08/28/2013 4:21PM

Jay Hovdey: How about that Pacific Classic blanket finish?


It was a heck of a horse race, truly one for the books.

With a sixteenth of a mile to run in last Sunday’s 1 1/4-mile Pacific Classic, the Canadian ace Delegation was still hanging tough after being on the engine from the start. Richard’s Kid, a two-time winner of the Classic, had been flung six wide on the turn and was making good headway in the middle of the track. Nearer the rail, the Brazilian colt Holding Glory was getting a dream trip, while the stablemates Kettle Corn and You Know I Know were both on the march.

As Delegation began to tire from his efforts, Victor Espinoza deftly slipped Kettle Corn past a tiring Jeranimo. Edwin Maldonado, on You Know I Know, found a hole between Jeranimo and the filly Byrama, while Chantal Sutherland-Kruse (can we just make it “Chantal”?) steered Holding Glory to the left of the retreating Delegation.

The wire loomed, to the roar of 33,000 in the house, and four horses hit the wire as one, their riders belly down. Even Trevor Denman, a race-caller who can split hairs, dared not hazard a guess. Then the photo sign came down and Denman delivered the news: Kettle Corn by a nose over You Know I Know, who finished a nose in front of Richard’s Kid, who edged Holding Glory by a head.

“That was a really great race,” said Bob Baffert, “for second.”

For Baffert, the suspense of the Pacific Classic had ended several beats earlier when Game On Dude reached the end of the race 8 1/2 lengths in front of Kettle Corn and the rest. This gave the trainer time to enjoy the scramble for second prize, which, at $200,000, was the same as winning a race with a pot of close to four hundred large. Well done Kettle Corn.

“Actually, when we got up the backside, around the five-eighths pole, I saw Game On Dude going as easy as he was, and I kind of thought we were in trouble then,” said Joe Talamo, who rode Richard’s Kid. “By the time we turned for home, I pretty much knew me and the other two horses I could see were running for second.”

It is perfectly understandable for a jockey, whose life is glued to the goal of winning, to feel the wind leave the sails in such a situation. Unless your name is Alydar, nobody ever remembers who was second. Still, it is a professional obligation to get every scrap of purse possible. Jockeys who coast when first place is out of reach are quickly exposed.

“Trust me, I was riding as hard as I can to get second,” Talamo said. “I know we don’t get as much for finishing second or third, and past that we just get the jock’s mount. But even if it’s for fourth or fifth I’m staying down to the wire, because the owner can still get a pretty good chunk.”

So what did Talamo earn in the Classic, missing second money by two noses?

“Actually, I don’t even know,” he said. “I think in a race like that it’s something like a hundred dollars.”

Actually, it was $135, compared to Espinoza’s $10,000 for second and Maldonado’s $6,000 for third. Welcome to Thoroughbred horse racing, the last bastion of performance-based rewards.

Meanwhile, Martin Garcia’s rousing performance in place of Mike Smith aboard Game On Dude recalled a quiet weekday in 1974 when the talented Panamanian Jorge Tejeira subbed for a suspended Laffit Pincay Jr. on the West’s best 2-year-old filly, Miss Tokyo. Enjoying the ride in what he knew was a one-shot deal, Tejeira let Miss Tokyo rock and roll to a lopsided win in the six-furlong Junior Miss Stakes at Del Mar, then tossed the reins back to Laffit.

Game On Dude did not need to win by 8 1/2 lengths, and Baffert knew it. But he did not blame Garcia for being overly enthusiastic.

“That was my fault,” Baffert said. “I told Martin when he hit the top of the stretch to shower down left-handed and open up. I didn’t want to take any chances he’d get caught like he did last year.”

Last year, Dullahan reeled in Game On Dude and Chantal at the end of the Classic to win by a half-length. This year, following orders to perfection, Garcia sat chilly until Game On Dude cruised past the three-sixteenths marker and then got busy. The four horses immediately in his wake were running on hard for second place, and yet Game On Dude still increased his margin in the final eighth of a mile. It was the West’s most visually ferocious main-track performance by an older horse since Pat Valenzuela pulled out all the stops on Lava Man in the 2006 Hollywood Gold Cup.

Garcia also is Game On Dude’s work rider, so chances are he will be back on board when they take the field for the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita on Nov. 2. At this point, however, the jockey is beside the point. There’s a lot of training to be done between now and then.

“I was breathing harder after climbing the stairs back to the box than Game On Dude was after the race,” Baffert said. “But that’s the way he’s been all year long. He doesn’t take any time at all to recover.”

Game On Dude is by far the best older gelding ever handled by Baffert, who took over his training when purchased by the partnership of Bernie Schiappa, Ernie Moody, Joe Torre, and the late Terri Lanni as a 3-year-old in the spring of 2010. For Baffert, Game On Dude has won 14 of 24 starts, including his last six in a row, and nearly all of his $5.6 million.

“Game On Dude showed a lot of brilliance when we first got him,” Baffert said. “But he didn’t really put it all together until he got a little older. The deal now with an older horse like him is watching their weight. It’s easy to put weight on a younger horse training him, but you can’t train an older horse as hard as you once did. So I watch him really close. Look at him every day for any changes.

“One thing about him,” Baffert added, “I’ve learned a lot from Game On Dude about training horses.”