muddled plot.

Among those finishing well behind Game On Dude and Setsuko last year was Gladding. A son of Belmont Stakes winner Sarava, he went into the race off a sparkling win in the 2011 San Antonio, his first stakes appearance, and it seemed as if the future was as bright as trainer John Sadler and owner Lee Searing could imagine.

“We tried to do a style change with him, and it didn’t work,” Sadler said of the Handicap flop. “He wants to be on the lead or stalking, but we thought there would be a lot of pace, so we ended up giving Rafael Bejarano the wrong instructions. The horse ate dirt and didn’t like it. He wants to run close, and he wants to run clear.”

Gladding bounced right back to run to his San Antonio in the Texas Mile, beaten just a half a length by Thiskyhasnolimit, then disappeared to deal with a dicey tibia until the Ack Ack Handicap on a Breeders’ Cup undercard last November at Churchill Downs. He was favored and cruising on the lead, then caved at the end of the long stretch to be fourth. Sadler chalked it up to the muddy track.

“This is not a big horse, and when he runs a big race generally he needs time,” the trainer pointed out. “The San Antonio last month came up just a little bit quick in his training, so I pointed him instead to the Mineshaft at the Fair Grounds last weekend. But then the work before he was supposed to leave, he worked so great I decided to keep him here for the Handicap.”

From such pivots great things can happen, or not. In the end, Sadler will be trying to pull a Charlie Whittingham with Gladding, bringing him up to the mile-and-a-quarter Handicap off a four-month layoff.

“Well, we’re all a product of Whittingham out here,” Sadler said.

Whittingham, who won the Santa Anita Handicap nine times between 1957 and 1993, did it spectacularly with champion turf horse Cougar on March 10, 1973, after his previous start had come on Nov. 1, 1972. The margin was a nose over his stablemate, Kennedy Road, a result that also had to withstand a inquiry.

“He may have deserved to be ignored with Game On Dude in the race,” Sadler said of Gladding. “But with Game on Dude out of there I think he fits pretty well. It’s wide open, and I like my chances.”

Little’s death untimely and unsettling

The death of Don Little this week from a riding accident casts a pall over the game that can be lifted only by swift consideration of what the man himself represented to the world of horses.

Little was one of those larger-than-life guys – ace aviator, ship commander, business demon, and passionate about his racing and his riding. His legacy as the founder of the Centennial Farm syndicates is secure, having put partnerships together that raced the likes of Rubiano, Corinthian, and Colonial Affair, while his charitable works kept generous pace.

His passing, when he was still robust in his 70’s, hits especially hard at home, where the walls are adorned with more than a couple mementos from Colonial Affair’s 1993 Belmont Stakes victory under the lady of the house, Julie Krone. Krone escaped more than a few near-fatal racing falls of her own, and knows what it’s like to take a horse over a jump, as Little was doing. That a dear friend and patron would be taken on horseback is one of those ironies too bitter to swallow.