Updated on 03/02/2013 10:54PM

Santa Anita Handicap distance is Game On Dude's main challenge

Barbara D. Livingston
Game On Dude trains at Santa Anita Thursday with Dana Barnes aboard. He will try for his second Santa Anita Handicap victory on Saturday.

ARCADIA, Calif. – Game On Dude has earned his reputation as California’s top handicap horse largely through his success in races at 1  1/4 miles. Yet races at that same distance also have produced plenty of disappointments for the 6-year-old gelding.

Game On Dude won the 2011 Santa Anita Handicap and the 2012 Hollywood Gold Cup, both at 1 1/4 miles. Saturday, he will be favored to become the fourth horse to win two Santa Anita Handicaps, following John Henry (1981-82), Milwaukee Brew (2002-03) and Lava Man (2006-07).

Ron the Greek will also bid for his second Santa Anita Handicap victory, having won last year's running.

Trainer Bob Baffert and jockey Mike Smith are convinced that Game On Dude is at his peak and say he will not repeat the disappointment of November, when he finished seventh in the Breeders’ Cup Classic over 1 1/4 miles as the 6-5 favorite. A win in that race would have given Game On Dude massive support for Horse of the Year.

“He seems to be stronger,” Smith said. “He’s moved it up a notch. I’m hoping that is the difference.”

[BIG CAP: Get PPs, watch Saturday's Santa Anita card live]

Game On Dude is the 125-pound highweight in the Santa Anita Handicap, the track’s leading race for older horses. The Big Cap drew a field of 10 and is the 10th race on an 11-race program that begins at noon Pacific.

There are two other Grade 1 races on the program – the $300,000 Frank Kilroe Mile on turf and the $250,000 Las Virgenes Stakes for 3-year-old fillies over a mile.

Smith began riding Game On Dude in December, winning the Grade 3 Native Diver Stakes at Betfair Hollywood Park aboard him. Game On Dude won the Grade 2 San Antonio Stakes over 1 1/8 miles here on Feb.  3, shaking off an early speed duel to score by 6 1/2 lengths over three overmatched rivals.

“You’re supposed to do what he did,” Smith said. “But he didn’t have everything his way.”

Game On Dude has won 11 of 23 starts and $3,252,158, all for Bernie Schiappa, the Lanni Family Trust, Mercedes Stable and Joe Torre.

But Game On Dude has lost his last two starts at 1 1/4 miles. Last August, he was second as the 6-5 favorite to Dullahan in the Pacific Classic.

“He got beat by a horse that never loses on synthetic,” Baffert said of that race.

In the BC Classic here, he failed to take his customary position near the front, and faded through the stretch to finish 15 lengths behind winner Fort Larned.

“He got left that day,” Baffert said. “He was done.”

Baffert is encouraged by Game On Dude’s performance in the San Antonio, and his recent training.

“He’s sharp,” he said. “He’s happy. The Dude wants to get it on.”

Game On Dude is expected to lead in the Santa Anita Handicap, and could be joined on the front by Handsome Mike, one of four 4-year-olds in the field.

The upset winner of the Pennsylvania Derby last September, Handsome Mike will be a longshot in the Big Cap. Trained by Doug O’Neill, Handsome Mike was fourth behind Big Cap runner Guilt Trip in the Strub Stakes, for 4-year-olds, over 1  1/8 miles on Feb. 2.

“He’ll be forwardly placed,” O’Neill said. “He’ll be up there early and we’ll run our own race.”

O’Neill also starts Richard’s Kid, the winner of the Pacific Classic in 2009 and 2010 whose form has tailed off in the last six months.

Several horses will have their chances greatly enhanced if Game On Dude is part of any kind of a speed duel and weakens.

Ron the Greek won last year's Big Cap from off the pace. Trained by Bill Mott, Ron the Greek won the Sunshine Millions Classic by 11  1/4 lengths at Gulstream Park on Jan. 19, his first win since the Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs last June.

“You never know if they’ll turn in an effort like last time,” Mott said of the Sunshine Millions. “It was fun to watch.”

Among those capable of upsets are Guilt Trip, trained by Baffert; Stephanoatsee, who was second in the Strub; and Called to Serve, who closed out 2012 with a pair of stakes wins.

Stephanoatsee, trained by Graham Motion, closed from last in the six-runner Strub to finish 1 1/2 lengths behind Guilt Trip. The race left jockey Julien Leparoux eager to ride him back in the Big Cap.

“He’s a big horse and I think the farther, the better,” Leparoux said.

“We’ll put him where he is comfortable. If they go slow, I’ll be up close. He will not get tired, that’s for sure. That’s a plus.”

The distance is “no concern at all” to Nick Canani, who trains Called to Serve, a 4-year-old.

“I’d like to have him in the clear, giving him a chance to make his run from the three-eighths pole,” Canani said.

The Big Cap will be Called to Serve’s first start in a Grade 1 and first start at 1 1/4 miles. Called to Serve won two stakes at 1 1/8 miles last year – the Grade 3 Discovery Handicap at Aqueduct and the Broad Brush Stakes at Laurel on Dec. 31 – pulling away in the final furlong of each.

The performances gave Canani and owner Marc Ferrell reasons to point for the Big Cap, and a first-ever meeting with Game On Dude.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated when Game On Dude won the Hollywood Gold Cup. He won it only in 2012, not 2011, when he finished second.