Archive for Game On Dude

2014 Big Cap Showcased Old Warriors

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Eric Mitchell of…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

Dude the Redeemer

God love the seasoned warriors; the ones who rise up and reclaim glory in stunning fashion when everyone else has begun writing them off.

During the Sochi Winter Olympics, Austrian skier Mario Matt, two months shy of his 35th birthday, handled a tricky slalom course on challenging soft snow to become the oldest Alpine gold medalist in Olympics history. The course was so tough—termed brutal by some—that five of the eight top skiers from the first of two rounds failed to finish the course.

Matt’s experience, talent, and will to win allowed him to shine against some of the world’s most talented and much younger skiers.

“He’s a tremendous competitor, a game-day guy,” said U.S. men’s head coach Sasha Rearick.

Game On Dude gave racing the same type of performance March 8 in one of the most exciting Santa Anita Handicaps (gr. I) seen in many years.

Santa Anita Park is home base for the 7-year-old son of Awesome Again, but the Southern California track has been the site of as much heartbreak as triumph for him. Just four months ago Game On Dude was favored to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) after a sterling run of five consecutive graded stakes victories, including a 73⁄4-length romp in last year’s Big ’Cap. The gelding, however, finished ninth in the Classic, 11 lengths behind winner Mucho Macho Man and nosed-out second Will Take Charge. Game On Dude had been the favorite in the 2012 Classic, also at Santa Anita, and finished 15 lengths back in seventh.

The Dude ended last year with a good second to Will Take Charge in the Clark Handicap (gr. I), so a strong start this year would have restored the faith of many. But that didn’t happen. Instead, Game On Dude finished fifth in the grade II San Antonio Stakes against much softer competition than he would face in the Big ’Cap. The only other graded stakes winners in the field were Blueskiesnrainbows, who had just won the grade II San Pasqual Stakes, and Willyconker, who had won the grade I Frank E. Kilroe Mile Stakes in 2012 but had not won or placed in a stakes all last year.

So the speculation began. Had the Dude lost his edge?

Trainer Bob Baffert took the heat for the San Antonio loss, saying he didn’t have Game On Dude prepared. Then he stewed over the naysayers.
“Bob’s proud of Game On Dude,” said jockey Mike Smith. “He’s like family to him. When you knock him, you’re walking on the fightin’ side of Bob, I guess, like it says in the old country song that Merle Haggard used to sing.”

The Big ’Cap wound up being the perfect stage for redemption: a rematch with Mucho Macho Man and Will Take Charge at Santa Anita along with the top three finishers from the San Antonio—Blingo, Imperative, and American Blend—and grade II winner Hear the Ghost from the always dangerous barn of Jerry Hollendorfer. The doubt hanging over Game On Dude made him the third choice in the field; the first time he had not been the post time favorite in 15 starts.

The Dude was ready, however. Smith took him right to the front and let him roll through sharp fractions of :22.91, :45.39, and 1:09.39, a brisker pace than what unfolded had when Game On Dude ran head-to-head with Blueskiesnrainbows in the San Antonio. Heading into the second turn, the fans got the showdown they’d been hoping for with Mucho Macho Man at Game On Dude’s right shoulder and Will Take Charge just outside of Mucho Macho Man.

“The stars are all aligned,” said track announcer Trevor Denman.

This time the Dude’s talent and will to win were unassailable. Mucho Macho Man faded and Will Take Charge was held at bay by 13⁄4 lengths. The Dude trifecta was priceless: He made history by winning his third Santa Anita Handicap, he broke the stakes record with his final time of 1:58.17, and he struck dumb his critics.

“It’s an emotional win,” Baffert said afterward. “It kills me when they knock on him, but we came in quiet and that’s the way I like it. We came in under the radar, and we were ready for them.”

The Big ’Cap was an important race for the sport as well. A compelling handicap division allows fans to make a connection with top horses and gives a chance for rivalries to develop. Keep putting such compelling contests on TV and perhaps Thoroughbred racing could start to savor some redemption of its own.


Wise Dan Looks To Become a Two Time Horse of the Year, But Should He Win For Top Older Male???

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Steve Crist of…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

There’s one Eclipse Award where Wise Dan is not best choice

Secretariat. Forego. Affirmed. John Henry. Cigar. Curlin. Wise Dan?

Come January, the question mark will be gone and Wise Dan will join those six as the only horses to win more than one Horse of the Year title since the Eclipse Awards began in 1972.

(If you want to travel back to the pre-Eclipse days of Horse of the Year polls that began in 1936, you can add Challedon [1939-40], Whirlaway [1941-42], Native Dancer [1952 and 1954], and Kelso [1960-64] to the list.)

Wise Dan’s second such title is about the same price as the sun’s rising in the east tomorrow. Game On Dude would have wrested the trophy from the 2012 Horse of the Year with a Classic victory, and Princess of Sylmar would have made it a horse race had she won the Distaff. However, when those two finished ninth and sixth, respectively, at Santa Anita last weekend, while Wise Dan won his second straight Breeders’ Cup Mile, the voting for the sport’s top award became a formality.

Two days after the Cup, Wise Dan got 53 of the 56 (95 percent) votes in the National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s weekly poll, suggesting this year’s landslide may be even greater than the 2012 version, when he received 194 of the 250 (78 percent) actual ballots cast.

In some ways, Wise Dan fits right in with the other multiple winners. His 19 career victories are the same number as Cigar’s, and more than Curlin or Secretariat, and his $6.2 million in earnings put him fourth among the seven (behind Curlin’s $10.5 million, Cigar’s $9.99 million, and John Henry’s $6.59 million, but more than Secretariat, Forego, and Affirmed combined to win in the 1970s.) His seven Grade 1 victories in 2012 and 2013 are a smidge light but the same number that Curlin posted in 2007 and 2008.

The primary differences, and probably the ones that make some old-school types a tad reluctant to put him in such exalted company, relate to surface and distance. Wise Dan will be the first multiple Eclipse Horse of the Year who did not win a race at 10 furlongs or more during one of his championship seasons, or a dirt race of any kind.

He’s not the first to win the award twice with a predominantly grass campaign: John Henry won nine Grade 1 races during his 1981 and 1984 Horse of the Year campaigns, and seven of those nine were on the grass. (Curlin and Secretariat each tried grass only once, Cigar was 1 for 11 on it before he got good, and Affirmed and Forego never touched the stuff.)

I have no hesitation about voting for Wise Dan as Horse of the Year and champion turf male, but I will be looking elsewhere for champion older male. Those who take the name of that award too literally will argue that the Horse of the Year must by definition win any other category in which he is a contender, but to me that title really means best main-track older horse.

There is precedent for awarding the older male Eclipse to a horse other than a grass-based Horse of the Year who happens to be an older male. In fact, Wise Dan was the first such horse to win the older male award, largely because there were no dominant older dirt males last year. When John Henry won his second Horse of the Year in 1984 without a grass victory, the older male title went to Slew o’ Gold. When all-grass Kotashaan won the big prize in 1993, the Eclipse for older male went to Bertrando.

Last year there was a stronger case for Wise Dan as best older male on grounds of versatility – he had a runaway synthetic-track victory in the Ben Ali and a narrow defeat in the Grade 1 Stephen Foster on dirt to go along with his four grass triumphs. This year, he lost his only non-grass start when he finished second to Silver Max after the Shadwell Turf Mile was rained onto the main track.

So with eight weeks until ballots are due, I’m leaning towards voting for Wise Dan as Horse of the Year and top turf male, but for Game On Dude as champion older male. Before his Classic misfire, he was 3 for 3 on dirt and 2 for 2 on synthetics and swept California’s three biggest races for older males – the Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup, and Pacific Classic, all at 1 1/4 miles. Wise Dan’s a worthy and inevitable Horse of the Year again, but there’s still an appropriate way to honor the horse who had the best season at classic distances on the main track.


Geldings Ruling Racing in 2013

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Jon White of…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

The Dude and Dan

How truly wonderful it is that two outstanding geldings, Game On Dude and Wise Dan, are gracing the racing stage this year.

The good news is Game On Dude and Wise Dan are a combined nine for nine so far this year. The bad news is The Dude and Dan have made a total of 51 career starts between them, yet they have never run against each other. Not only that, as it stands right now, Game On Dude and Wise Dan will not clash anytime during the remainder of the year.

Game On Dude, trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, is headed to the Grade I, $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic at 1 1/4 miles on dirt at Santa Anita Park on Nov. 2 following his record 8 1/2-length victory in Del Mar’s Pacific Classic on Aug. 25.

Wise Dan, conditioned by Charlie LoPresti, is headed to the Grade I, $1 million Woodbine Mile on turf Sept. 15 after he won Saratoga’s Grade II Fourstardave Handicap on Aug. 10. After the Woodbine Mile, Wise Dan is scheduled to run in the Grade I, $2 million Breeders’ Cup Mile at Santa Anita on Nov. 2, a race he won last year in course record time.

The two best geldings in the sport today again are ranked first and second nationally. Here is this week’s NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll (with the number of first-place votes in parenthesis):

1. Game On Dude (32)
2. Wise Dan (15)
3. Royal Delta
4. Cross Traffic
5. Point of Entry
6. Princess of Sylmar
7. Obviously
8. Sahara Sky
9. Flat Out
10. Palace Malice

While Game and Dude and Wise Dan are exceptional, they certainly have not yet come close to compiling a body of work that reaches the same level of greatness achieved by Kelso in the 1960s, Forego in the 1970s or John Henry in the 1980s.

Kelso was voted five Horse of the Year titles, Forego three and John Henry two.

Wise Dan has a single Horse of the Year to his credit. He was voted 2012 Horse of the Year and is in the running for a second such title this year. Game On Dude has never been voted Horse of the Year, but he also is in the running for the title this year.

On my list of the Top 100 Racehorses of the 20th and 21st Centuries, Kelso is No. 4 (behind Man o’ War, Secretariat and Citation), Forego is No. 13 and John Henry is No. 22.

On this date (Sept. 4) in 1959, Kelso won a six-furlong maiden sprint at Atlantic City to begin his distinguished career. How great was Kelso? What Kelso would go on to pull off would be comparable to a contemporary horse winning five consecutive Breeders’ Cup Classics, with a Breeders’ Cup Turf triumph thrown in for good measure.

Kelso won the Jockey Club Gold Cup, the Breeders’ Cup Classic of its day, for five straight years. In 1964, Kelso also captured the Washington, D.C., International, forerunner of the Breeders’ Cup Turf.

Regarding weight, Kelso carried 130 pounds or more 24 times. He twice won under 136 pounds (once in the 1961 Brooklyn Handicap, the other time in a 1964 handicap race at Aqueduct).

Forego also carried 130 pounds or more 24 times. He toted a staggering 137 pounds when victorious in the 1976 Marlboro Cup Handicap while spotting 18 pounds to runner-up Honest Pleasure.

Horses today rarely pack 130 pounds or more. One reason for this is many of the races a Wise Dan or Game On Dude run in today are no longer handicaps.

Excluding sprints, no horse has carried 130 pounds or more in a graded stakes race on American soil since Skip Away’s victory under 131 pounds in the Grade II Philip H. Iselin Handicap at Monmouth Park on Aug. 30, 1998.

Wise Dan won this year’s Fourstardave Handicap while carrying 129 pounds. That is the highest weight he has ever shouldered. The highest weight Game On Dude has ever carried is 127 pounds when he won this year’s Hollywood Gold Cup.

Forego not only was an admirable weight carrier, he was quite versatile in terms of distances. In 1974, Forego had the class and stamina to win the 1 1/2-mile Woodward and two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup. That same year, he also had the class and speed to win the seven-furlong Carter Handicap and seven-furlong Vosburgh Handicap. In the Carter, Forego defeated a formidable foe in Mr. Prospector. In the Vosburgh, Forego carried 131 pounds and posted an excellent final time of 1:21 3/5.

John Henry never carried more than 130 pounds. He carried 130 pounds only three times.

Because John Henry became so immensely popular, tracks from coast to coast desperately wanted him. An appearance by John Henry meant a significant increase in attendance and handle. Cognizant of this, John Henry’s trainer, Ron McAnally, let it be known that the lower the weight assigned to John Henry, the better chance a track had to get him to race there.

It is my belief that keeping more than 130 pounds off 1981 Horse of the Year John Henry was a major reason he was still so effective late in his career, unlike Kelso and Forego. Remarkably, John Henry was voted a second Horse of the Year title at the age of 9 in 1984. As a 9-year-old, John Henry won six of nine starts, with four of his victories coming at the Grade I level.

Compare that to what Kelso and Forego did at 9 after carrying so much weight earlier in their careers.

When Kelso was 9, he made only one start. He finished fourth in an allowance race at Hialeah Park.

When Forego was 9, he made just two starts. He won an allowance race at Belmont, then ran fifth under 132 pounds on a sloppy track in the Grade I Suburban Handicap at that track.

Game On Dude and Wise Dan are each 6. Considering neither of them has yet to carry as much as 130 pounds, hopefully they both still will be racing — and winning — as 9-year-olds in the year 2016.


Steward’s Transparency After Controversial Big Cap Best Call of All

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Nick Kling of The Troy Record…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

Time for Transparency

The 74th running of the Santa Anita Handicap will not be remembered because it was won by a great horse. Nor will it go down in history because of a track-record time. What makes last Saturday’s race notable is the controversy surrounding the outcome.

The short version is this. Game On Dude, Twirling Candy, and Setsuko entered the stretch of the one and one-quarter mile classic in a virtual line. A combination of jockey actions and tiring horses initiated chain-reaction bumping. As a result, favored Twirling Candy surrendered in upper stretch, while the other pair engaged in a slug-fest to the finish line. Game On Dude won by a nose, earning a Grade 1 victory for himself and $450,000 for his connections.

The Santa Anita stewards hung up the inquiry sign and took twelve minutes to determine there would be no disqualification. That decision ignited a controversy and may be challenged on appeal by the connections of Setsuko.

Nevertheless, whether the non-disqualification was correct is not of immediate relevance. What is important is what the three stewards did in the aftermath. They talked about what they had done.

On Sunday, Daily Racing Form (DRF) reported comments made by the stewards, describing their thoughts in reviewing the inquiry. DRF also reported the stewards had voted 2-1 to keep the result as it stood and not disqualify Game On Dude. Included was the name of each of the stewards and how they had voted.

Here is an example. Steward Scott Chaney said, “We held (Setsuko) blameless, and he was clearly interfered with. So the question was, who’s to blame – the inside horse (Game on Dude) or the middle horse (Twirling Candy)? (Twirling Candy) initiated contact. Our determination was (Game on Dude) maintained a straight course.”

Steward Kim Stanley saw it differently. She said, “Twirling Candy and (Game on Dude) I felt had equal contact, and (Setsuko) was the one that got bothered. I think they came in, and out, equal amounts and they bumped into (Setsuko).”

DRF reported, “Chaney and (steward Tom) Ward voted to make no change, while Sawyer argued for a disqualification.”

Transparency like this is rarely seen in Thoroughbred racing. With occasional exceptions, stewards at most venues have had a simple philosophy regarding the public’s right to know — ‘Tough luck, sucker.’

Despite being stonewalled time and again, bettors and horsemen have continued to clamor for accountability. In this era of open government and unfettered information, they say, it is unconscionable Thoroughbred racing hides decisions which determine the outcome of millions of dollars risked by the public.

New York racing took a baby step in the right direction in 2010. Stewards at New York Racing Association (NYRA) tracks began to post a brief, cryptic description of some of their decisions. Here is an example of a recent posting, which I found at the ‘Steward’s Corner’ link on the NYRA website ( It said:

“RACE 10: Jockey objection for alleged interference in the deep stretch run the #8 Norman Asbjornson (J Pimentel) against #5 Stay Thirsty (R Dominguez). The #8 claims that the #5 drifts in, causing him to alter his course. After reviewing the films the race is official as is.”

To be fair, there have been some NYRA stewards’ postings with more detail. However, I have yet to see one which itemizes how the stewards voted, by name or otherwise, nor any elaboration of why or why not a decision was made.

You might ask why this is important. That’s easy. Many incidents are not cut-and-dried. There can be issues with camera angles, jockey actions and intentions, whether a horse was tiring or had equipment problems, and the like.

I know of an incident at Saratoga last summer where a non-disqualification inflamed bettors needlessly. The jockey on the affected horse believed his mount was out of gas and I strongly suspect that’s what he told the stewards. If the public had been so informed, some of their ire would have been quelled.

There can be a whole host of reasons why something happens. Less debatable is the impact of the stewards’ decisions on bettors, owners, and trainers. No matter how they rule, a large number of people are going to be upset. When evidence is razor thin, as in the Santa Anita Handicap, tempers flare.

Nevertheless, the uproar at Santa Anita would have been far worse without the willingness of the California stewards to discuss their reasoning.

After watching the head-on replay several times, I concluded the stewards made the wrong decision. After reading Cheney’s comments I went back and looked again, this time trying to draw a mental line of the path being followed by each horse. I discovered there is merit to Cheney’s statement Game On Dude held a straight course. I may still believe a disqualification was warranted, but at least my room for doubt was expanded a notch or two.

There is a procedural difference between California and New York racing. Santa Anita stewards are state employees. A single body can determine their work rules. Individual New York stewards are selected by three different bodies: the state racing and wagering board, NYRA, and the Jockey Club.

Nevertheless, to my knowledge, there is no statute stopping the state racing board from directing the stewards to issue more detailed public reports. I applaud the board, NYRA, and the Jockey Club, for doing something last year, but the time has come for more.

If members of the state legislature voted on issues of public spending and hid their votes it would be a scandal. Why, then, should racetrack stewards be allowed to adjudicate a billion dollar industry in secrecy?

New York bettors and horsemen should no longer be treated like mushrooms — covered up and kept in the dark.