02/01/2013 5:58PM

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.”

chad mc rory More than 1 year ago
He is a nice, nice horse but with nothing but exhibitions like today, Dude will always be junior varsity. OK for Cali but that's it.
Forego137 More than 1 year ago
This is what the Sport of Kings needs, more warriors like Game On Dude who is why alot of us love this game. Continued success to G.O.D. and Mike Smith, two of the best and talented in the game today.
Vince Lentini More than 1 year ago
One bad run and baffert will blame smith
Cranky More than 1 year ago
Win or lose, there's just "something" about this horse. He's got spunk and shows it everytime he's on the track. He's just one of a kind. I think it's his attitude. I can identify with it. I agree, he does need to spend some time elsewhere and get some good races under his saddle. Hope he has a great year in 2013 and stays well and uninjured and WINS A BUNCH OF RACES.
Mark More than 1 year ago
The feeling's not the same In fact it's getting pretty tame It's just not that great anymore
Meydan Rocks More than 1 year ago
Lord Flynn - I was wondering if the cost of feeding your thoroughbreds has risen for your barn from last year?
John Flynn More than 1 year ago
Mike Smith is Not A Hot Rider at Present. How Good is this Horse anyway. He Flopped in the Breeders Cup!!!
Bruce Baudoux More than 1 year ago
Mike Smith is a steady, professional race rider. Hot jockeys are products of good agents picking good horses in the right spots for their riders. When the big money is on the line the phone rings off the hook for wee Mikeys services. The guys isn't the winningest Breeders Cup jockey of all times for nothing. Knock guys like Corey Nakatani, David Flores and Victor Espinoza but leave the Hall of Famers alone, it took a lot to get there. Game on Dude is a great horse inside the confines of California, alot like old Lava Man used to be, but as long as he brings back the cash every dash, Bobby B is glad to have him. Better than an empty stall as they say.
Big Jeff More than 1 year ago
Wow Bruce, Very Very well said......People just love to bash and hate. It's really sad. Thank you for your comments.
Mark Scheider More than 1 year ago
I am so upset that Game On Dude and Wise Dan get so much coverage. Both are geldings and can contribute nothing to the future gene pool. How much of a travesty would it have been had G.O.D won the BC? That's a résumé builder for great stallions.
Sherwin Root More than 1 year ago
Kelso, Forego, Native Diver, John Henry and a bunch of other horses say this position is preposterous.
Bellwether4U More than 1 year ago
AMEN TO THAT!!!...ty...
Mark Scheider More than 1 year ago
People dislike what is true.
Bellwether4U More than 1 year ago
That Markie POO is pure BS...PERIOD...
chad mc rory More than 1 year ago
And this years' freshman 'studs' will contribute what? They are still kids.
B More than 1 year ago
What an absurd statement. Some of our greatests have been geldings and some of them have had long careers which has been very beneficial to the sport. But then, this used to be a sport that was primarily about racing. It no longer is and it is lesser of a sport because of that.
Mark Scheider More than 1 year ago
Since the Breeders Cup, I have placed two sizable win wagers. Those picks were Fort Larned and recently Itsmyluckyday. Stay tuned.
Horse Cents More than 1 year ago
"What Game On Dude needs to do now....is travel and win some big ones". Until then, "(he)is still junior varsity."
Mark More than 1 year ago
Big Jeff More than 1 year ago
Yep that is what the article said. Glad to know you read it.
Horse Cents More than 1 year ago
Don't be such a a bonehead and use a little thought and creativity when bashing someone. Obviously that's why the statements are in quotes form the article and making the point that those are the two most important, especially when invoking the names of Forego, Kelso and others.