The 2014 Santa Anita Handicap
As racing fans entered Santa Anita's gates on March 8, 2014, they were getting the chance to see something unprecedented.
On that Saturday, the racetrack was hosting one of its biggest days of the meet. On a program filled with multiple stakes, the day was anchored by the legendary Grade I Santa Anita Handicap, one of the most prestigious events for older horses. A horse named Game On Dude was in the lineup, and he was out to defend his title.
That was not the main story surrounding the race, nor was it even the main story surrounding Game On Dude. The gelding had a chance to do what no horse had since Santa Anita opened in 1934: become a three-time winner of the Big 'Cap.
One year earlier, the horse known as the Dude was the leader of the older horse division. Along with the Big 'Cap, Game On Dude took the Grade I Hollywood Gold Cup and Pacific Classic. That made him the third horse to win what could be called the California Triple Crown (Best Pal and Lava Man were the first two). In addition to his sweep of those events, Game On Dude became just the fourth horse to become a two-time champion of the Big 'Cap, joining John Henry, Milwaukee Brew, and Lava Man. Of that trio, only John Henry had attempted a third victory in the Big 'Cap, but that resulted in an off the board finish. It had been more than thirty years, but another horse had a chance to stand alone in the 77th renewal of Santa Anita's most iconic race.
Along with Game On Dude, seven more horses were entered. The two biggest names in that group were Mucho Macho Man, who captured the Breeders' Cup Classic in Arcadia the previous autumn, and Will Take Charge, the reigning Eclipse Award winner for Top 3 Year Old.
Rounding out the field were American Blend, Blingo, Hear the Ghost, Imperative, and Rousing Sermon, but the Big 'Cap was seen as a three horse race. At post time, the status of favorite went to Much Macho Man at 6/5, followed by Will Take Charge at 3/2. Game On Dude was next at 7/2, and everyone else was higher than 20-1.
One by one, the horses went into the starting gate. In front of most of them was ten furlongs. In Game On Dude's case, there was more. In addition to the ten furlongs, he was looking at potentially owning a permanent place in Santa Anita and racing lore.
At the break, Mucho Macho Man and Game On Dude started well and took the top two positions early. The Dude won the early battle, and then dealt with Hear the Ghost on his outside. They were dueling by the time they reached the first quarter-mile as Mucho Macho Man settled into third place and Will Take Charge next in fourth. The Big 'Cap field now was made up of two groups, and the field as a whole was strung out as the leaders made it to the clubhouse turn.
Game On Dude had been sent to the inside part of the track in the opening moments of the race, and Mike Smith kept him there as they made the turn well. They had the clear lead over Hear the Ghost, and Game On Dude was running with confidence. He was also moving quickly, completing the opening half-mile in less than 46 seconds. Behind him was a three way battle for second between Hear the Ghost, Mucho Macho Man, and Will Take Charge. The second quartet continued on several lengths behind as the Big 'Cap entered its second half.
Game On Dude, with his blinkers on, stared ahead into the far turn. He was in a rhythm, distracted by nothing. Catching up to him were Hear the Ghost on the inside, Will Take Charge on the outside, and Mucho Macho Man in between them. In just a brief moment, that all changed. Mucho Macho Man then surged forward, and Will Take Charge followed, both of them pulling away from Hear the Ghost. The bettors had been correct: The Big 'Cap was going to come down to one of the top three horses in the field.
A murmur could be heard from the Santa Anita grandstand as the leading trio navigated the far turn. Game On Dude was timed in 1:09.39 for six furlongs, and he was not letting up. Still on the inside, he put some distance between himself and his two rivals. Will Take Charge caught up to Mucho Macho Man and advanced into second on the outside. In a matter of seconds, the Big 'Cap was down to two horses.
Game On Dude made a nice turn into the stretch as Will Take Charge lost a little ground going wide, but he quickly regrouped and moved inward. Mucho Macho Man was holding onto third but was getting competition from either side. Up front, Game On Dude was not giving up his position. He marched on as his title defense was almost complete. Will Take Charge was game, not giving up in his pursuit. They were well ahead of everyone else at the sixteenth pole, but Game On Dude still moved with a brilliant stride. During that stretch run, a deafening roar came from the grandstand, with tens of thousands of fans seeing the popular gelding inch closer to one of the most memorable achievements seen in Thoroughbred racing. Will Take Charge tried, but second would be his position that day.
With a fluid stride, Game On Dude finished brilliantly. He was timed in 1:58.17, taking the record for fastest Big 'Cap from Affirmed. At the moment he reached the wire, the Dude became a legend of California racing. When talking about the Big 'Cap, he would always be included in the conversation of all-time champions of the famed race. Those who were in attendance saw something truly special and rare, something that really was once in a lifetime.
The Santa Anita Handicap has long been a race that draws terrific horses and moments of pure awe. The 2014 renewal saw one terrific horse deliver a win and an accomplishment that brought pure awe.