On a night when the previous all-sources handle figure for a single card at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races was smashed by nearly $1 million with $4,398,876 in wagers -- including $332,876 on site, a boost of nearly 25 percent from the previous year -- you can bet that most watching Saturday night's $1.5 million Charles Town Classic (G2) were rooting for the the celebrated California shipper Game On Dude to cross the wire for the victory.
The Dude abides.
Arguably the top handicap horse going, Game On Dude entered Saturday's feature as the prohibitive favorite with odds of .30-to-1. And why not? Coming off a record-breaking victory in the Santa Anita Handicap (G1), the six-year-old gelding had the performance and pedigree to rate as the easy favorite -- not to mention the superstar connections. That started in the saddle, where Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith made his Charles Town debut Saturday night and showed just why he's one of the best with a steady ride on a night Game On Dude wasn't his sharpest.
Smith confirmed afterward that the Bob Baffert-trained gelding "hated the track," an attitude easily understood considering his constanting slipping during the 1 1/8-mile test. That didn't stop Game On Dude, though -- with longshot Percussion taking his shot by bolting for the lead, Game On Dude played it California cool as he settled in under Smith just off the lead. That Game On Dude would eventually move to the front was never an issue -- holding off the real threats Ron the Greek and Clubhouse Ride was the real question.
Ron the Greek, a multiple Grade 1 winner, got off to a horrible start and simply had too much ground to make up as he settled for a third-place finish. Clubhouse Ride, bested by Game On Dude by 7 ¾ lengths back in early March, made it much closer Saturday night with an impressive late charge (to his credit, Ron the Greek came up late and was within striking distance on the final stretch). Neither could handle Game On Dude's closing speed, though. Smith got him across the tape for a half-length victory in what was originally clocked as 1:52.27 on a fast track. On Tuesday, the track amended that winning run to 1:49.93, just .07 seconds off the Charles Town Classic stakes record and .17 seconds off the track record for 1 1/8 miles, both held by Researcher. Questions about the original seemingly slow time prompted Charles Town to review the tape and re-time the race by hand.
That top-flight finish of three multiple Grade 1 winners couldn't have gone any better for Charles Town -- next year, the Classic could well be the track's first Grade 1 race. That's an idea which seemed incredibly far-fetched as recently as just a few years ago, but that ever more enticing purse ($1 million for the winner this year) has quickly made the Classic a must-stop for the nation's top older horses. Just a handful of races offer more money for handicap horses, and most of them require a long trip overseas. Compared with flying thoroughbreds to Dubai or Japan, tackling the Charles Town bull-ring has become all the more appealing as the purse has steadily increased in the five runnings of the Classic.
Coolest image of the night? Former New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers manager Joe Torre, who owns Game On Dude in partnership and making his first-ever visit to Charles Town, could be seen snapping photos and cheering on his favorite horse from the winner's circle. Torre even grabbed the reins to walk his winner from the track to the winner's circle, one more nervous moment on a nerve-wracking night for the man who managed the Yankees to six World Series and won four championships in pinstripes.
"My heart was pumping," Torre said afterward. "I mean, it's a helpless feeling because you can't do anything about it. You just watch. It's sort of the same thing when [Yankees closer] Mariano Rivera goes out to the mound -- you put your hands in your pockets and hope for the best."
Torre, who missed the Santa Anita Handicap because he was managing the United States squad in the World Baseball Classic, made sure he was on hand for the Classic. It didn't go as smoothly as he might have wished, but Torre was all smiles afterward. As for Torre's impressions of Charles Town?
"It's pretty cool," he said with a grin.
Cool was the rule Saturday night at Charles Town, and Game On Dude had it in spades.
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org>