Saturday's Santa Anita Handicap will inevitably remind grizzled fans of a time when America's best racehorses actually ran against each other without having to be drawn together by the allure of millions of dollars, but for no other reason than the sporting satisfaction of competing at the highest level on one of the sport's most glorious stages. And with a palliative reminder that horses get better as they get older, the Big 'Cap might also toss a soothing cold towel on the febrile fervor that accompanies the youngsters along the road to the Triple Crown this time of year.
He doesn't get any respect until they start assigning weights
”-- Bob Baffert, trainer Game On Dude
Some horses, in fact, get much better with age. Although grand looking and powerfully built, as if put together in a truck plant in Dearborn, Will Take Charge was a 36-1 long shot in last year's Kentucky Derby, and he made no impact at all on the Triple Crown series. But then -- well, as you know, he has become a red monster. Even on a speed-favoring Gulfstream surface, despite having to skirt traffic, and at 1 ⅛ miles, which isn't his best distance, he ran second in the Donn Handicap in his seasonal debut, behind a winner who set a track record. If Will Take Charge isn't the best horse in the country, then Mucho Macho Man is. And he, too, has improved significantly over the years. He was good at 3 -- remember, he ran third in the Louisiana and Kentucky Derbies -- but he got very good at 4, winning the Suburban and finishing second in the Breeders' Cup Classic. At 5, he won the Classic, of course, beating Will Take Charge by inches.
And so here, on the Big 'Cap's glorious stage and at a classic distance, they meet again, thanks to their sporting owners. With so much attention focusing on their rematch, Game On Dude has become a nearly forgotten horse despite the fact he has won the Big 'Cap twice, including last year by nearly eight lengths.
"He doesn't get any respect until they start assigning weights," Bob Baffert, his trainer, joked. Game On Dude will carry 122 pounds Saturday, one less than Will Take Charge, who'll carry a pound less than Mucho Macho Man, all of which only means weight won't be an excuse or a determinant. But age might.
Will Take Charge and Mucho Macho Man have matured into standouts. But at age 7 has Game On Dude passed his peak? A year ago he was in the middle of a five-race string of victories and arguably performing at the highest level of his career. Can he ever return to that or even approach it, or has senescence caught up with him, as it inescapably catches up with everyone?
Baffert said he hasn't seen anything from Game On Dude in his training or his demeanor to suggest the venerable gelding isn't still capable of competing at the sport's highest level. Still, Game On Dude has lost three consecutive races for only the second time in his career, and he most recently finished fifth in the San Antonio as 1-5 favorite.
"He's a funny horse," Baffert said. "He has to have the right trip. It's all about the pace with him."
Game On Dude, Baffert explained, will resist any jockey's attempt to rein in his natural speed. On the other hand, if he rolls through sweltering fractions, as he did in the San Antonio, he won't finish strongly.
"At this stage, I have to be careful with him," Baffert said about Game On Dude. "The moment he shows any sign of tailing off, we're not going to put him in these kinds of races. I've always managed him carefully, but as a horse gets older you can't press him or push him."
If there aren't many horses competing in major stakes at age 7, it's partly because of the sport's modern economic model, which encourages early retirement in favor of a more lucrative stallion career, something, of course, that isn't an option for Game On Dude. But if a horse is sound and hasn't lost his desire, there's no reason he can't continue to race for years at a level that's close to his best. Forego won the Met Mile and Woodward at 7. Ancient Title won three stakes as a 7-year-old and two races the following season. At 8, Native Diver won six of his 13 outings, including his last two, the Hollywood Gold Cup and the Del Mar Handicap.
Two of the greatest aged performers were, of course, Kelso and John Henry. At 7, Kelso won four stakes, including the Jockey Club Gold Cup for the fifth consecutive year, and at 8, he won three stakes, including the Whitney. Incomparably, John Henry won six of his nine outings as a 9-year-old, including the Arlington Million, to be Horse of the Year.
And so can Game On Dude, like Seabiscuit, win the Santa Anita Handicap at age 7? Can he be competitive with the two best horses in the country? Well, could George Blanda still play football at 48, could Satchel Paige pitch as a rookie at 42 and become an all-star at 47, and could Gordie Howe, Mr. Hockey, play a shift at 69?