01/02/2014 4:12PM

Jay Hovdey: Game On Dude deserves Eclipse Award justice

Tom Keyser
Game On Dude has been among the best of the older horse division for the last three years.

If there is any justice in the Eclipse Award voting process, Game On Dude finally should cop honors as champion older male for his 2013 campaign. He has been among the best of the division for three solid years, dating back to his narrow win after a Rollerball running of the 2011 Santa Anita Handicap.

As crafted by trainer Bob Baffert, Game On Dude’s 2013 season was just what you like to see from an older horse. He dominated his local competition, traveled across the country to win a million-dollar pot, and in his final appearance of a nine-month run he narrowly lost a tough battle in the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs to Will Take Charge, a late-bloomer likely to be crowned the 3-year-old champ.

There were the predictable mutterings that Game On Dude’s record did not merit an Eclipse for anything other than best of a bad California bunch. In making the case, colleague Dick Jerardi pointed out that Game On Dude beat “Kettle Corn twice and Clubhouse Ride three times,” which is true. He also beat Ron the Greek twice, which sounds better after a replay of Ron the Greek making mincemeat out of Flat Out, Cross Traffic, Last Gunfighter, and Alpha in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

In a sense, California has only itself to blame for any second thoughts about Game On Dude as the deserving champ. The conversion to synthetic racetracks, noble as the experiment might have been, threw a monkey wrench into the continuity of the competition and discouraged top horses from heading west. Lava Man, California’s dominant older horse of the first half of the 2000s, was a hapless also-ran whenever he traveled east of the Arizona border, throwing his remarkable West Coast record into question. Then, as the recession deepened, purses for many of the major California stakes (primarily at Hollywood Park) were cut to their graded-race minimums, hardly a recipe for attracting the best.

For Game On Dude, there is the albatross of the 2013 Breeders’ Cup Classic, in which he fired a dud as the favorite for the second straight year after finishing second in 2011. And yet, such a transgression has been forgiven in the past.

Since 1984, the older male champion has lost the Breeders’ Cup Classic 12 times. Slew o’ Gold (1984), Turkoman (1986), Blushing John (1989), Pleasant Tap (1992), Bertrando (1993), Cigar (1996), and Gio Ponti (2009) all put up a good fight, while Vanlandingham (1985), Skip Away (1998), Lemon Drop Kid (2000), Lawyer Ron (2007), and Curlin (2008) – like Game On Dude – ran well below their best.

At least they showed up. There have been seven older male champions in the Breeders’ Cup era who were nowhere to be found when the Classic came around. Criminal Type (1990), The Wicked North (1994), Victory Gallop (1999), Mineshaft (2003), and Acclamation (2011) were sidelined or retired, Left Bank had died, and Wise Dan’s people chose to win the 2012 BC Mile instead.

Anyway, what’s the big deal about winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic – at least as far as Eclipse voters are concerned? Do you know how many of the 30 Classic winners failed to be voted even a divisional championship? A whole bunch, including Wild Again (1984), Proud Truth (1985), Skywalker (1986), Arcangues (1993), Concern (1994), Alphabet Soup (1996), Awesome Again (1998), Cat Thief (1999), Volponi (2002), Pleasantly Perfect (2003), Raven’s Pass (2008), Drosselmeyer (2011), and Fort Larned (2012). We’ll find out later this month about Mucho Macho Man.

The older division for 2014 will not have the benefit of Fort Larned, Flat Out, Ron the Greek, Graydar, Paynter, or the retired 2013 classic winners Oxbow and Orb. The good news is that Mucho Macho Man, Will Take Charge, and Game On Dude will be roaming the landscape, hopefully meeting often along the way. For company they will have Belmont Stakes winner Palace Malice, BC Dirt Mile winner Goldencents, Hawthorne Gold Cup winner Last Gunfighter, and Whitney Stakes winner Cross Traffic.

Cross Traffic has spent the last three months at GoldMark Farm of his owner, Paul Buhlman, in Ocala, Fla., recovering from a shin injury suffered after a tangled start in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

“We’ve just started him back,” said Todd Quast, GoldMark Farm manager. “He’ll probably be ready to run around the end of April. We’ll get him up to a couple of five-eighths works here at the farm and then send him on in to Todd Pletcher.”

The lightly raced Cross Traffic, now 5, lost narrow decisions in the Westchester Handicap to Flat Out and the Metropolitan Mile to Sahara Sky last year before beating Successful Dan, Mucho Macho Man, Fort Larned, and Ron the Greek in the Whitney. The Met Mile will again be his primary target of the spring.

“His shin wasn’t a huge thing, but it wasn’t anything where we could run him back in a month,” Quast said. “We didn’t pin fire him or anything like that. We used the vibration plate on him to stimulate healing, and it should be set now.

“He’s handled his off time very well,” Quast added. “He hasn’t gotten heavy or anything like that. I look for him to be as good or better than he was last year, which could be scary.”

Kenneth Porteous More than 1 year ago
This is the stupidest argument I've ever heard. If there's security watching the Dude, the Vet and the Trainer, G.O.D loses. Period. Check that record.
Charles Williams More than 1 year ago
On comparison, to previous good horses that failed to win the BC, Game On Dude was a horse that feasted on synths and when tried on just dirt, his dirt records pales to most of the horses, that Jay, used to have others compare the Dude to.Since the synths were introduced even a truly outstanding horse like Curlin,has a lesser record due to him not even being in the show spot when he lost at SA, in the BC. I haven't researched the complete details, but to consider the greatness of the Dude would require penalizing the rating of previous good to great horse because they didn't make their records by also racing on the synths. To me that be the only way to be able to give l the Dude more credit for winning actually more races on the synths as compared to the very good dirt efforts he's made during his racing career.
Jordan More than 1 year ago
Game on Dude has won 2 Santa Anita Handicaps on dirt, 2 Goodwoods/Awesome Agains on dirt, two San Antonios on dirt, the CharlesTown Classic on dirt, the Lone Star Derby on dirt. Let's count them up, that's 8 graded stakes wins on dirt(5 on synth) and 4 grade 1s on dirt(3 on synth). Dude has more career grade 1 wins on dirt than Wise Dan and MMM combined. And if one considers that the Hollywood Cushion Track was by far the most dirt-like and fair synth surface and that dirt horses won 6 of the 7 Hollywood Gold Cups run on the Cushion Track, then your argument completely falls apart. Because the only stakes race Dude has won not on dirt or Cushion Track is the 2013 Pacific Classic. And his best Beyers have come on dirt.
Charles Williams More than 1 year ago
One comparison of note, is Will Take Charge a three year old, met Game On Dude twice and beat him on the square both times.He beat on Game On Dude's preferred surface at SA, and then beat him at CD, when the Dude had a eary pace scenario, that he preferred and still ran him down....If the Dude gets justice then what do you do for Will Take Charge? I'm sure Jay, whom I really respect most of his opinions, will not even consider this recent comparison which can't be denied.
michael rohan More than 1 year ago
I hope everyone realizes that if Mucho does not win older male, that will be 2 years in a row the winner of the Classic didn't win older male. I can live with, though I disagree with last year's award, to think Mucho would lose to the Dude this year would be farcical.
B More than 1 year ago
Are you aware that not counting 2013, that in the first 29 runnings of the BC Classic that only 13 horses have won HOY in the year that they also won the Classic? That's not even 50%, so the Classic is not the end all. The entire season is. It's also been 6 years since a Classic winner has won HOY. Zenyatta won HOY during that time, but not in the year that she won the Classic.
B More than 1 year ago
My apologies. I just realized that you were not referring to HOY, but simply older male. So much for my lecturing! However, I still disagree with you. A horse that only wins 2 races on the same track is not my choice for older male either over a five time winner of three Grade 1's and two Grade 2's over 4 different tracks.
Jim Pappas More than 1 year ago
one track wonders do not deserve eclipse awards
B More than 1 year ago
I am assuming that you are referring to MMM, since the only races he won this year were at Santa Anita.
Crystal David More than 1 year ago
I completely agree and I really hope he gets the award! His accomplishments have been largely ignored. He cannot control who comes to run against him. When a horse is really good, others tend to avoid them because they want to win also. It is a compliment to him but many people turn it into a negative. Good luck DUDE - hope you get it!
Horse Cents More than 1 year ago
They did come to run against him in the BC Classic. He got run over and was up the track when he faced a strong field. No award for that.
B More than 1 year ago
The award is for the whole year, not one race.
jttf More than 1 year ago
Acclamation, gio ponti and wise Dan have won older male eclipse the last four years. These horses prefer the turf.
B More than 1 year ago
And none of them should have. I liked Acclamation, but it was a consolation prize. It's happened before, but always, always, when no older dirt horse has dominated. I do wish they would clarify this issue. They have turf categories. Why not just make the others dirt categories and make this clear.
B More than 1 year ago
I couldn't agree more. Hope your right.
Vicky Burnham More than 1 year ago
Where does Jay EVER suggest he should be HOY? READ people! It's not hard! But he makes a good case for Older Horse. The only reason we even have a decent older division is a bad economy and depression of ridiculously high stud fees for unproven stallions! Otherwise, you'd see nothing but a handful of 4-year-old colts pretending to be "Older" horses and not stars coming back year after year, like we've had the past few years. I love Dude and he deserves to be in the top three older horses, if for no other reasons than he showed up at the big races, gave it his heart, and usually got up to hit the board! It's a rough call between Wise Dan, Dude, and Mucho Macho Man for Older Horse, but the fact is, they all competed at the highest level and won, but the Dan and Dude won nearly all there starts, but Dan did it mostly on the grass and the other two, on the dirt. Give Dan Turf Horse and Dude Older Horse. It wouldn't be a travesty.
Scott Merideth More than 1 year ago
I've always wondered about the "Champion Older Male" Eclipse Award. Nine times out of ten it seems that it should go to the HOTY without any further debate. The only exceptions would be when a female or a younger male puts up a worthy campaign. By this logic wouldn't Wise Dan again be a pretty easy call in this one? Game On Dude had another high quality (read "high earning") year, but when it was time to step up in the BCC - he failed miserably! Honestly, if he could have even hit the board, then we could have started a real debate. Especially, if he hit the board the way Declaration of War hit it (missing the win only by about 1/2 a length). That simply didn't happen, but his connections decided to try to win one more race to sway the voters. I don't know that they could have erased the embarrassment of the BCC with a win in the Clark, but it was worth a try and they had no other real coarse. Of course, he couldn't beat the would be 3 year old Champion in that one. Really good year and any owner would be THRILLED to own this guy, but seems a little short to me for an Eclipse Award this year. Wise Dan won 6 of 7 and his only loss was a close second. Until they start calling this "Champion Older Dirt Male", then you have to give it to the best older male. Wise Dan is the winner in this category as well as HOTY.
Jackson Jackson More than 1 year ago
It was always called Handicap Champion . That is until they started giving it to Turf Milers who's owners have already said they won't be running in anymore Handicaps. A real sportsman that Morton Fink is . LOL.