CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. -- The cleaning crew at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races and Slots got a workout Saturday night.
A near-packed house was on hand to witness the sixth running of the $1.5 million Charles Town Classic, the marquee event on a 14-race card packed with speed. More specifically, many of those in attendance on Saturday were there for one reason -- to see the Dude.
Game On Dude, who won last year's Charles Town Classic and coming off his third straight victory in the Santa Anita Handicap, trotted out onto Charles Town's dirt oval generally considered the best horse in the world on that surface. No surprise, then, that the Dude was a popular choice to win Saturday night's race. The Bob Baffert-trained gelding, with Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith back for another run at the Classic, entered the starting gate as the odds-on favorite to make it two straight.
If not the famed Game On Dude, a sizable contingent of race fans likely turned out to see how local star Lucy's Bob Boy, dominant at this track for the past two years, would fare in his long-awaited shot at the big time. A fan favorite, the West Virginia-bred garnered considerable betting action at the track on Saturday night.
Imperative, another of the California shippers like Game On Dude and Clubhouse Ride, barely got a second glance in the paddock ... or at the betting window. Despite his runner-up finish in the San Antonio Handicap (Grade 2) where he beat Game On Dude, despite having his own Hall of Fame jockey, Kent Desormeaux, in the irons, lightly regarded son of Bernardini went off as the second-to-last choice -- behind Lucy's Bob Boy, even -- at 26.50-1 odds.
Less than two minutes later, Charles Town had a mess to clean up as losing tickets flew like so much confetti after Imperative pulled off the shocking 1 ½-length victory in 1:50.56 over the 1 1/8-mile distance.
It was no fluke, either -- 4-year-old Imperative and Desormeaux benefited from an early speed duel between front-running Moreno, Game On Dude and Lucy's Bob Boy, and held back a bit longer after those early rivals faded and Long River made his move on the Dude with about 4 ½-furlongs to go. Baffert's horse beat back that challenge, as well, but Imperative timed his charge to perfection.
"I saw them leave like banshee indians, but they do it all the time," Desormeaux said from the winner's circle. "That's how Mike [Smith] rides that horse. He likes going faster. The faster he goes, he runs the rest of us into the ground. But Imperative just dragged me up to them. The second turn, I was running over the top of them, pitched him out and went even faster.
"I got to them, maybe his nose on their rump, and I slowed him down and he got big breather from the three-eighths [pole] to inside the quarter [pole], and by the time we got to the eighth pole I hadn't even asked him yet. He was already passing them, and when I cued him, he just exploded."
The upset so many hoped had happened -- just with the wrong horse. Imperative, a $50,000 claimer just months ago for trainer George Papaprodromou for owner Kenji Morinaga, had followed up his impressive San Antonio performance with a real clinker at the Santa Anita Handicap, where Game On Dude had beaten him by nearly 18 lengths just a month before.
Papaprodromou chose to believe what he saw in Texas, not California, and rolled the dice against Game On Dude once more.
"Game On Dude is a great horse, don't get me wrong. . . . I just loved the way my horse was improving and coming along," Papaprodromou said. "So I just took a shot and came out here. I beat Game On Dude last time in the San Antonio. My horse kind of bounced in the Santa Anita Handicap because he'd run a huge race in the San Antonio. I did exactly the same training."
That was exactly right, of course.
Most of the racing fans at Charles Town might have left the track with their wallets a bit lighter and hopes a tad dashed in seeing Game On Dude fall short in his effort to become the highest earning gelding of all-time (a record held by John Henry for 30 years now), but here's a silver lining -- on Saturday night, Charles Town may just have ushered in the reign of the nation's next great horse. That's worth the price of admission -- free, as always -- and maybe a few of those torn-up tickets, too.
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or email@example.com>