Dude the Redeemer - By Eric Mitchell

God love the seasoned warriors; the ones who rise up and reclaim glory in stunning fashion when everyone else has begun writing them off.

During the Sochi Winter Olympics, Austrian skier Mario Matt, two months shy of his 35th birthday, handled a tricky slalom course on challenging soft snow to become the oldest Alpine gold medalist in Olympics history. The course was so tough—termed brutal by some—that five of the eight top skiers from the first of two rounds failed to finish the course.

Matt’s experience, talent, and will to win allowed him to shine against some of the world’s most talented and much younger skiers.

“He’s a tremendous competitor, a game-day guy,” said U.S. men’s head coach Sasha Rearick.

Game On Dude gave racing the same type of performance March 8 in one of the most exciting Santa Anita Handicaps (gr. I) seen in many years.  

Santa Anita Park is home base for the 7-year-old son of Awesome Again, but the Southern California track has been the site of as much heartbreak as triumph for him. Just four months ago Game On Dude was favored to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) after a sterling run of five consecutive graded stakes victories, including a 73⁄4-length romp in last year’s Big ’Cap. The gelding, however, finished ninth in the Classic, 11 lengths behind winner Mucho Macho Man and nosed-out second Will Take Charge. Game On Dude had been the favorite in the 2012 Classic, also at Santa Anita, and finished 15 lengths back in seventh.

The Dude ended last year with a good second to Will Take Charge in the Clark Handicap (gr. I), so a strong start this year would have restored the faith of many. But that didn’t happen. Instead, Game On Dude finished fifth in the grade II San Antonio Stakes against much softer competition than he would face in the Big ’Cap. The only other graded stakes winners in the field were Blueskiesnrainbows, who had just won the grade II San Pasqual Stakes, and Willyconker, who had won the grade I Frank E. Kilroe Mile Stakes in 2012 but had not won or placed in a stakes all last year.

So the speculation began. Had the Dude lost his edge?

Trainer Bob Baffert took the heat for the San Antonio loss, saying he didn’t have Game On Dude prepared. Then he stewed over the naysayers.
“Bob’s proud of Game On Dude,” said jockey Mike Smith. “He’s like family to him. When you knock him, you’re walking on the fightin’ side of Bob, I guess, like it says in the old country song that Merle Haggard used to sing.”

The Big ’Cap wound up being the perfect stage for redemption: a rematch with Mucho Macho Man and Will Take Charge at Santa Anita along with the top three finishers from the San Antonio—Blingo, Imperative, and American Blend—and grade II winner Hear the Ghost from the always dangerous barn of Jerry Hollendorfer. The doubt hanging over Game On Dude made him the third choice in the field; the first time he had not been the post time favorite in 15 starts.

The Dude was ready, however. Smith took him right to the front and let him roll through sharp fractions of :22.91, :45.39, and 1:09.39, a brisker pace than what unfolded had when Game On Dude ran head-to-head with Blueskiesnrainbows in the San Antonio. Heading into the second turn, the fans got the showdown they’d been hoping for with Mucho Macho Man at Game On Dude’s right shoulder and Will Take Charge just outside of Mucho Macho Man.

“The stars are all aligned,” said track announcer Trevor Denman.

This time the Dude’s talent and will to win were unassailable. Mucho Macho Man faded and Will Take Charge was held at bay by 13⁄4 lengths. The Dude trifecta was priceless: He made history by winning his third Santa Anita Handicap, he broke the stakes record with his final time of 1:58.17, and he struck dumb his critics.

“It’s an emotional win,” Baffert said afterward. “It kills me when they knock on him, but we came in quiet and that’s the way I like it. We came in under the radar, and we were ready for them.”

The Big ’Cap was an important race for the sport as well. A compelling handicap division allows fans to make a connection with top horses and gives a chance for rivalries to develop. Keep putting such compelling contests on TV and perhaps Thoroughbred racing could start to savor some redemption of its own.


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