There is a certain amount of angst every trainer lives with regarding the horses in their care. Within the high-stakes shedrow of Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, Game On Dude has become that rare individual who leaves the stress-inducing to others.
With the exception of a minor hind ankle injury during his 3-year-old season in 2010, physical setbacks have largely been absent from the 6-year-old gelding's career. Genial to all comers in his personality, the dark bay son of Awesome Again is zen-like in his training and efficient in his recovery with lackluster efforts coming few and far between.
"I worry about so many other horses in my barn, but him I don't worry about him, because I know he's down there and he's happy and healthy and we just enjoy him," Baffert said during a teleconference this week. "It's a pleasure to train him."
Game On Dude's last five starts have been nothing but delightful, all of them victories dating to December. By all accounts, he has never looked or acted better as he prepares for another run over the track that has been a rare cause for concern in his career.
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Validation may not be on the line for a horse with six Grade I wins and more than $5 million in career earnings. But Game On Dude's connections would be highly satisfied if the 5-2 morning-line favorite should knock off his dozen challengers — including defending race winner Dullahan — in Sunday's Grade I, $1 million Pacific Classic at Del Mar.
Reigning Horse of the Year Wise Dan has received the majority of public acclamation in 2013 with his four consecutive graded stakes wins. Somewhat quietly, Game On Dude has matched his fellow gelding in terms of quantity and quality of wins this year, taking the Grade I Santa Anita Handicap and Hollywood Gold Cup in addition to scores in the Grade II Charles Town Classic and San Antonio Stakes.
Twice, however, Game On Dude has faltered over Del Mar's polytrack in the Pacific Classic, running fourth in 2011 and being passed by a 3-year-old, Dullahan, late in the stretch 12 months ago. Where Dullahan has earned all three of his Grade I wins over synthetic surfaces, Baffert has watched Game On Dude gradually get comfortable enough to make his high cruising speed hold over the track .
"He's actually handling the synthetic much better than he has in the past," Baffert said. "In the mornings it's a little bit tighter, but he's been moving really well over it. Maybe he's getting used to it or whatever, but I just loved the way he went over the track. He looks really healthy right now, and he just couldn't be doing any better."
Where Game On Dude has been rolling thunder since his seventh-place clunker in the Breeders' Cup Classic last November, Dullahan has lost five straight since his Pacific Classic victory. The Dale Romans trainee finished 11th in the $10 million Dubai World Cup in March and was third to venerable Rahystrada when he returned in the Grade III Arlington Handicap on the turf on July 13.
Dubai notwithstanding, Dullahan has been a different animal on synthetics, drawing enough respect to make him the 7-2 second choice in the morning line out of post No. 9 ahead of graded stakes winner Kettle Corn and Grade I winner Richard's Kid.
"I actually saw Dullahan on the track for the first time since last year, and he looked really good on the track today," Baffert said. "I really thought I couldn't lose last year and he caught us, so he's basically the horse that worries me the most in the field."
Game On Dude will be without his regular pilot in Mike Smith as the Hall of Fame jockey chose to ride champion mare Royal Delta in Sunday's Grade I Personal Ensign at Saratoga.
Joel Rosario, the nation's leading rider, is slated to take over the mount for the Pacific Classic, but his status was put in doubt when he injured his left foot in a spill at Saratoga on Friday afternoon.
Whichever jockey winds up guiding the dark bay gelding out of post No. 11, the game plan will be straightforward.
"This horse, there's only one way to go. Just get him out of the gate, put him on the lead and get him to relax as best as you can and you just can't worry about anything else," Baffert said.
When: Sunday, 8:10 p.m.
Where: Del Mar, Calif.
Distance: 11⁄4 miles
For: 3-year-olds and up
Purse: $1 million
Pacific Classic field
PP Horse Jockey Odds
1 Endorsement Leparoux 20-1
2 Liaison Garcia 15-1
3 Holding GlorySuth.-Kruse20-1
4 Farraaj Gomez 12-1
5You Know I KnowMaldonado20-1
6 Richard's Kid Talamo 8-1
7 Kettle Corn Espinoza 6-1
8 Byrama Stevens 20-1
9 Dullahan Bejarano 7-2
10 Delegation Contreras 8-1
11Game On DudeRosario 5-2
12 Jeranimo Nakatani 10-1