Last weekend I got to see something pretty special.
The Santa Anita Handicap is a big-time race with a lot of history and prestige, but it seems that in the last few years most of the serious handicap horses point towards the big purses in Dubai at the end of March, and the Big ‘Cap mostly features older horses from California. Not so this year, when the owners of the top two finishers in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic, Mucho Macho Man and Will Take Charge, announced they were both headed back to Santa Anita. It was a chance for the public to see two horses based on the East Coast come west to run over the same track that they had finished only a nose apart on last fall.
Overshadowed in all this pre-race talk was Game On Dude, who won pretty much every major handicap race in California last year, but put in another puzzling up-the-track finish in the Classic over his home track. He came back a dull fifth in his 2014 debut in the San Antonio after setting blazing fractions with Blueskiesnrainbows. Was Dude, now 7 years old, losing a step?
The Dude is one-dimensional. He likes to roll out of the gate and be on or very close to the lead. While he’s experienced enough to not get rank if he’s shuffled back into the pack, he usually doesn’t fire. He runs like his name suggests, blazing out of the gate and daring anyone to go with him. Unfortunately, that style of running can often leave him out of gas at the top of the stretch.
But Big ‘Cap day was different. I watched Game On Dude fly out of the gate to the front, pressured slightly on the outside by Hear the Ghost. The fractions for the first quarter mile and then the half came up around :22 and :45, which is fast, especially for a mile and a quarter race. As he rolled into the far turn, Mucho Macho Man and Will Take Charge inched up to his shoulder, and the big three were poised for the anticipated showdown as the headed into the stretch.
At that point, I think most of us thought Dude was going to fold. He’d run so fast and those two looked like they were going to run right on by. But at the head of the lane Mucho Macho Man started to drop back, while Will Take Charge began to close. Mike Smith let out on Game On Dude and he rebroke, putting away Will Take Charge to draw away by a decisive 1 3/4 lengths. His final time was sparkling, a new stakes record 1: 58.17. With the win, Game On Dude became the first horse to win three Santa Anita Handicaps, which is an astonishing achievement.
Even though many had come out to see the two big East Coast horses, the Dude is the King of California, and the fans appreciate the honest runner and hometown hero. As they came back after galloping out, Mike Smith brought Dude all the way back up the stretch in a victory lap, and the stands were rocking.
So here’s to the Dude, who on this afternoon was absolutely brilliant.