01/31/2012 1:44PM

Santa Anita: Game On Dude set to go again

Kim Pratt
Game On Dude (8) has to settle for second in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

ARCADIA, Calif. – Game On Dude was less than sixteenth of a mile from winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs last November when jockey Chantal Sutherland sensed victory.

“I could touch it,” she said last weekend at Santa Anita. “It was right there.”

Racing firmly on the rail, Game On Dude led by a length. Just when he seemed clear of 11 rivals, Drosselmeyer caught him in the middle of the track, rallying to win by 1 1/2 lengths.

Game On Dude was a clear second, and the loss changed everything. Gone were year-end titles such as Horse of the Year and older male of the year, and Sutherland’s chance to be the first woman rider to win America’s richest race.

“There were a couple of days I didn’t want to get out of bed,” she said. “I was proud of myself. I thought I rode a good race, and I was proud of the way the horse ran.”

The Game On Dude story is incomplete. Sunday, the 5-year-old gelding continues his career in the $200,000 San Antonio Stakes at Santa Anita.

Once again, the BC Classic in November is a long-term goal, a race that will be a home game for Game On Dude. The Breeders’ Cup is at Santa Anita this year, where trainer Bob Baffert is based.

How Game On Dude gets there is unclear. There is a possibility that Game On Dude could be sent to Dubai for the $10 million Dubai World Cup on March 31. This year’s running of the Dubai World Cup will be the third at Meydan Racecourse, which has a Tapeta synthetic track. Baffert has won the race twice – with Silver Charm in 1998 and Captain Steve in 2001 – when the race was run at the now-demolished Nad Al Sheba track on a dirt surface.

A trip to the other side of the world next month is not a certainty. Baffert says a defense of Game On Dude’s title in the 2011 Santa Anita Handicap on March 3 is also on his mind.

“I’ll run here and see what he does,” Baffert said. “If it was the old Dubai, and dirt, I’d go in a heartbeat.”

Such plans would have seemed remote at this time last year. Game On Dude, owned by the partnership of Ernie Moody, the Lanni Family Trust, Bernie Schiappa, and former baseball great Joe Torre, opened his 2011 season with a comprehensive victory in an optional claimer in late January. The winner of the Grade 3 Lone Star Derby in 2010 and fourth in that year’s Belmont Stakes, Game On Dude was one of four Baffert-trained runners in the 2011 Santa Anita Handicap.

Sutherland rode him for the first time, a replacement for John Velazquez, who was named but could not travel from Florida. Game On Dude won the Santa Anita Handicap by a nose over Setsuko, a controversial and historical win. Game On Dude was involved in a bumping incident in the stretch that led to a 12-minute inquiry before the race was made official. Sutherland became the first woman rider to win the race, and rode the gelding into the winner’s circle amidst boos.

After Game On Dude was second and third in Grade 3 stakes in West Virginia and Texas in the spring, Sutherland rode Game On Dude in his final four starts of 2011, with mixed results. Game On Dude was second by a nose to stablemate First Dude in the Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup in July, a result that both pleased and frustrated Baffert.

“He never saw that horse at Hollywood Park on the outside,” Baffert said of Game On Dude.

A fourth-place finish behind Acclamation in the Grade 1 Pacific Classic at Del Mar in late August was followed by a second Grade 1 win of the year in the Goodwood Stakes at Santa Anita in October. That led to the Breeders’ Cup, and the heartbreaking loss to Drosselmeyer.

“He beat everybody else,” Baffert said. “He didn’t see that horse out there. He ran the rest of them into the ground.”

In the end Acclamation was named champion older male. Game On Dude finished second in the voting. The mare Havre de Grace was named Horse of the Year. Game On Dude was fourth in the voting.

“We got robbed,” Baffert said.

Baffert hoped that Game On Dude’s two Grade 1 wins, his runner-up finish in the BC Classic and seasonal earnings of $1,917,400 would be enough to sway voters. It was not.

Conversations about the same subject in 2012 could begin on Sunday.