02/01/2013 4:58PM

Jay Hovdey: Game On Dude may still have history to write at age 6

Shigeki Kikkawa
Game On Dude alrerady has a Big Cap and a Hollywood Gold Cup on his resume.

That sound you hear is the gnashing of teeth over the state of the older horse division, as represented Sunday at Santa Anita by a five-horse version of the San Antonio Stakes.

Five horses running for a purse of $200,000 seems counter-intuitive, given the costs of running a racing stable these days. The fees for the San Antonio are $3,200, hardly prohibitive, and running third would net an okay profit of about $20,000, which at least could help pay the bills. Then again, there’s nothing easier than spending other people’s money, so let’s go to war with the San Antonio we have.

Only one of the five is immediately recognizable. That would be Game On Dude, California’s resident boss of middle-distance main-track events. He seized that role in early 2011, when he won a ferociously contested Santa Anita Handicap, which he followed with an effortless win in the Californian and a heart-breaking second in the Hollywood Gold Cup. Later that year, he finished second in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs in a good and noble try.

Game On Dude was no less effective in 2012. Not even an unhappy diversion to Dubai for the World Cup seemed to dampen his form at home. Wins in the San Antonio, the Californian, the Hollywood Gold Cup, and the Awesome Again put him in a position to earn some kind of championship, especially since the Breeders’ Cup Classic would be contested in his backyard, at Santa Anita.

But in the Classic he broke a step slow and regressed from there, turning in the only inexplicably poor performance of his 22-start career. It was of small consolation that trainer Bob Baffert, finding nothing physically amiss, ran Game On Dude right back four weeks later to win the Native Diver at Hollywood Park, with some effort over the upwardly mobile Nonios.

Now Game On Dude is 6, an age at which many of history’s best geldings were still in their prime. Armed, described by turf writer Joe Palmer as “petulant in defeat,” was 6 in 1947 when he won 11 of 17 starts and was named Horse of the Year. Kelso was 6 in 1963 when he won 9 of 12, including a streak of eight straight on the way to his fourth of five titles as Horse of the Year. Forego’s 6-year-old season of 1976 was statistically not his best, but it was certainly his bravest when he won 6 of 8, carrying an average of 134 pounds in seven handicaps to his third Eclipse Award as Horse of the Year. And Horse of the Year John Henry was 6 in 1981 when he won 9 of 11, on turf and dirt, in California, Chicago, and New York.

Compared to those guys, Game On Dude is still junior varsity. In fact, he’s got a long way to go before he achieves the enviable status of three California-based geldings who made the Hall of Fame without winning a national championship, namely Native Diver, Ancient Title, and Best Pal. Then there is the shadow of Lava Man, a popular gelding who did all his winning in California and stayed too long at the dance, but still left his mark as the dominant Thoroughbred in the West for 24 glorious months, from June 2005 to June 2007.

There are things Game On Dude will never be able to do because of the era in which he competes. He will never be lauded for carrying and conceding significant weight to lesser opponents. Racing secretaries no longer play that game. He is unlikely to ever win a Pacific Classic – even though last summer he came close – as long as Del Mar offers a Polytrack surface he does not favor, or run up a score on grass, since Baffert rarely goes that way unless there are no other alternatives.

As a personality, Game On Dude is a class act with no serious faults. He does suffer from an occasional lack of intensity out of the gate, but he makes up for it with handy acceleration whenever the jockey says go. Mike Smith, who rode him for the first time in the Native Diver, will be aboard Sunday in the San Antonio.

“There is a little bit about the gate with him,” Smith said. “He kind of squats up and down, up and down. I think he’s just anxious, wanting to get it on. But by no means is he scared or crazy in there. I know they’ve been working with him a lot.”

Smith, a Hall of Famer, has ridden his share of good geldings during his 30 years in the saddle. Champion sprinter Amazombie and 1993 Preakness winner and Kentucky Derby runner-up Prairie Bayou come quickest to mind. With Smith aboard, Prairie Bayou suffered a fatal injury in the ’93 Belmont Stakes.

“I loved that horse,” Smith said. “He’ll always have a special place in my heart.”

Smith got a good feel for what Game On Dude could do in their first encounter.

“He had to overcome a little something on the first turn that day, but he dug in again and put them away,” Smith noted. “He was probably going to open up again if the race went on any farther. That was also a time speed was not holding very well, so he overcame it all.

“The idea with him is just let him do what he does best,” he added. He’s like an old warrior. If he sees you, he’ll fight, and he never stops. When I beat him in the Breeders’ Cup with Drosselmeyer, he’d already put away two or three challenges by the time I got to him. I was on the outside and just kind of got him in the last few strides, so he wasn’t able to fight with me and dig back in at that point.”

What Game On Dude needs to do now, to assure a significant place in history, is travel and win some big ones. Smith doesn’t really care where he runs, though. He’ll be there.

“I’m just proud to be part of him,” Smith said. “Let’s hope Sunday starts the year off right.”