Pat Riley, president of the Miami Heat, delivered some pretty inspirational comments to players on his team this past week, especially those who may be thinking about leaving the organization following the Heat’s five-game decimation at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs.
“We’ve got to get a grip on greatness,” Riley said. “It’s about what we have built over four years here, and we have a chance to do something significant…But losing is just as much a part of it as winning, and when you’re a team you deal with it….we have a tremendous opportunity here for long-term success, but don’t think that we’re not going to get beat again. Get a grip, everybody.”
This is going to sound strange, but Riley’s comments made me think of Game On Dude. That’s right, Game On Dude, the horse whose numerous outstanding achievements over the past four to five years are overshadowed by his two flops in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Game On Dude should be known for his unprecedented three Santa Anita Handicap victories; known for becoming only the second horse in history to sweep California’s three grade I handicaps (Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup, and Pacific Classic) in the same year; known for his 14 graded stakes victories; known for running 1 1/4 miles in a near-American record 1:58 as a 7-year-old; and known for amassing $6.4 million in earnings.
But what he is known mostly for is running poorly in the last two Breeders’ Cup Classics on his home track and blowing any chance at Horse of the Year. Switching to the NFL, the Buffalo Bills and Minnesota Vikings both had great teams over a period of years, but are remembered for losing four Super Bowls – in the 1990s and 1970s, respectively – rather than their impressive feat of getting to four Super Bowls during one decade.
But, you know what? Game On Dude is back again this year, and, who knows, he may be back again next year. The horse who refuses to grow old managed to not only win the Big Cap for the third time this year, he ran the fastest time in the race’s 79-year history and came within a fifth of a second of Spectacular Bid’s American record.
Does Game On Dude have any fan clubs? Does he have a Facebook page? Does he tweet? Does Santa Anita give out any Game On Dude posters or buttons? You can guess the answers to those questions.
To repeat Riley’s words, “We’ve got to get a grip on greatness. Losing is just as much a part of it as winning. Don’t think we’re not going to get beat again.”
Heck, Game On Dude might get beat this weekend in the Gold Cup at Santa Anita, who knows? That’s right, Game On Dude is running this weekend.
Kelso, Forego, and John Henry, arguably the three greatest geldings of our time, or perhaps of all time, lost 91 races among them. In Kelso’s Horse of the Year clinching races, whether it was the Woodward Stakes, Jockey Club Gold Cup, or Washington D.C. International, he faced an average of 6.3 opponents, not all of them top-quality stakes horses. These three titans of the turf earned their Horse of the Year titles based on body of work, and even when it came down to one big race in September or October, they had one, two, or at the most three really top-class stakes winners with whom to contend, not 10 or 11 foes, most of whom were grade I stakes horses, as Game On Dude has.
Now, I acknowledge his two Breeders’ Cup misadventures at Santa Anita are puzzling, not because he lost, but because he seemed a shell of himself, for reasons unknown. In his other Classic appearance, he finished a gutsy second at Churchill Downs, in which he never saw the previous year’s Belmont Stakes winner Drosselmeyer flying way out in the middle of the track.
I also acknowledge that Game On Dude has for the most part remained in California, competing against basically the same group of horses, rather than travel east to race in major events such as the Whitney, Woodward or Jockey Club Gold Cup against better quality competition. Although I, like many, would love to have seen him compete in at least one of those races, in some ways you can blame the Breeders’ Cup for having the event at his home track of Santa Anita five of the past seven years. What a welcome addition he would be to Saratoga or even Belmont Park’s Super Saturday.
We have to face the facts that the goal of trainers and owners now is to get to the Breeders’ Cup the easiest way possible. And that often means staying home rather than travel cross-country. Back in the days of Kelso and Forego, all big races were $100,000 and there was no lure of a big championship day. If the best horses were in California in a particular year and the Breeders’ Cup were in New York (yeah, right), do you really think trainers like Todd Pletcher, Bill Mott, and Shug McGaughey would send their horses to compete at Santa Anita and run against better horses and then ship them back home?
Game On Dude did run in the Breeders’ Cup at Churchill Downs, did travel halfway around the world to Dubai, did journey to Charles Town three times for their Classic, and did fly to Churchill Downs for the Clark Handicap after last year’s Breeders’ Cup, getting beat a head by eventual 3-year-old champion Will Take Charge, who had beaten him by almost 11 lengths in the Classic. He has also been to Lone Star Park twice and broke his maiden at Gulfstream Park.
In the realm of great horses, we accepted Swaps running 18 of his 25 career starts in California, none in New York, and high-tailing back home after winning the Kentucky Derby instead of giving Nashua a rematch in the Preakness and/or Belmont Stakes. We accepted Zenyatta running 17 of her 20 career starts not only in California, but on a synthetic surface. We accepted the fact that Lava Man could not pick his feet up outside California. We accepted the fact that Native Diver raced outside California only once in 81 career starts. Still, these horses were greatly admired.
Perhaps, with exception of Zenyatta, that is why they are not ranked higher among the list of great horses. No one is claiming Game On Dude deserves any more when rating great horses. But he certainly does not deserve any less, considering all he has accomplished. Horse of the Year has been his to win or lose the past two years and that is what his connections strive for – to be in that position.
We have already accepted the fact that California Chrome likely is going to prep for the Classic at, of all places, Los Alamitos, instead of coming to Saratoga or Belmont Park. Bad for racing, but good for the Breeders’ Cup. That’s’where the money is and where championships are won. For the past two years, Wise Dan has not accomplished anything remotely close to what Game On Dude has when it comes to winning prestigious, historic races. But because he wins the Breeders’ Cup Mile, the votes come pouring in for Horse of the Year. Apparently, running in the same races each year against many of the same horses at mostly the same distance can be forgiven when you win the Breeders’ Cup, but losing the Breeders’ Cup cannot, even when you have a stronger resume the rest of the year.
Wise Dan did what he had to and beat all comers on the one weekend where all his Horse of the Year competitors – Game On Dude, Royal Delta, Princess of Sylmar, Point of Entry, Flat Out, and Palace Malice – managed to get beat; most of them soundly. More power to him.
The bottom line is, it is time to recognize the achievements of Game On Dude and not focus only on his two inexplicable performances in the Classic. You don’t have to be great to do great things, and Game On Dude has accomplished enough great things to be remembered for what he’s done and not what he hasn’t done.
“We’ve got to get a grip on greatness.”