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.
FOR THE RECORD:
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.
"If you have an electrical problem," Schiappa said, "you hire an electrician. If you want to win a horse race, you hire Bob Baffert."
Had Game On Dude not performed well, the expectation was that he might be retired. Now, the expectation is that he will be in the mix again, probably in the Pacific Classic at Del Mar and even a race before that, and also likely in the Breeders' Cup, which is at Santa Anita in early November again.
It was a day of several milestones. The on-track betting handle increased 11%, from $3,347,152 last year to $3,716,513. The overall handle — all sites — went up 23%, from $18.415 million last year to $22.589 million this year.
Also, Game On Dude set a Big 'Cap record for 1 1/4 miles at 1:58.17. That broke Affirmed's 1.58 3/5 in 1979, the days of fractions.
Smith laughed that he had been yelled at for going too fast in the Feb. 8 San Antonio Stakes, at 1 1/8 miles, when he led aboard Game On Dude with a 46.1 half-mile and faded to fifth place.
"We went forty-five today," he said, "and that's at a mile and a quarter."
Baffert said when Schiappa saw the 22.4 for the quarter mile and then the 45.39, he said, "Oh, no." But it wasn't a problem Saturday.
"The Dude was not going to give up today," Baffert said.
He said he watched his horse down the home stretch "in awe," and said, "From the eighth pole, I just took it all in and became a fan."
Game On Dude, off as the third favorite, paid $9.60, $3.60 and $3.60. Will Take Charge cruised home nearly two lengths back in second and Blingo outran Mucho Macho Man to the wire for third and paid $22.80.
Somewhat lost in the shuffle of the day was the impressive win by an impressive horse, 3-year-old California Chrome. The Art Sherman-trained horse, who does his work at Los Alamitos, won the $300,000 Grade I San Felipe by 7 1/4 lengths and in doing so, picked up 50 valuable Kentucky Derby entry points.
That seems to set up a classic Santa Sanita Derby matchup between California Chrome and John Sadler's Candy Boy, winner of the Grade II Lewis Stakes.