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CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. -- With his devastating 7 ¾-length victory last month in the historic Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap, Game On Dude served notice that at age 6, he remains perhaps the top racehorse in the country.
Game On Dude's Hall of Fame trainer, Bob Baffert, has never shown an aversion to the spotlight -- or big-time opportunities -- and on Saturday night, he will send out the fleet gelding to chase one of the richest prizes in racing, the Grade 2, $1.5 million Charles Town Classic at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races.
A California-based son of Awesome Again, Game On Dude will face six others, including multiple Grade 1 winner Ron the Greek and defending champion Caixa Eletronica, in the fifth running of the 1 1/8-mile Classic, which boasts a purse surpassed in this country only by the Kentucky Derby and the races of the Breeders' Cup.
Post time for the Classic is 10:30 p.m., with a first-race post of 5 p.m. HRTV will televise the race.
The Classic purse was increased from $1 million to $1.5 million for 2013, and Baffert couldn't wait to take another shot at the race. Game On Dude finished second to Duke of Mischief in the 2011 edition on a rainy night over a sloppy track. Since then, he has won eight graded stakes.
Game On Dude, owned by Hall of Fame baseball player and manager Joe Torre in partnership with several others, has won 12 of 24 lifetime starts and earned more than $3.7 million.
"He's doing great; he's happy," Baffert said earlier this week. He worked [Sunday] very well -- five-eighths (of a mile) in 59 3/5 seconds. He's really sharp right now. This is the second time we've been there. It's $1.5 million race, and it's easier to get there than Dubai [for the World Cup]."
After the victory in the Big Cap, Baffert said he was shopping for another big race for Game On Dude. Choosing the Charles Town Classic over the Oaklawn Handicap was not that difficult.
"When you put up $1.5 million, it's like the Breeders' Cup," Baffert said.
Another Hall of Famer, jockey Mike Smith, will be in to ride Game On Dude for the fourth straight time. The Classic, however, will be Smith's first outing on the horse on a six-furlong oval.
"I asked Mike, 'Do you want to ride the bull ring?'" Baffert said. "He said, 'Hell, yeah! I grew up on bull rings, and I can still do it.'"
Game On Dude's forte is speed, and he likely will be on or near the lead. Defending Classic winner Caixa Eletronica, however, is as versatile as any horse in the country and could be anywhere in the race, making the pace or playing the closer.
Once largely known as a hard-knocking older sprint specialist, the 8-year-old son of former West Virginia-based stallion Arromanches pulled off a shocker last year by crushing a strong Classic field by three lengths.
Going from one-turn sprint victories to a three-turn tour de force in a $1 million race is not an everyday occurrence. Yet, Caixa Eletronica is not an everyday horse.
Claimed by trainer Todd Pletcher for colorful New York owner Mike Repole for $62,500 off a last-place finish in 2011, Caixa Eletronica has since won nine races and competed in some of the most prestigious stakes races in the country.
"As soon as I bought him, it took a couple starts to realize I was so blessed to have a horse like this," said Repole, who recently won the Arkansas Derby with the Pletcher-trained Overanalyze and also campaigned the brilliant Uncle Mo.
"When those horses run -- Uncle Mo, Overanalyze -- there is a pressure that, growing up, I never thought there would be in racing. But with Caixa, it's just fun! Whether he comes in fourth or whatever. Even though he's not a gelding, I treat him like he is. He doesn't have the greatest pedigree in the world, but he's won at six furlongs, a mile and an eighth, with 130 pounds on him. He defies logic. He's a throwback. Any time a horse can win from a distance of six to a mile and an eighth in a graded stakes and not miss a beat, you have to be a fan of that horse."
Pletcher will have more than the defending winner in tow; he also will send out rising 4-year-old Mordi's Miracle, a recent second in the Grade 3 Excelsior Handicap at Aqueduct, as well as 5-year-old gelding Percussion, a sharp winner of two straight allowance races at the same track.
Pletcher, like Repole, is wowed by what Caixa Eletronica has accomplished, and he has pointed him toward the Classic since last year.
"He's a barn favorite, and you have to love his competitiveness under different scenarios," Pletcher said. "He would give you everything he has, whether he's running two furlongs or two miles. The Classic has been in the back of our mind since we won it last year. We freshened him with this in mind since last winter. We'll give him a chance to defend his title against arguably the best horse in training."
Another Hall of Fame trainer, Bill Mott, will send out Ron the Greek, who has victories in the 2011 Santa Anita Handicap in the 2012 Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap on his resume.
Twice last year, Ron the Greek was defeated in battles with Breeders' Cup Classic winner Fort Larned, but also managed to deal eventual Horse of the Year Wise Dan his lone defeat in the aforementioned Stephen Foster. He finished his year closing fast for a fourth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Classic and returned in 2013 with a brilliant 11 ¼-length score in the Sunshine Millions Classic at Gulfstream Park.
In his most recent start, Ron the Greek suffered a wide trip and finished fourth to Game On Dude in the Santa Anita Handicap.
In the Big 'Cap, Clubhouse Ride stamped himself as a potentially serious player in the older horse division this year, finishing second at odds of 27-1. The Charles Town Classic contender, a 5-year-old son of Candy Ride, also finished second behind Game On Dude at long odds in the Grade 2 San Antonio in February at Santa Anita.
"He always was a very promising horse," said Craig Lewis, who has been training in California for more than 30 years and is known for tough runners like Larry the Legend, Cutlass Reality and Music Merci. "He was on the Derby trail as a 3-year-old and ran second in the Sham Stakes to a horse [Tapizar] that won the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile. He got ankle and shoulder injuries and had to get his confidence back."
Clubhouse Ride has only won three of 26 starts, but he has faced some of the best horses in California, including Comma to the Top and Ultimate Eagle. Lewis likes the fact that he ran well in a stakes race at Fairplex, a short track like Charles Town.
"It was very impressive," Lewis said of the third-place finish last September. "He had a lot of trouble at the break and made a tremendous move and sustained it. He seems to handle everything we can do with him. The question is, are these horses going to be better than him. Game On Dude is obviously a monster, but we don't have to win. If we run second, that's a pretty monster payday."
Top jockey Garrett Gomez will be aboard Clubhouse ride for the Classic.
Completing the field is multiple stakes-placed 5-year-old Isn't He Perfect, most recently third in the Excelsior for trainer Edward Lotruglio.