By Jeff Nations
Game On Dude proved -- again -- that Santa Anita is the personal playground for the strapping Kentucky-bred son of Awesome Again.
Charles Town, though, that's a different story. Two years ago, the Bob Baffert-trained horse shipped into the cozy West Virginia track fresh off a triumphant victory in the Santa Anita Handicap (Grade 1). The money -- a cool $1 purse for the then newly-minted Grade 3 race -- was enough to lure the West Coast sensation back east.
Easily the favorite in the 1 1/8-mile test, Game On Dude and jockey David Flores stalked early leader Tackleberry before easing by for the lead on a sloppy track. What neither counted on was a late charge on the outside by Duke Of Mischief and jockey Joe Bravo, who slid by the celebrated California shipper by 2 ¼ lengths -- game over, dude.
Looks like Game On Dude is planning to clear up that slight blemish on his resume. The now 6-year-old gelding tops the 50 nominees announced on Monday for the April 20 race at Charles Town. And once more, you can bet that Game On Dude will be the clear favorite come post time.
If anything, Game On Dude is even more impressive now than he was before his last visit to the Mountaineer State. In his last start, the March 2 Santa Anita Handicap (G1), Game On Dude smoked a stacked field for a 7 ¾-length victory, a new record for largest margin of victory in the 76-year running of the prestigious handicap.
The combination of Game On Dude, Baffert and Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith is daunting to any potential rivals. That won't stop plenty from taking a shot, though, starting with defending Charles Town Classic champion Caixa Eletronica. The versatile 8-year-old is coming off a win in the $75,000 Uncle Mo at Aqueduct on March 14 for trainer Todd Pletcher, and headlines a group of six nominees by the conditioner hoping to run for the big money at Charles Town. The money is big, for certain -- the winner of this year's now Grade 2 Charles Town Classic takes home $1 million of the $1.5 million purse.
That kind of money brings in the horses, if not their high-powered trainers -- so far, anyway. The nominee list is a virtual who's who of trainers. Hall of Famer Bill Mott has two impressive hopefuls in Gold Cup (G1) winner Flat Out and 2012 Stephen Foster (G1) champion Ron the Greek.
Conditioner Ken McPeek nominated 2012 Travers (G1) winner Golden Ticket among his three hopefuls, Mark Casse is hoping to ship 2011 Stephen Foster winner Pool Play, and Chad Brown has Excelsior (G3) winner Last Gunfighter -- a winner of five straight -- among his three-horse contingent.
Santa Anita Handicap runner-up Clubhouse Ride, trained by Craig Lewis, is likely to make the Charles Town cut. Mike Pender has a pair of Grade 1 winners, Ultimate Eagle and Jeranimo, among the loaded nomination field. The last two winners of the West Virginia Derby (G2), Macho Man and Prayer For Relief, are also among the hopefuls entered by trainer Steve Asmussen.
Baffert wasn't done with just nominating Game On Dude, either. He's also lined up 2013 Strub (G2) winner Guilt Trip and 2011 Cash Call Futurity (G1) winner Liaison to run at Charles Town.
Then there's the local horse, West Virginia-bred gelding Lucy's Bob Boy. The 4-year-old son of Flatter has quickly risen to the top at Charles Town over the last year, winning the West Virginia Breeders' Classic as a 3-year-old before demolishing a nearly 37-year-old track record for 6 ½ furlongs with a jaw-dropping 17-length victory in an allowance last December at Charles Town. Trained by Sandra Dono for owner Michael Furr, Lucy's Bob Boy is no sure thing to get the call as one of the 10 coveted entries.
If he does somehow get in, Lucy's Bob Boy and regular jockey Gustavo Larrosa have the track experience to be a real wild card. It's not as if history is against the locals, either -- Charles Town-based Researcher won the first two editions of the Classic against loaded fields.
This year's edition, though, has enough potential star power to eclipse any of the previous Classic fields. This year's nominees boast 16 Grade 1 winners and a combined 60 graded stakes race victories among them. Despite his runner-up effort two years ago, Game On Dude showed he liked the tight quarters at Charles Town enough to earn another shot from Baffert. Soon enough, he'll get the chance to prove that West Coast dominance works just as well in the bull-ring at Charles Town.
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or email@example.com>