HOLLYWOOD GOLD CUP HANDICAP | PURSE: $500,000 | GRADE 1 | 3-YEAR-OLDS & UP | 1 1/4 MILES
INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- The transformation of First Dude from consistent also-ran to major stakes winner is complete.
On Saturday, First Dude won his first Grade 1 stakes, and third consecutive race, in the $500,000 Hollywood Gold Cup, earning a fees-paid berth to the Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs in November. Last year, First Dude finished second or third in six consecutive graded stakes for 3-year-olds and was eighth in the Breeders' Cup Classic.
The difference between the two seasons has been the style of racing. When trained by Dale Romans in 2010, First Dude ran on or near the lead, a style highlighted by a second in the Preakness Stakes. Transferred to trainer Bob Baffert in February by owner-breeder Don Dizney, First Dude has run from off the pace since early April and is perfect in three starts with that style, including two stakes.
The Gold Cup is by far the most prestigious win of First Dude's career. After the race, the magnitude of the victory was not lost on Baffert.
"Thanks for sticking with me," he told Dizney.
"You worked him out," Dizney replied.
The victory confirmed First Dude's status as an older horse to follow in the second half of the year.
In the Gold Cup, First Dude ($10.20) rallied from sixth in the final quarter-mile under jockey Martin Garcia to win by a nose over pacesetter Game On Dude, giving Baffert a one-two sweep in the top race of the spring-summer meeting for older horses. First Dude ran 1 1/4 miles in 2:01.57.
"They both ran a great race," Baffert said.
Twirling Candy, the even-money favorite, finished third after leading with a furlong remaining. Twirling Candy was followed by Setsuko, Awesome Gem, Dark Cove, Miss Match, and Soul Candy in the field of eight.
At times in the last furlong, it appeared that Game On Dude, Twirling Candy, or First Dude would win.
Game On Dude set a reasonable pace -- 23.42 and 47.75 seconds -- but was headed by Twirling Candy in early stretch, only to fight back while racing on the inside. Twirling Candy, second early and showing a more relaxed style of racing than in previous starts, led with a sixteenth of a mile remaining. First Dude was 2 1/2 lengths behind the leaders with a furlong remaining, but closed well under Garcia to reach the wire in front.
Baffert said that a late rally compliments First Dude, who he describes as a "big old horse. You have to let him settle and you have to ride him with a lot of confidence," he said.
Chantal Sutherland, who won the Santa Anita Handicap on Game On Dude in a controversial upset in March, thought Game On Dude held on.
"I thought we would get it and then I saw a flash of red and I thought, 'Martin, are you kidding me?' " she said. "It was tight."
First Dude carried 116 pounds, two less than Game On Dude and four less than topweight Twirling Candy.
Twirling Candy, who won the Grade 2 Californian Stakes last month despite pulling, was more settled in the Gold Cup.
"I was happy with the trip," trainer John Sadler said. "We didn't have an excuse."
First Dude, a colt by Stephen Got Even, has won 4 of 17 starts and $1,442,140. He won for the second time in his career in a first condition allowance race at Santa Anita on April 9, the first time that Baffert tried him from off the pace.
The winning streak reached three races Saturday in a manner that suggests more is possible.