Defending Santa Anita Handicap
champion Game On Dude reaches a crossroads Sunday in Santa Anita’s Grade II,
$200,000 San Antonio Stakes, his first race since nearly making off with the $5
million Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs on Nov. 5.
This much is clear: Game On Dude,
who earned over $1.9 million in eight races last year, will be a prohibitive
favorite against six opponents in the 75th running of the
mile-and-one-eighth event that often serves as an important steppingstone to
the Grade I Big ’Cap. The uncertainty concerns the next step by trainer Bob
Baffert and the ownership group that includes Ernie Moody, the Lanni Family
Trust, Bernie Schiappa and former Yankee and Dodger manager Joe Torre.
The more lucrative option is to send
the 5-year-old Awesome Again gelding to Dubai for the world’s richest race, the
$10 million Dubai World Cup on March 31. The purse dwarfs that of most any
other event in racing including the $750,000 Santa Anita Handicap scheduled for
March 3. But here’s the rub: The Dubai World Cup will be contested for a third
straight year over Meydan Racecourse’s synthetic surface--which is not Game On
Dude’s preferred surface.
The bay gelding, in fact, has
reveled over Santa Anita’s dirt strip, going three-for-three including a pair
of Grade I stakes wins with the Goodwood added to the Big ’Cap. He was beaten
in his two races over synthetics as well as a pair over wet dirt tracks. Only
six Santa Anita Handicaps had been run faster than when Game On Dude nosed out
Setsuko in 1:59.47 for 1 ¼ miles in last year’s 74th running.
If Game On Dude were to remain at
Santa Anita for this year’s Big ’Cap, he would aim to join John Henry,
Milwaukee Brew and Lava Man as the only two-time winners. Moreover, Game On
Dude’s ultimate goal is this year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic, which will be held
at Santa Anita.
Just how Sunday’s San Antonio might
influence the pending decision by Baffert and the ownership group remains to be
seen, but Game On Dude has been preparing splendidly for his 2012 debut. “He’s
working really well,” said Baffert.
Chantal Sutherland, who came within
less than a sixteenth of a mile from becoming the first female jockey to win
the Breeders’ Cup Classic after she had gained such distinction in the Big
’Cap, will ride Game On Dude for the sixth time on Sunday.
At odds of 14-1 at Churchill Downs
last November, front-running Game On Dude drew clear in a field of 12 with
one-sixteenth to go in the Classic at 1 ¼ miles. Sutherland felt victory within
her grasp. Runner-up Game On Dude held on stubbornly even though Drosselmeyer
came flying to score by 1 ½ lengths. Second-place money of $900,000 boosted
Game On Dude’s career earnings to $2,134,658 from an overall record of 5-6-4 in
Off recent form, the sharpest horse
in Sunday’s field would appear to be Triple AAA Ranch’s Arizona homebred Uh Oh
Bango, upset winner of the Grade II San Pasqual Stakes on Jan. 7 for
Arizona-based trainer Kory Owens. Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith will be back
in the saddle after Uh Oh Bango pushed his career earnings to $532,712 from a
5-5-2 showing in 17 career starts. He is the field’s co-high weight with Game On
Dude at 123 pounds.
At entry time, Smith was just 14
wins shy of 5,000 career win photos.
Tres Borrachos, second as the 2-1
favorite in the San Pasqual when beaten by 1 ¾ lengths, will try to turn the
tables on Sunday. Rafael Bejarano will ride the 7-year-old gelding who has
earned $914,257. Second in his last two starts, Tres Borrachos often is
competitive, but hasn’t done much winning: four victories in 36 starts. The
Ecton Park gelding trained by Marty Jones for George Hicker and Button Stable, shows
but a single victory in his last 19 races, the Grade II San Diego Handicap at
Del Mar last July.
The complete field for the San
Antonio Stakes, with jockeys and weights in post position order: Tres
Borrachos, Rafael Bejarano, 120; Uh Oh Bango, Mike Smith, 123; Game On Dude,
Chantal Sutherland, 123; El Gato Malo, Corey Nakatani, 118; Ashtar, Kevin
Krigger, 120; Victory Pete, Martin Garcia, 118, and Skipshot, Joseph Talamo,