ARCADIA, California — 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 1Â¼ 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.
"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.
"I was basically empty at the three-eighths pole," said Gary Stevens, who rode Mucho Macho Man. "That's a bad feeling in a race like this and on a horse like that."
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 won for the first time in six months.
"When he shows up he can run with anybody in the world," Smith said. "We may throw in a dud every now and then, but he makes up for it."
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.
In the $300,000 San Felipe Stakes, California Chrome barged into the Kentucky Derby picture with a 7Â¼-length victory and the second-fastest time in the 77-year history of the race.
Ridden by Victor Espinoza, California Chrome led all the way in covering 1 1/16 miles in 1:40.59. He paid $4.80, $2.60 and $2.10 as the 7-5 favorite. The colt is trained by Art Sherman, who has been in the business for more than 50 years but won the race for the first time.
"I had a lot of fun watching him run," said Sherman, a former jockey.
Baffert's entry Midnight Hawk returned $3 and $2.20. The Sham Stakes winner is co-owned by Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville and Atlanta Falcons offensive line coach Mike Tice. Midnight Hawk bumped another horse leaving the starting gate under Smith, but recovered to engage California Chrome much of the way.
"I was a little disappointed running second," Baffert said. "He ran with that horse, but he couldn't sustain it, and he got a little tired there at the end. You don't want to see a horse go out that fast."
California Chrome inched away to the lead going into the stretch and drew off under a tap of the whip by Espinoza.
"I wanted to try something new today so I let him go right out of the gate," Espinoza said. "I don't know if people expected me to go right to the lead, but I wanted to let him enjoy his race."
Smith said people should start paying attention to California Chrome after such an impressive victory.
"He's a serious 3-year-old," the Hall of Fame jockey said.
Owned by his breeders Martin Perry and Steve Coburn, California Chrome won his third in a row. The victory, worth $180,000, increased his career earnings to $534,850, with five wins in nine starts.
Baffert's other horse, Bayern, was scratched because of a bruised front foot. Bayern was the morning line favorite after winning both of his starts easily.
Kristo was another 6Â¼ lengths back in third and paid $2.60 to show. Schoolofhardrocks was fourth.
California Chrome earned 50 points in the system used by Churchill Downs to decide the 20-horse field for the Kentucky Derby on May 3, moving him into fifth in the standings.
Midnight Hawk earned 20 points for second and has 32 points total, putting him sixth. Kristo picked up 10 points for third and Schoolofhardrocks got 5 points for fourth.
In the $350,000 Frank E. Kilroe Mile, Winning Prize won by a half-length under Corey Nakatani.
The 5-year-old Argentina-bred ran a mile on the turf in 1:32.44 and paid $9.60, $5 and $3.40.
Lochte returned $9.20 and $6.20, while Argentina-bred Suggestive Boy paid $6.80 to show.
Za Approval, the 9-5 favorite, finished fourth in the Grade 1 race.