01/02/2014 3:12PM

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.”