Major test for Torre's 'Dude'

ARCADIA, Calif. -- "There's a certain air of excitement," Joe Torre remarked one morning in early November. "It's like getting to the late innings of a ballgame with victory imminent and you know you're going to have a fight on your hands."

The topic far removed from the baseball diamond was a sport that takes place on an old dirt oval, where 1,000-pound athletes hurtle down to the wire. As the Nov. 2-3 Breeders' Cup World Championships loomed, Torre was in Los Angeles to watch a strapping model of equine talent named Game On Dude compete in the richest horse race in North America -- the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic.

"Game On Dude has been a lot of fun," Torre said. "He's just a very special horse."

Trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, the guy with the shock-white hair and a swagger of California cool, Game On Dude is the runner in the Classic with the home-track advantage. Of all 12 contenders for the 1 1/4-mile challenge at Santa Anita, he has won the most over the surface in the most important races. Last time, Sept. 29, he led the field into the stretch and kicked clear to take the Awesome Again Stakes, a Grade 1 event named after his sire. This year alone, he has won the Hollywood Gold Cup, the California Stakes by 7 1/4 lengths and the San Antonio by similar daylight. He was also second in the 2012 Pacific Classic.

"I'll tell you, he's got a remarkable quality about him," Torre remarked. "Almost every time he has a chance to look somebody in the eye, he's able to handle the challenge. To me, that's really the sign of a champ; he just likes the challenge, and he loves to compete."

Torre, 72, owns Game On Dude in partnership with several others under the stable name Diamond Pride or Mercedes Stable; Bernie Schiappa and the Lanni Family Trust are also owners of the 5-year-old gelding. This is Torre's usual method of involvement in racing ownership because he is constantly on the road and occupied by his role as executive vice president of baseball operations for Major League Baseball.

"At one time, I owned probably pieces of 17, 18 horses, which I realized was nuts," Torre said. "Right now, I have three or four, and that's a much more manageable amount for me."

It was 22 years ago, Don Zimmer -- one of Torre's coaches during his time with the Yankees and a good friend -- started taking the MLB star to the racetrack, showing him the ins and outs of a challenging game. Torre, who had gone to the races as a kid growing up in New York with his older brother, Frank, was hooked again and started playing the ponies whenever he got the chance. When he became manager of the Yankees, he decided to invest in a few Thoroughbreds to try the ownership angle. He said a correlation between the best athletes in baseball and great racehorses can be made.

When they get on that track and get challenged and fight back, those are the ones that give you the indication they're something special.

-- Joe Torre, co-owner of Game On Dude

"It's not always the most talented athlete that is the best player, and it's not necessarily the one you think is the best horse that is always the winner," Torre remarked. "When they get on that track and get challenged and fight back, those are the ones that give you the indication they're something special. It's something you can't put your finger on, but it's a feeling you get from being around them and watching them compete. I've been around a couple of baseball players like that in my career. Derek Jeter is one of them, a guy who may not have initially appeared to be the most talented but has certainly risen to the occasion."

Torre's horses have taken him to races such as the Kentucky Derby and brought victories in graded stakes races nationwide. But there never was a runner as good as Game On Dude, known around the barn simply as "the big horse." Last season, when the Breeders' Cup was at Churchill Downs, he missed winning the Classic by just 1 1/2 lengths.

"He's a different horse this year," Baffert said. "He's stronger. He's filled out. He was always a good horse, but he's even better now. He's got that high cruising speed."

The 9-5 favorite on the Classic morning line, Game On Dude had drawn post 5 under top California jockey Rafael Bejarano. It's a location Baffert finds advantageous.

"He'll save a length right to start from there," he said. "All the speed is outside in the race, and Raffie should be able to pick a good spot from where he is."

And for Torre, the best spot will be in the stands, watching his top contender come charging down the stretch in the richest race in North America.

"Your heart starts pumping," he said, "when you see those horses kicking into gear."

Claire Novak is an Eclipse Award-winning turf writer who covers horse racing for The Blood-Horse magazine in Lexington, Ky. Follow her on Twitter @bh_cnovak and read more of her work at www.bloodhorse.com.