The track was considered his Kryptonite, he needed a last-second replacement rider for a replacement rider, and 11 others were signed up to get him, some seemingly with the speed to make it a challenge. But there was one thing Game On Dude had that the others in the Pacific Classic did not: He was the best horse – by far.
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In an awesome display of his raw talent, Game On Dude ran his rivals into the ground Sunday at Del Mar with an 8 1/2-length romp under Martin Garcia that gave him an in-year sweep of Southern California’s major races for older horses, the Santa Anita Handicap, the Hollywood Gold Cup, and the Grade 1, $1 million Pacific Classic.
Twice previously, Game On Dude had come up short on Polytrack at Del Mar – he was fourth in 2011 in the Pacific Classic and second last year – but he had trained better this year than in the past two summers over a surface that is tighter than in years past. It added up to a record-setting win in the Pacific Classic. In the 22 prior runnings, the largest margin of victory was 5 1/2 lengths, set by Skimming in 2001.
“This was a very emotional win,” said Bob Baffert, who trains Game On Dude for the partnership of Bernie Schiappa, Joe Torre, Debbie Lanni, and Ernie Moody. “Getting beat last year was a tough loss.
“This,” Baffert said moments later, “was a great feeling, the way he did it.”
Game On Dude ($5.40) started from post 10 in the field of 12. When the field first came away from the gate, Delegation, starting just to the inside of Game On Dude, maintained a straight line instead of angling over, jockey Luis Contreras keeping him in the middle of the track.
Garcia immediately took the opportunity to dive to the rail with Game On Dude, and though Delegation eventually ended up on his flank by the first turn, they were going at a pace that was not going to compromise Game On Dude.
Game On Dude clicked off splits of 24.19 seconds, 47.96, and 1:12.61 for the first six furlongs, started to inch away from the field on the far turn with a 24-second fourth quarter for a mile split of 1:36.61, then poured it on down the lane to complete 1 1/4 miles in 2:00.69.
“I told Martin, ‘You have the fastest horse. Don’t be afraid to be bold,’ ” Baffert said. “I told Martin I didn’t want anyone running him down.”
In the eventual battle for second, Kettle Corn – trained by John Sadler – nosed out stablemate You Know I Know, with Richard’s Kid another nose back in fourth. Holding Glory was fifth and was followed by Delegation, Byrama, Dullahan, Jeranimo, Endorsement, Farraaj, and Blueskiesnrainbows.
The win was the 15th in 27 starts for Game On Dude, 6, a gelding by Awesome Again who has earned $5.6 million. He has won six straight races, including all five of his starts this year. Mike Smith had ridden Game On Dude to five straight wins, but he chose to be at Saratoga on Sunday to ride Royal Delta in the Personal Ensign, which she won.
Joel Rosario originally was named as the replacement for Smith, but he broke a bone in his left foot Friday at Saratoga and is out for six weeks. On Saturday morning, Baffert scratched his other Pacific Classic entrant, Liaison, whom Garcia was named to ride at entry time, thus freeing Garcia to ride Game On Dude.
Both Garcia and Smith share the same agent, Brad Pegram. And Garcia is familiar with Game On Dude, having worked him regularly over the past few years.
“He finally got paid to work this horse,” Baffert said.
The Pacific Classic offers a fees-paid berth to the Breeders’ Cup Classic, which, like the Pacific Classic, has heretofore been a hill too big to climb for Game On Dude. He was second in 2011, then an uncharacteristically poor seventh last year. When he runs in the race Nov. 2, it is likely that Horse of the Year honors will hang in the balance.