Old Dude is still game in the Big 'Cap

Game On Dude holds off Will Take Charge to become first three-time winner of the Santa Anita Handicap

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Game On Dude, Mike Smith

Game On Dude and jockey Mike Smith win the Santa Anita Handicap on Saturday. (Benoit Photo / Associated Press / March 8, 2014)

The deciding moment in Saturday's Santa Anita Handicap couldn't have been more perfectly scripted. The horses' names described the action.

At the head of the stretch, a big-time challenger, last year's Eclipse Award winner as top 3-year-old in the country, gathered for a run at the leader, a length or so in front and to his left.

Will Take Charge was ready to do exactly that, just as he had done last November in the Grade I Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs. But in front, the response quickly became clear.

Game On Dude.

Horse racing: An article in the March 9 Sports section on the Santa Anita Handicap said third-place finisher Blingo paid $22.80. Blingo paid $5.40. —

The horse with the way-cool name wasn't going to yield this time. The horse many felt was probably done, who had lost his last three races — including a disastrous Breeders' Cup Classic — dug in and left Will Take Charge unable to live up to his name.

Game On Dude is 7, Will Take Charge 4. Didn't matter. Old guys can still roll. Game On Dude proved it, sending his lifetime winnings over the $6-million mark. No need to collect Social Security for a while.

On a postcard day at Santa Anita, with sparkling mountains framing the moment and a crowd of 27,121 witnessing it, history was made. Game On Dude, trained by the ageless, crafty Bob Baffert and ridden by the ageless, crafty Mike Smith, won the Big 'Cap for a third time.

Affirmed won this race. So did Spectacular Bid, John Henry, Alysheba, Best Pal, Lava Man and Ack Ack. Seabiscuit won it in 1940 and they made a movie out of that. None of them, or anybody else, won it three times.

Now, in the race's 77th running, the Dude has.

He crossed the finish line first in 2011 and 2013. Now, with heavyweight contenders Will Take Charge and Mucho Macho Man entered to make sure there was no charm to the third time, there was. Game On Dude was still game.

He threw up hot numbers of 22.91 and 45.39 seconds and just kept on going.

"I told Mike Smith," Baffert said, "that they expect you to go to the lead, so go to the lead. That's what Dude does. He goes to the lead."

Mucho Macho Man had won the Breeders' Cup Classic and had also won his previous two races. Will Take Charge had been nipped at the wire in the Classic for second and had beaten Game On Dude in their most recent meeting. The pre-race buzz had centered on them, and on the likelihood that the Dude was just getting old.

Baffert said he played to that.

"We kept it kind of quiet, kind of under the radar," he said.

Which, of course, is both ridiculous and impossible for Baffert, who is a moth to bright lights. Baffert staying under the radar is like Dennis Rodman trying to be understated in a shirtless tattoo contest.

One of Game On Dude's owners is Bernie Schiappa, who shares the equity with Joe Torre and the trust of the late Terri Lanni. Schiappa may have gotten off the best line of the post-race news conference, which seldom happens with Baffert at the table.

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