By BETH HARRIS
AP Racing Writer
ARCADIA, Calif. (AP) _ On the same track where Breeders’ Cup glory has eluded him, Game On Dude won the $750,000 Santa Anita Handicap by 1¾ lengths Saturday, becoming the first three-time champion in the race’s 77-year history.
Game On Dude snapped a three-race skid with his victory against seven rivals, including Mucho Macho Man and Will Take Charge, who beat him last year in the BC Classic at Santa Anita. In that race, Game On Dude finished ninth after ending up seventh in 2012.
“My wife, Jill, is pretty tough on me,” Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert said. “She said, `Don’t you run that horse if you don’t think he can win.'”
Game On Dude didn’t disappoint Baffert or the 7-year-old gelding’s legion of fans at his home track, with 27,121 in attendance. He ran 1¼ miles in 1:58.17 under Hall of Famer Mike Smith and paid $9.60, $3.60 and $3.60 as the 7-2 third choice in the wagering. The final clocking shaded Affirmed’s 1979 Big ‘Cap time of 1:58.60.
“There’s a lot of people who came to put their $2 on Game On Dude,” said Baffert, who earned his fifth Big `Cap victory. Game On Dude also won the race last year and in 2011.
Trained by Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas, Will Take Charge returned $3 and $2.60 as the 3-2 second choice. Blingo was another eight lengths back in third and paid $5.60 to show. Mucho Macho Man, winner of last year’s BC Classic by a nose over Will Take Charge, faded to fourth as the 6-5 favorite.
Game On Dude angled in after breaking from the No. 7 post and showed solid early speed, setting the pace along the rail. He responded when challenged into the second turn.
“I was a little worried when those horses came to him,” Baffert said. “Will Take Charge made a really bold move and I could hear Jill saying, `Oh no,’ but the Dude wasn’t going to give it up today.”
Coming down the stretch, Baffert grew emotional watching the horse that has become like a member of his family. He pointed out his son Bode is just two years older than Game On Dude.
“I was just in awe of the horse,” Baffert said. “When he gets in that groove no one can beat him. This horse has been so special. He’s a pet around the barn.”
Smith pumped his left arm as he arrived back in front of the stands to rousing cheers. In the winner’s circle, he wore the garland around his neck with Bode tucked underneath, his small face nearly obscured by the flowers.
“I knew he was going to run today,” Smith said. “He was very alert.”
Game On Dude’s owners include Major League Baseball executive Joe Torre, who was in Florida on Saturday, and Baffert’s close friend, Bernie Schiappa.
“They put the saddle on and I knew he was going to win,” Schiappa said. “If you have a problem with electricity, you call an electrician. If you want to win a horse race, you call Bob Baffert.”
The victory, worth $450,000, pushed Game On Dude’s career earnings to $6,163,893, with 16 wins in 31 starts.