So there certainly appears to be ample life in the old boy Game On Dude. He was dismissed at odds of 7-2 in the Santa Anita Handicap….and dismissed is certainly the correct way to describe those odds. Baffert’s seven-year old gelding had not gone off at odds higher than 8-5 since the 2011 Breeders’ Cup Classic, when he finished second to Drosselmeyer at 14-1. He had a three-race losing streak coming into the race – his first since the fall of 2011 – and his 5th place finish in his seasonal debut didn’t inspire much confidence. Nor did the fact that he finished some 11 lengths behind Mucho Macho Man and Will Take Charge over the same track, and at the same distance, in the Classic just a little over four months prior.
But on Saturday, Game On Dude did not have to deal early on with the speedy likes of Moreno and Fort Larned as he did on that Breeders’ Cup day. Other than a futile early charge by Hear the Ghost, which fizzled out when that one went wide on the turn, Mike Smith pretty much had things his own way. I think that his third and fourth quarter splits were the decisive ones here.
That split of 24 seconds flat represented a nice breather on the backstretch. Then, when Will Take Charge and Mucho Macho Man were trying to close ground around the turn to the quarter pole, he was able to pick up the pace to 23.18, forcing the others to respond in kind, and effectively bottoming them out. Even as Game On Dude tired to a final quarter of 25.60, only Will Take Charge – bless his little equine heart – was able to make it respectable with his usual honest and gallant effort. The runner-up’s speed figure was upgraded a point from a raw final time number of 124. As we know, that upgrade is based on pace, but I’d give him an extra point just for trying hard.
Game on Dude earned the top speed figure of 2014 with his 127, and it was his best dirt figure since the 132 he got for winning this race last year.
Quite an impressive winning return to the races by Palace Malice in the Gulfstream Park Handicap. As has generally been the case with this horse, he had to contend with adversity, getting hooked up in a pace duel with Itsmyluckyday and Falling Sky to the half mile mark.
Those three all ran quick second quarter splits, and though it’s hardly unusual for that quarter to be the fastest one in the one-turn one mile races at Gulfstream, it’s surely notable that neither of those other two were around at the finish. Meanwhile, Palace Malice took the turn wide, was passed and apparently left for dead by Uncaptured after they turned for home (or at least I was hoping, with a win bit on that one at 14-1!). But he battled back grimly on the inside to best the late-running Golden Ticket, with Uncaptured just a half-length back. The latter had a weird trip, contending for the lead on the rail early before dropping back and re-rallying on the outside. Can’t help but think that he – and I – might have had a better fate with a smoother journey.
Palace Malice has shown all along that he’s able to add new facets to his game – at least when he’s had an unimpeded (or unblinkered) chance to do so. He’s run well stalking; and he’s run well closing when the situation has dictated that he do so. He’s confused our style description into labeling him as ‘midpack’ given the races in which he’s had traffic or starting problems, but I think that tracking is really his natural style. Now we can add ‘gritty’ to his resume. His prior three wins were accomplished in relatively easy fashion, and this is the first time he’s looked horses in the eye and prevailed in the shadow of the wire. For his effort, Pletcher’s colt earned a TFUS speed figure of 115, tied with his troubled effort in the Classic for his career high.
– Turning to the three-year olds, California Chrome ($4.80) dusted the San Felipe field at Santa Anita and earned a figure of 111 which is the best TFUS figure to be earned in a race which we would consider to be a ‘Derby prep.’ It bested the 110 earned by Samraat and Uncle Sigh in the Withers. (Schivarelli earned a 114 for a win in a one-mile Aqueduct allowance; and the filly Gracer also earned a 111, in the six furlong Dearly Precious, also at the Big A.) California Chrome will either run in the Santa Anita Derby on April 5 or just train up to the Derby. He’s a Cal-bred by the $2500 sire Lucky Pulpit out of a Not For Love mare. Not much on the catalog page to report here; his third dam is Chase the Dream, a NY-bred who won some state-bred stakes back in the 80’s.
Ring Weekend ($30) upset the Tampa Bay Derby, earning a figure of 97 and becoming yet another stakes-winning son of Tapit (this one out of a stakes-placed Cryptoclearance mare). Perhaps the most interesting thing about this race was the way that Pletcher’s Surfing U S A was dead on the board at 6-1, and only a little livelier on the track, hanging around for third. Conquest Titan was made the 5-2 favorite and finished 4th; and since I dismissed his second place finish in the Holy Bull in this post, I’ll take the liberty of saying in retrospect that he was a bad favorite. I did similarly disparage Intense Holiday in that post, and he came back to win the Risen Star in what I consider to be one of the better Derby prep performances. But the run-back results of the Holy Bull overall are a mixed bag, at a very generous best.
What that says about Cairo Prince, scheduled to next run in the Florida Derby for new majority owner Darley, remains to be seen.
– Another Monday of racing at Aqueduct; and given the field sizes we’ve seen there of late, one wonders why they even bother. We have a race preview of the 5th race, and our Horses in Focus post here.