Commentary

'Called' set to serve notice

Updated: March 1, 2013, 1:14 AM ET
By Gary West | Special to ESPN.com

A headstrong bully who seemed to have a grievance against the world, he refused to accept instructions or guidance, but instead attempted to impose his will on everybody he encountered, insisting on doing everything his way, in his own time and in his own special style, thank you very much. And if that seems only mildly alarming, add this little detail to the portrait: This recusant maverick, this loose cannon of an athlete, weighed nearly 1,200 pounds.

Called To Serve's connections are so confident in their horse's transformation, so faithful, that they've literally traveled from one extremity of the country to another just for an opportunity to showcase his talent against this elite company.

Last fall, Called To Serve was a bull in perpetual search of a china shop. But Saturday, in the Santa Anita Handicap, he just might emerge as one of the best racehorses in the country. Yes, of course, Game On Dude, who won the Big 'Cap two years ago and has dominated West Coast racing ever since, is entered; a winner of $3.2 million, he's the 6-5 favorite in the morning line. And Ron The Greek, who won the Big 'Cap last year and was most recently seen humiliating his hapless rivals in the Sunshine Millions Classic, has returned; a winner of $1.8 million, he's the 5-2 second choice in the morning line.

But Called To Serve's connections are so confident in their horse's transformation, so faithful, that they've literally traveled from one extremity of the country to another, from New York to California, just for an opportunity to showcase his talent against this elite company at this classic distance of 1 1/4 miles. And for a measure of that faithfulness, that confidence, keep in mind that this is the same Called To Serve who, just five months ago at Remington Park, finished third in the Oklahoma Derby.

"He was a very immature horse; he was -- well, let's just say he was difficult," said his trainer, Nick Canani. Quizzed further, Canani explained that Called To Serve would try to "run off" in the mornings, meaning that when a routine gallop was called for he might try to turn it into a half-mile pedal-to-the-metal workout. Or if asked to jog, he might do something else entirely, a polka maybe, or a half-gainer with a twist.

"He was telling everybody what to do rather than listening," Canani said. Such prima-donna behavior might be tolerable in some circles [oh, in a rhumba of rattlesnakes maybe], but at the racetrack, in a racehorse, it's utterly compromising.

And so when Called To Serve joined Canani's stable, shortly after the Oklahoma Derby, the trainer tried a different approach. Canani said that each day he and his staff would take Called To Serve on what amounted to an outing, a trail ride maybe or a stroll through the stable area, stopping here and there to examine the scenery. The whole idea, Canani said, was to get the powerful gelding interested in what he was doing and, most important, allow him to enjoy being a racehorse.

In his recent races, Called To Serve seemed to enjoy himself thoroughly. In the Discovery Handicap at Aqueduct, for example, after getting bumped from both sides at the break, he cruised along easily and unfazed, nearly five lengths behind Willy Beamin, who had stolen away with an opening half-mile in 49.36. In the second turn, Called To Serve swung to the outside, four-to-five wide, and effortlessly blew by horses, running the final three-eighths of a mile in 35.98 seconds while winning by nearly five lengths. It was a remarkable conclusion to a nine-furlong race. Just to provide some context, Ron The Greek recently dominated at Gulfstream Park by charging through the final three-eighths in 37.86.

Six weeks after the Discovery, for the Broad Brush Stakes, it was the same story, different stage. Over a very slow Laurel surface, Called To Serve overcame some bumping, rallied wide to run down Eighttofasttocatch, a multiple stakes winner of $560,000 who had been allowed to cruise unchallenged on the lead, and then drew clear, running the final three-eighths in 36.93 seconds. And then he galloped out powerfully: Called To Serve won by nearly six lengths, but he was probably 16 in front by the time he was pulled up.

Game On Dude is a great horse, and he's the speed of the speed. But I think he might be a little vulnerable running a mile and a quarter, and I think that's exactly what our horse wants to do.

-- Trainer Nick Canani
"The sky's the limit for this horse," said Canani, who as a youngster worked for trainer Bobby Frankel and then for his father, Julio, who's also a trainer. And so Canani knows what's necessary for a horse to race at this elite level, and he knows what it takes to win the Big 'Cap. His father won it in 1989 with Martial Law.

"Game On Dude is a great horse, and he's the speed of the speed," Canani said. "I have all the respect in the world for him. But I think he might be a little vulnerable running a mile and a quarter, and I think that's exactly what our horse wants to do."

Since arriving at Santa Anita a few weeks ago, Called To Serve has had two workouts, both bullets and both with Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens riding. A week ago, Called To Serve worked five furlongs in 59.20 and, Canani said, galloped out six furlongs in 1:10.60.

"Gary [Stevens] could hardly get him pulled up," Canani said. "His workouts here have been superb … He improves every day. It's scary to think how good he might be."

More scary than a rhumba of rattlesnakes, more scary even than that bull who was always looking for a china shop.