For much of the year, from June until 5:43 on the afternoon of Nov. 3 at Santa Anita, Game On Dude looked like and ran like a Horse of the Year. Then the latches of the starting gate sprang open for the Breeders' Cup Classic.
He didn't leave with his usual haste. He steadied, became eager; Rafael Bejarano rated the free-running veteran behind horses and then steadied him again. By the time Bejarano got Game On Dude into the clear, his energy was spent and Fort Larned gone. Discommoded, Game On Dude finished seventh. His Horse of the Year chances were finished, too.
But this is the year of The Dude.
Unbeaten in all five of his races, all major stakes and all but one in California, his margins of victory totaling more than 24 lengths, Game And Dude hasn't just continued to perform at a high level as a 6-year-old but has performed at an even higher level than ever before. And this year, his trainer, Bob Baffert, is approaching the Breeders' Cup differently. The romping winner of the recent Pacific Classic at Del Mar, Game On Dude won't race again until the Classic on Nov. 2, Baffert said, again at Santa Anita.
Last year, between the Pacific Classic and the Breeders' Cup Classic, Game On Dude won the Awesome Again Stakes at Santa Anita. Before a track owner, in a vanity pirouette, renamed the stakes for a horse that never raced at Santa Anita, the Awesome Again was known as the Goodwood. And in 2011, between the Pacific Classic and Breeders' Cup Classic, Game On Dude won the Goodwood. Also, in each of the last two years, he had seven races prior to the Classic and had traveled more extensively. (He raced in Dubai last year and in 2011 had two races outside of California before going to Churchill Downs for the Classic.)
"I just wanted to take a different approach," Baffert said about Game On Dude's run-up to the Classic. "He ran such a big race [in the Pacific Classic] and puts so much into his races, and he usually runs great when he has plenty of time between races."
He's more relaxed. He's mellowed like his trainer, but he has a much higher win percentage than his trainer.
”-- Bob Baffert, trainer Game On Dude
Baffert said he was very disappointed after last year's Breeders' Cup, not so much because Game On Dude lost, but because he "never really had a chance to run" and never had an opportunity to show his talent. If he had given his typically outstanding performance and it had fallen short, well, that's racing, Baffert said, and that's always a possibility at the highest level. "But he was never in the race."
But this is the year of The Dude. He'll go into this year's Classic fresher and sharper than ever before. And better, Baffert said.
"He's a much better horse this year," Baffert said about the veteran who has won 15 of his 25 races. "He's more relaxed. He's mellowed like his trainer, but he has a much higher win percentage than his trainer."
Should Game On Dude win the Classic, he'll push his earnings to $8.3 million, leaving him $2.2 million behind Curlin, the richest horse to race in North America. In other words, if Game On Dude wins the Classic, he could move to the top of the earnings list next year.
As for the Awesome Again on Sept. 28, Baffert will leave that to Paynter, who disappointed in the slop at Saratoga, where he finished fifth in the recent Woodward. "He came out it fine. He wanted no part of that [track]," Baffert said.
The Baffert barn, of course, is rich in Breeders' Cup possibilities. Book Review is aimed at the Filly And Mare Sprint. Fed Biz could have a few options, such as the Dirt Mile or the Sprint -- "He's so versatile," Baffert said. The Hall of Fame trainer remains high on Can The Man, who just finished third, after a troubled trip, in the Del Mar Futurity.
But at 5:45 or so on the afternoon of Nov. 2, as the horses hit the wire at Santa Anita in the Breeders' Cup Classic, it could become clear that it's the year of The Dude.