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CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. -- When Mucho Macho Man and Will Take Charge moved to the attack against Game On Dude on the far turn in the Santa Anita Handicap on March 8, Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert momentarily thought it might be the end of the line for his heroic handicap star.
The blazingly fast 7-year-old gelded son of Awesome Again had lost three straight starts, and he might have had enough after a brilliant 30-race career.
Game on Dude, however, had other plans. He not only repelled the challenges by the 1-2 finishers in the 2013 Breeders' Cup Classic but pulled away to win his record third Big Cap by 1 3/4 lengths.
Now, with his reputation restored and once again triumphantly atop the Longines World's Best Racehorse Rankings, Game on Dude lures all eyes to Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races on Saturday night, where he will attempt to defend his crown in the Grade 2, $1.5 million Charles Town Classic.
The sixth running of the Classic, the richest race in the country outside of the Triple Crown and Breeders' Cup, will be televised by HRTV. Post time for the feature race is scheduled for 10:30 p.m.
The Classic, contested at 1 1/8 miles, will serve as the climactic race in a $100,000-guaranteed All Stakes Pick 4 on the biggest card of the year at the racetrack.
Game on Dude, the 4-5 favorite on the morning line, will face a strong field of six under Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith. Headlining the opposition are Moreno, who will make his seasonal debut in the Classic after a scintillating 3-year-old season, and Clubhouse Ride, long a nemesis of Game on Dude and runner-up in the Classic last year.
For the Hall of Famer Baffert, Game on Dude's return to form is a relief. In his race prior to the Santa Anita Handicap, Game on Dude had tired to fifth in the Grade 2 San Antonio. Baffert knew heading into the Big Cap he needed to buckle down on his training.
"He got tired [in the San Antonio], and I thought that race would set him up for the next one, so I honed in on him," Baffert stated in a news release. "I used that as a steppingstone to the Big Cap. At the three-eighths pole when those horses came to him, for a split second I said, 'If they engulf him, we're watching Game on Dude's last race ever.' My wife, who loves him, put her head down and said, 'I can't watch.' I said, 'He's not done! He's kicking on!' and she picked her head back up."
Game on Dude is perhaps the most accomplished racehorse of the past decade. Along with his three Big Cap scores, he has five other Grade 1 victories and six more graded stakes under his belt. He has won 16 of 31 lifetime starts and earned $6,163,893.
Game on Dude first contested the Charles Town Classic in 2011, finishing second to Duke of Mischief. He returned last year and survived a withering battle with Clubhouse Ride for the final quarter-mile to prevail by a half-length.
In the Classic last year, Game on Dude rated close off the pace set by Percussion, a high-class allowance runner in the barn of Todd Pletcher. This year, however, there appears to be a far more formidable pace presence to deal with in Moreno.
Trained by Eric Guillot, the 4-year-old gelded son of Ghostzapper has only won 2 of 15 lifetime starts, but there is no doubt he was one of the fastest and most determined 3-year-olds in the country last year.
The trainer sent Moreno to Keeneland on Monday, where he worked a half-mile the following day under jockey Joel Rosario, who has the mount in the Classic.
"He had 13 races last year, and now he's a fresh horse," Guillot said. "My main concern is he's a looky-loo" - meaning he looks around during the race - "so he's got earplugs and blinkers. Game on Dude? He's the horse to beat. No question."
Co-third choice at 6-1 on the morning line, along with Long River, is Clubhouse Ride, who got a steady diet of Game on Dude in 2013 and, without winning, acquitted himself well.
He finished second behind "The Dude" in the Grade 2 San Antonio, the Santa Anita Handicap and Charles Town Classic before getting a break from his tormenter to win the Grade 2 Californian at Hollywood Park. They met again in July in the Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup, and Clubhouse Ride finished fourth.
This year, Clubhouse ride has run three times without winning, but he performed sensationally when third in a blanket finish in the Grade 2 San Carlos at seven furlongs, not his preferred distance.
Veteran trainer Craig Lewis doesn't mind tackling Game on Dude again, especially with a horse he purchased for $22,000 that has gone on to win $1,038,882.
"Chasing him around the country is like trying to catch the wind," Lewis said of Game on Dude. "He's coming up to this as well as I could hope. He's feeling good, acting good."
Long River, owned by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum's powerful Godolphin Stable, enters the Classic off a second-place finish by a neck to Romansh in the Grade 3 Excelsior on March 22 at Aqueduct for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin.
The 4-year-old son of A.P. Indy out of 2006 Breeders' Cup Distaff winner Round Pound, has won four of 10 starts and $278,072. He was on the Triple Crown trail last year before suffering a minor bone chip. He returned after more than seven months off and closed out 2013 with two stakes victories, including a win in the Time for a Change Stakes against high-class runners Micromanage and Battier.
Local star Lucy's Bob Boy will make his first start in the Classic for trainer Sandra Dono following a nice four-furlong breeze in 48.40 on April 14. The 5-year-old gelded son of Flatter is an incredible 17-for-21 with three seconds in races at Charles Town. He has won his past two starts at the track, a 6 1/2-furlong allowance race by 8 1/2 lengths and the 1 1/8-mile A Huevo Stakes by 8 3/4 lengths on the lead.
Dono said Charles Town management offered Lucy's Bob Boy a spot in the Classic last year, but she declined. This year, she's ready.
"He's been training a little bit better and stuff than last year," Dono said. "He's a little bit more ready, more mature.
"He kind of accelerates on the turns here while everyone else slows down a little bit. He might have a little bit of a hometown advantage, but just to run with this class of horses - like Game on Dude - is a privilege."
Arnaldo Bocachica will ride the 12-1 shot.
Imperative (20-1), a 4-year-old gelded son of Bernardini, finished ahead of Game on Dude this year when second at 26-1 in the San Antonio and then checked in seventh in the Santa Anita Handicap.
Hall of Fame jockey Kent Desormeaux will ride for trainer George Papaprodromou.
Rounding out the field is Ruler of Love (20-1) for trainer Joan Scott. The 4-year-old Peace Rules colt finished second last year to Departing in the Grade 2 Super Derby and Grade 2 West Virginia Derby. He also was third in the Grade 3 Derby Trial. Jose Montano will ride.
Post time for the first race on the 14 race Charles Town Classic program is set for 5 p.m. with the Classic serving as the 12th race with the aforementioned 10:30 p.m. start.