Sustaining excellence comes with a burden. With every milestone achieved, the watch is on for that moment when superiority begins to slip.
At age 7, there are rumblings that decline is setting in for eight-time Grade I winner Game On Dude. He's lost five of his last six outings. His regular jockey will now try and defeat him aboard a younger, unbeaten mount.
Others are in line to inherit the West Coast torch if the dark bay gelding's glory days are done, as evidenced by the 10 challengers Game On Dude is set to face in Sunday's Grade I, $1 million Pacific Classic at Del Mar.
Still, even the rider who has forsaken him warns that, like an aging Pete Sampras snagging that one last U.S. Open title, Game On Dude can pick any given day to return to form.
"You know, he might not be as good as he once was, but he could be as good once as he ever was," said Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, who has given up the mount on Game On Dude to pilot champion Shared Belief in Sunday's 11/4-mile race. "I know it's in there, and I'll never take him lightly."
On his best day, few can run with the gelded son of Awesome Again, and his record-setting 81/2-length win in last year's Pacific Classic was about as good a day as Game On Dude has ever had.
His only other victory in six starts since came when he captured the Grade I Santa Anita Handicap for the third time in his career on March 8. While his subsequent runner-up finish in the Charles Town Classic could be forgiven, a more concerning run came in the Grade I Gold Cup at Santa Anita on June 28 when he sat just off early fractions but had no response in the lane. He finished fourth, beaten more than 12 lengths by race winner and fellow Pacific Classic entrant Majestic Harbor.
That following weekend, the possible second coming of great geldings threw down a gauntlet as Shared Belief — the reigning champion 2-year-old male — cantered to his fifth victory in as many career starts when he took the Grade II Los Alamitos Derby by 41/4 lengths with Smith in the irons.
With both his mounts on a collision course, Smith said he looked into the future in opting for the Jerry Hollendorfer-trained Shared Belief, who was installed as the 5-2 morning-line favorite for the Pacific Classic.
"Extremely difficult decision. Game On Dude, man when he shows up and runs his A-plus race, there's not too many in the world period that can outrun him," Smith said during a national teleconference this week. "This decision just came down ... more of anything that Shared Belief is 3 and has a few good years left ahead of him, whereas Game On Dude is 7 and I'm not too sure how much longer his racing career will be after this year.
"That's just what really was the deciding decision because they're both extremely talented horses."
Smith has been on both sides of the Game On Dude coin — denying him victory in the 2011 Breeders' Cup Classic aboard Drosselmeyer, then taking over as his primary jockey beginning with a triumph in the 2012 Grade III Native Diver Stakes.
Smith is still learning about Shared Belief, having climbed aboard the Grade I-winning son of Candy Ride for the first time in the Los Alamitos Derby. The initial impression is the dark bay gelding — who is owned by a group that includes Jim Rome's Jungle Racing — is as wonderfully straightforward as he has been in winning his five races by a combined margin of 29 lengths.
"What I did learn about him was, I was amazed at how well balanced he was," said Smith. "He's not that big of a horse, but when you're on him and he's running, he makes you feel like you're on a giant.
"I mean it's scary. He's been drawing away at the end and there's never been a race where he just hung on or something."
Due to a conflict, Smith did not ride Game On Dude in last year's Pacific Classic, handing over the reins that day to Martin Garcia.
Garcia will be aboard the venerable gelding again Sunday and probably knows his quirks as well as anyone — he regularly gets on the Bob Baffert-trainee in the mornings.
"He's really getting over the track well, and so it's exciting," Baffert said of his charge. "You know, last year I didn't think I could have him back here at this level again. When he brings his A game, it's just there's nobody can beat him.
"When Shared Belief won the Los Alamitos Derby ... I thought, 'Oh, I'm going to need a new jockey,'" Baffert continued. "I really can't blame Mike. Nobody knows how good Shared Belief is. This is probably going to be the toughest test he's ever had."