After recording his third career win in the Santa Anita Handicap, Game On Dude will invade West Virginia for a title defense in Saturday's Grade 2, $1.5 million Charles Town Classic. The seven-year-old gelding will receive significant class relief in the 1 ⅛-mile event, defeating the likes of Mucho Macho Man and Will Take Charge while posting an outstanding 1 ¾-length victory last time out, and figures to be an overwhelming odds-on favorite in the seven-horse field.
Game On Dude registered a 106 BRIS Speed rating for his half-length score in last year's Charles Town Classic and received an imposing 108 for the March 8 Big 'Cap. Conditioned by Bob Baffert, the classy son of Awesome Again owns a total of 14 stakes victories and has earned more than $6.1 million during his illustrious career. Game On Dude shows a recent six-furlong bullet work (1:11) in preparation and regular rider Mike Smith will be in for the mount.
"He's doing really well," Baffert said. "He worked great the other day, and he's happy."
Multiple stakes victor Long River brings improving form into the race for Kiaran McLaughlin. A nice winner of the January 18 Evening Attire at Aqueduct, the four-year-old son of A.P. Indy exits a neck second to well-regarded stablemate Romansh in the Grade 3 Excelsior on March 22. Irad Ortiz Jr. retains the assignment.
"Maybe we can sit third, fourth or fifth and make a run," said McLaughlin, who is anticipating a hot early pace. "Game on Dude is obviously the horse to beat and a nice horse. He's coming off a big effort in California but has to fly (to West Virginia_. We're coming off a big effort at Aqueduct. There are a million and five reasons to come. He deserves a chance, and it's a Grade 2, and we're trying to win a graded stakes with our horse. There's no reason not to run."
Imperative finished ahead of Game On Dude when second at 26-1 odds in the Grade 2 San Antonio two back and will attempt to rebound from a seventh in the Big 'Cap. Kent Desormeaux sticks with the George Papaprodromou-trained gelding.
Clubhouse Ride finished second to Game On Dude three times last season, including the Charles Town Classic, and returns for another shot at the favorite. However, the Craig Lewis charge will need to turn things around, dropping seven starts in a row, including all three efforts this year. The six-year-old exits a non-threatening third in the March 30 Santana Mile at Santa Anita. The Candy Ride horse keeps Typer Baze in the irons.
"Chasing [Game On Dude] around the country is like trying to catch the wind," Lewis said. "He's coming up to this as well as I could hope. He's feeling good, acting good."
Moreno, a nose second in the Travers, will make his first appearance of the year. Scratched from last Saturday's Oaklawn H., the four-year-old gelding has not started since a 10th in the Breeders' Cup Classic. The Eric Guillot trainee captured the Grade 2 Dwyer last season and the speedster also placed in the Grade 2 Pennsylvania Derby and Grade 2 Jim Dandy. Moreno picks up the services of Joel Rosario and figures to break running from post position 2.
"His pedigree indicates he should be better at four," Guillot said. "He's been working lights out at Santa Anita."
Multiple Grade 2 runner-up Ruler of Love, fourth when opening 2014 in the March 22 Challenger at Tampa Bay Downs; and local star Lucy's Bob Boy, an eight-time Charles Town stakes winner, round out the field.
"He kind of accelerates on the turns here while everyone else slows down a little bit," trainer Sandra Dono said of the West Virginia-bred Lucy's Bob Boy. "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."
Two races prior to the Classic, Grade 3 winner Rise Up heads a a field of nine three-year-olds in the $100,000 Robert Hilton Memorial at seven furlongs. The Tom Amoss-trained colt entered the year on the Kentucky Derby trail but missed the start and never threatened in both outings this year, finishing seventh in the Grade 2 Risen Star and 10th in the Louisiana Derby. The Rockport Harbor colt picks up a new rider in Leandro Goncalves.
An overflow of 11 fillies and mares, including one also-eligible, were entered to the $200,000 Sugar Maple. Multiple stakes winner My Pal Chrisy, who is cross-entered to Saturday's Grade 2 Distaff H. at Aqueduct, will be the one to beat in the seven-furlong test following a runner-up in the Grade 2 Inside Information at Gulfstream Park.