Game On Dude and Ron the Greek, horses with contrasting styles but both possessing a victory in the Santa Anita Handicap, are the clear standouts in the marquee event for handicap horses March 2 at Santa Anita Park.
Ten are entered in the $750,000 Big 'Cap at 1 1/4 miles. The race, presented by San Manuel Indian Bingo & Casino, is the 10th on a 11-race program at Santa Anita, headling a card that includes two other Grade 1 events, the one-mile Las Virgenes for 3-year-old fillies, and the Frank E. Kilroe Mile on the turf. First post is noon, with the Santa Anita Handicap scheduled for a 4:30 p.m. PST start.
Linemaker Jon White heavily sides with the favorites in this Year's Santa Anita Handicap, the first time in the race's 76-year history that the past two winners of the race -- Game On Dude in 2011 and Ron the Greek last year -- have met.
Front-running Game On Dude, the 125-pound highweight to be ridden by Mike Smith from post 9, is the 6-5 favorite. Ron the Greek, from the Bill Mott barn, leaves from the rail and is 5-2 on the early line off his powerful come-from-behind effort in last year's race. He gets three pounds from Game On Dude, a decision that left Baffert somewhat perplexed. Both favorites head into this year's Big 'Cap renewal in fine form.
Spectacular in winning the race two years ago on the front end with retired Chantal Sutherland in the irons, Game On Dude skipped the race last year. Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert opted to take the Awesome Again gelding to the United Arab Emirates to compete in the $10 million Emirates Air Dubai World Cup, finishing 12th.
Game On Dude, owned by a partnership that includes Joe Torre's Diamond Pride, Lanni Family Trust, Ernie Moody's Mercedes Stable, and Bernie Schiappa, was a sharp 6 1/2-length winner of the San Antonio Stakes over three opponents at 1 1/8 miles Feb. 3. He dueled on the front end for six furlongs before putting away his rivals and coasting home in a strong time of 1:47.53 as the 1-20 favorite, earning a Beyer speed figure of 116.
"I'll put it this way, there'll be no rating tactics with him," Baffert said. "He needs to rock and roll. He likes to run like that. He's not the kind of horse that can make the lead in 49 and change and then kick away. He's better off with somebody going with him. You gotta let this horse run early and you can't take a hold of him.
"I think he's better than he was two years ago. His sheet numbers are better and he's doing good."
Game On Dude will need to break cleanly and avoid getting boxed in early, which he demonstrated in last year's Breeders' Cup Classic. He was steadied at the start of that race as the 6-5 choice and was forced to make a wide move on the far tuirn before folding up in the stretch and finishing seventh. During his career he has won just twice in seven tries at the 1 1/4-mile distance with three seconds.
Ron the Greek demolished the Sunshine Millions Classic Jan. 19 on a sloppy track at Gulfstream Park, winning by 11 1/4 lengths in his only start this year and earning a 115 Beyer. He ran fourth in last year's Breeders' Cup Classic. If Game On Dude gets heavy pressure early on Ron the Greek should be rolling from off the pace with regular rider Jose Lezcano aboard.
Mott, also a Hall of Fame conditioner, oversees Ron the Greek, a 6-year-old son of Full Mandate, for Brous Stable, Wachtel Stable, and breeder Jack Hammer.
Rudolph Brisset, Mott's assistant, says if Ron the Greek runs his best race, he can beat Game On Dude.
"He's doing very well," he said. "We have been here [at Santa Anita] since Sunday [Feb. 24]. We did the exact same thing last year, shipping in the Sunday before. He is doing as good as he was last year, but this year it is a very different race. We have to stop talking about last year. Last year, the set-up, it was unusual, they went [the first half-mile] in forty-four, so it is a really different race this year; it will be.
"This year, if they go forty-six and change, we'll be lucky. If Game On Dude gets the lead, maybe forty-eight and change."
There is a big drop-off in the morning line after the first two, with Strub Stakes winner Guilt Trip and Called to Serve both at 6-1, and Strub runner-up Stephanoatsee pegged at 8-1.
Guilt Trip, also trained by Baffert for owners Gary and Mary West, was a clear 1 1/2-length winner as the favorite in the Feb. 2 Strub at 1 1/8 miles. He tries the longer distance for the first time in his eighth career start while drawing the far outside post. The 4-year-old son of Pulpit seems to be improving with each start for Baffert since shipping West for the start of the meet. He should be closing from mid-pack late for jockey Joe Talamo.
"He's doing great," Baffert said. "He's here at Santa Anita, so we'll just walk him over and take a shot. He'll be running late and I feel he'll be very competitive."
Marc C. Ferrell's Called to Serve, trained on the East Coast by Nick Canani, is getting good at the right time, winning his past two starts, both at 1 1/8 miles, in handy fashion. The son of Afleet Alex has been working superbly since his arrival in Southern California earlier in the month. Hall of Fame rider Gary Stevens has the call. Canani's father, Julio, won the the Big 'Cap in 1989 with Martial Law.
"He shipped in here really well," Canani said. "He's been here since Feb. 5 and worked twice over the track. Gary's worked him twice and has gotten to know him. You can't go wrong with Gary. Mentally, physically, he's doing really well."
Canani said he expects Called to Serve, who drew post 4, to sit four to five lengths off the pace before picking off his rivals.
Called to Serve won his past two starts -- The Broad Brush at Laurel Park and the Discovery Handicap at Aqueduct Racetrack -- by a combined 10 1/2 lengths.
Stephanoatsee, trained by Graham Motion for My Meadowview Stables, ran on in the Strub like a horse that should appreciate the extra furlong. The 4-year-old A.P. Indy ridgling, third to Called to Serve in the Discovery before that, will be seeking his first graded stakes win in the Big 'Cap, which will also be his first Grade 1 race. Julien Leparoux rides. He'll get nine pounds from Game On Dude.
Trainer Doug O'Neill has entered a pair, Handsome Mike (20-1) and Richard's Kid (12-1).
Reddam Racing's Handsome Mike, last year's Pennsylvania Derby winner, pressed the pace in the Strub and finished a good fourth. Eight-year-old Richard's Kid, a deep closer, should get plenty of pace to run at, but he is yet to put it together since a change of ownership landed him in the O'Neill stable from Baffert last summer. Still, the distance suits him and he will race without blinkers.
Harris Farms' John Scott (20-1), a stakes winner on turf last time out, San Antonio runner-up Clubhouse Ride (30-1) and Washington-bred Deacon Speakin' (50-1) complete the field.