02/04/2014 12:18PM

Santa Anita: At 7, Game On Dude still trying to win the big one

Tom Keyser
Game On Dude finished seventh as the 6-5 favorite in the 2012 Breeders' Cup Classic and ninth as the 8-5 favorite in November.

ARCADIA, Calif. – Game On Dude will be in a familiar position at Santa Anita on Saturday – the heavy favorite in the $300,000 San Antonio Stakes.

A victory would make Game On Dude the first three-time winner of the Grade 2 San Antonio in the race’s 76-year history and put the gelding in a position for a record third victory in the Santa Anita Handicap on March 8, a race he won in 2011 and 2013.

But victories in those races would do little to answer a question dominating his career: Can Game On Dude win the Breeders’ Cup Classic?

Now 7, the popular Game On Dude has been the standout older male in California for the past two years, only to miss out on the Horse of the Year title after losses in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita. Game On Dude was seventh as the 6-5 favorite in the 2012 BC Classic and ninth as the 8-5 favorite last November. In 2011, as a 14-1 longshot, he was second in the BC Classic at Churchill Downs, his first appearance in the race.

“I’m hoping we get it done this year,” jockey Mike Smith said. “I’m hoping he can win that kind of race. He beats those horses all year.”

Smith has been the regular rider of Game On Dude since December 2012. The 48-year-old Hall of Fame jockey is confident that Game On Dude can return to his best form in 2014 and said age is not an issue.

“I wouldn’t hold that against him,” he said last weekend. “I’m getting older, too.”

[Robert B. Lewis Stakes: Get PPs, watch Saturday's card live]

Smith has won 5 of 7 races aboard Game On Dude, including last year’s San Antonio Stakes and Santa Anita Handicap. Smith was aboard for the ninth-place finish in the BC Classic last November and a second-place finish, by a head, to eventual 2013 3-year-old champion male Will Take Charge in the Grade 1 Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs on Nov. 29.

Trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, Game On Dude had a few weeks off following that race and resumed workouts days before Christmas. Baffert senses that Game On Dude is ready for the San Antonio.

“This race will be good for him,” Baffert said. “It will set him up for the Big Cap.”

Game On Dude finished third in the voting for champion older male of 2013 behind Wise Dan and Mucho Macho Man and was fourth in Horse of the Year voting behind those two and Will Take Charge. While there were no championship titles for Game On Dude, the consolation for 2013 was earnings of $2,575,735, a career best.

The late-season losses were tough on Bernie Schiappa, who shares ownership of Game On Dude with Mercedes Stable, Debbie Lanni, and Joe Torre. Game On Dude was unbeaten in 2013 going into the BC Classic and arguably was in the best form of his career. He won the Santa Anita Handicap by a record margin of 7 3/4 lengths in March and the Pacific Classic in August by a record 8 1/2 lengths. In the BC Classic, Game On Dude led briefly in the 1 1/4-mile race but was out of contention in early stretch.

Schiappa could only watch in disappointment.

“We thought he’d win the Breeders’ Cup, and it was tough to take,” Schiappa said. “We’ll try it again.”

Game On Dude is the best horse the partners have owned. He has won 15 of 29 starts, with 13 graded stakes wins and earnings of $5,707,893. His already lofty reputation has every chance to grow in the coming weeks at Santa Anita. The San Antonio will not have a large field, and Game On Dude is expected to take his ever-dangerous position near the front of the field in the 1 1/8-mile race.

“He’s got a lot of things going for him,” Schiappa said. “We’ve got the best trainer training him and the best jockey. He’s ready to run. Hopefully, he can start out the way he did last year. Hopefully, we can run the table and win the last one. Hopefully, we can accomplish what we want to do. Maybe the fourth time will be the charm.”