Category Archives: Underrated Racehorses

What Does Game On Dude Have In Common With John Henry?

Chantal Sutherland, aboard Game On Dude celebrates winning the San Antonio Stakes at Santa Anita Park, Arcadia, CA. Photo by Eclipse Sportswire.

Who would have believed that the most talked-about member of the 2010 3-year-old class would be not Derby winner Super Saver, champion Lookin At Lucky or Drosselmeyer – but Game On Dude, the gelding who ran 4th in the Belmont that year?

I sure wouldn’t. But I am a believer now.

Game On Dude had a magnificent campaign in 2011, quietly scooping up wins and places in stakes across the country, culminating in a near-theft of the Breeders’ Cup Classic. With the older male division in such a disarray, he almost took the Eclipse in that group and was name-dropped for Horse of the Year. But that was last year – on Sunday, Game On Dude proved he had not lost a step since the Breeders’ Cup with his professional win in the G2 San Antonio. He is a lean, mean, running machine, and the championship is his for the taking in 2012.

This bay son of Awesome Again, trained by the master, Bob Baffert, is on the verge of becoming our next great gelding. He has been campaigned in a much more rational manner than the previous heir to the “supergelding” crown, Mine That Bird. Though he did not win any 3-year-old classics, he does have a Big Cap on his resume, as well as a hard-fought second in the Hollywood Gold Cup. He has an opportunity to repeat in the Big Cap this year, and with no First Dude to run him down, he could score the Gold Cup, too. Then there are the East Coast races – Whitney, Woodward, Stephen Foster, Jockey Club Gold Cup – the possibilities are endless.

To top it all off, his most successful pilot is Chantal Sutherland, a female jockey not afraid to promote herself as well as her sport. Sutherland is a fan favorite and on her way to becoming one of the best riders in the country, thanks to Game On Dude.

I know many fans are skeptical of the Dude’s potential – but think about this – how many people were fans of John Henry after his first few stakes wins?

Game on Dude has a record of 6-4-1 in 15 starts – 12 of those starts have been graded stakes, with 2 G1s, one G2 and one G3 win.

In John Henry’s first 15 starts, he had this record: 3-2-2. Of his first 15 starts, his only stakes win was in the Lafayette Futurity, which was ungraded at the time. But horses raced more back then, and this is only John’s juvenile record. Let’s look at John Henry’s record at a more reasonable point: his early 5-year-old season. By February of 1980, his 5-year-old season, John Henry had raced 43 times, with a record of  16-9-5.  Seven of those wins were in stakes races, but he had yet to win a Grade 1.  That year was when John Henry took the first steps toward becoming the horse we remember – in March he won his first G1, the San Luis Rey. It was the first of four G1 races he would win that season. He would never finish worse than 3rd in 1980, and he only did that once.  Who was the really big star of 1980? Spectacular Bid, of course.

John Henry is a legend of racing. But he started out just like Game On Dude – a very good horse with a lot to prove.

We are at the beginning of a legendary run here. Don’t let a funny name or nostalgia for a long-past (and never coming back) era blind you to the charm of Game On Dude.

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Mine That Bird : The Susan Boyle of Horse Racing

Could it all be just a dream?  Calvin Borel celebrates atop 135th Derby winner Mine That Bird, a 50-1 shot.  Photo by AP.

Could it all be just a dream? Calvin Borel celebrates atop 135th Derby winner Mine That Bird, a 50-1 shot. Photo by AP.

He stepped onto the stage, a plain, brown gelding, small in stature, and all but invisible among the flashy stars of the Triple Crown trail.  Handicappers, racing fans, industry insiders, racing commentators, all of them rolled their eyes when reading his name in the post parade: Mine That Bird. 

Steven Levitt, economist and racing fan, wrote in his Freakonomics blog, “If I had to pick a last-place finisher…it would be Mine That Bird.”  In the 3-strikes formula employed by Jon White, Mine That Bird had 5.  Message board commenters joked about him crossing the wire next week.  His speed figures weren’t good enough, he wasn’t fast enough, he’d only won on synthetic surfaces, these same colts had beaten him at the Breeders’ Cup, where he’d come in last — there really wasn’t a good reason for him to be there.

The brown horse knew nothing of this criticism.  He went to post #8 with jockey Calvin Borel in the irons, a veteran who’d ridden a Derby winner in 2007.  He was in good hands.  All that was left was for him to perform. 

When the gates opened, he started out so far back, it was as if he’d been left at the gate.   The track was sloppy, and he was hit in the face with the slick mud off the other horses’ hooves.  As the field flew through the backstretch, Mine That Bird began to move up, passing horses swiftly along the rail.  Turning for home, the pacesetters traded the lead in a thrilling duel.  The race caller’s attention was focused on the drama at the front of the pack, but what he didn’t see was the small, brown gelding closing furiously on the rail just behind them.  In a dramatic burst, the muddy gelding slipped through a slot the size of a needle’s eye on that golden rail.  He was in the lead!  He was drawing away by 3!  4!  6 on the wire! 

The people at Churchill Downs — the ladies in the soggy hats and the Infielders as muddy as the horses– stared in shock.  Mine That Bird had done the impossible, at 50-1 odds! 

I love the Kentucky Derby.  No other sports event can compare with its propensity for surprise winners.  All of the experts, this one included, totally ignored him.  But he took flight on the muddy Churchill Down strip and prevailed by 6 3/4 lengths, surpassing even Barbaro in his dominance.  The only thing I can think of that even comes close to the surprise and delight in this horse’s performance is Susan Boyle.

He took the stage a small, plain, brown gelding.  He entered the Winners’ Circle covered in mud and roses, humming “I Dream A Dream.”

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SEE YOU NEXT YEAR

With such a high turnover of stars this winter, who is left for fans to root for next year?  Curlin’s retirement leaves a huge hole in the handicap division that won’t be filled by even such middling talents as STudent Council or Zanjero, who are also going off to stud.  The sprint division has lost a great group, lead by Midnight Lute, Street Boss, Bustin’ Stones, Benny The Bull… heck, all of the top sprinters will be in the shed next year. 

So, who will get sucked into the vacuum?  Here are 10 horses I think will be able to step out the shadows and shine on the Grade 1 stage.  Most of them are 3yos who, finally out from under the gorilla Big Brown, will be able to repair the bad rap stuck on their crop.  A few are already established stars who will gallop even higher into the stratosphere.

1) Zenyatta:  Undefeated in 9 starts; can she make it 10 more?

2)Harlem Rocker:  DQ’ed in Cigar Mile victory but will make us all forget that effort next year.

3) Colonel John:  He’s everybody’s favorite grinder, which should make for some thrilling finishes in the big races of ’09.

4)Fatal Bullet:  He ran 1:09 in the BC Sprint but got beat.  The horse who beat him retired.  He’s Canada’s champion 3yo and HoTY.  Plus, he’s a son of my fave Preakness winner, Red Bullet.

5)Proud Spell:  She duked it out with Pure Clan and Music Note and just missed a meeting with Big Z.  She’s on a break now, but watch out when she comes back!

6) Cowboy Cal:  Consistently in the money on turf, dangerous on poly, and just the type who may spring a big shocker on dirt, he’s gonna be a Darley horse, with all the benefits, next season.

7) Court Vision:  IEAH’s successor to Big Brown & Kip Deville, a son of Gulch who can get 1 1/4 miles on turf.

8)Go Between:  The always competitive son of Point Given who is best on polytrack.  Can’t wait to see him in the Big Cap.

9)Cocoa Beach:  Second to Big Z in the Distaff, winner of the Matriarch last month, she’s just now coming into her best stride.

10) The Entire 2009 3yo Crop:  The 2 top prospects are heading for Dubai to train, a slew of promising stakes winners are shipping to winter training grounds, and several talented maiden winners are stepping onto the scene…the 135th Kentucky Derby is only 6 months away!

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FAVORITE BC RACE #2: LIKE A ROCK – or a DOME

Domedriver turned in one of the biggest upsets in BC Mile history when he defeated Rock of Gibraltar in 2002.  Today, he lives in luxury at a stud in France.

Domedriver turned in one of the biggest upsets in BC Mile history when he defeated Rock of Gibraltar in 2002. Today, he lives in luxury at a stud in France.

There’s just something about those big Breeders’ Cup upsets!  Volponi, Arcangues, Adoration…but my 2nd favorite Breeders’ Cup race is once again a Europe vs America mile on turf.  The 2002 BC was held at Arlington Park that year, and the talk of the track was Rock of Gibraltar, the top miler in Europe, winner of 7 Group 1s in a row & undefeated in 2002.  The Breeders’ Cup Mile was to be his coronation and farewell race. 

Thirteen other top milers lined up to challenge him, including Landseer, Beat Hollow, Forbidden Apple and Aldebaran (stretching out from 7f to 8).  At the start, Boston Common set a speedy pace on the yielding turf.  The rest of the field followed close behind, with The Rock in dead last. 

Boston Common gave way after 5f and was passed by Good Journey, but The Rock was still way back.  In the final turn, Landseer tragically took a bad step and broke down, sending the field swerving to avoid the stricken horse.  Rock had to check, as well as several others. 

In the stretch, Good Journey looked to have the whole thing in the bag, but Rock of Gibraltar had regained his momentum and was barreling down the center of the track.  On the rail, Domedriver had found his stride as well, and he slid up beside Good Journey, who battled fiercely to maintain his lead.  In the final strides, Domedriver got ahead of Good Journey, but The Rock was still coming on like a freight train…and just couldn’t make it! 

Domedriver dove under the wire a length and a half in front.  The Rock was defeated! 

His jockey, Mick Kinane, took a lot of flack for waiting so long and for dropping so far back in this race, but Landseer’s breakdown happened in The Rock’s direct path to glory.  Any lesser horse would not have been able to recover from such a sharp check let alone finish second driving.  Domedriver ran a helluva race, though.  He stayed on the rail the whole time and took advantage of a tiny opening.  It was an incredible upset, and one of my favorite BC races, despite Landseer.

Domedriver paid $54.00 to win, making him one of the biggest longshots in the Mile.

Today, he resides in France, at Haras de Fresnay-le-Buffard.  Judging by his conformation photo, he looks like he’s enjoying life.

The Rock is at stud in Ireland at Coolmore.  He sired Eagle Mountain, who will race in the BC Turf on Saturday.

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Favorite BC Race #4: A SILVERBULLETDAY

Silverbulletday in the Winners Circle after the 1998 BC Juvenile Fillies.  Photo by Barbara Livingston.

Silverbulletday in the Winners' Circle after the 1998 BC Juvenile Fillies. Photo by Barbara Livingston.

I cannot stress how much I love Silverbulletday.  She won practically every time she raced with style and speed.  Bob Baffert trained her, and in those days Bob could do no wrong in my eyes.  I had a SBD hat, decorated my binders with her photos (cropped from the covers of my new Bloodhorse subscription).  To this day I insist that it is her image in the NTRA logo(like we all know it is Jerry West in the NBA version).

 Her 1998 BC Juvenile Fillies win clinched an Eclipse for her and set her up for an awesome 3yo campaign.

In this race, Miss Bullet stalked a quick Confessional into the final turn, then, in her trademark move, blew past her rivals to snatch the lead.  She held off her fast-closing stablemate Excellent Meeting to win by three quarters of a length.  The chestnut filly Three Ring ran 3rd.  I was elated. 

This race was a preview of the ’99 three year old season.  That year, Silverbulletday went undefeated against her class, winning the KY Oaks, Black-Eyed Susan, Alabama and Gazelle, among others. 

Excellent Meeting was a big, rangy filly, and after her narrow defeat in the BC, she went on a 4-race win streak, taking the Hollywood Starlet, Las Virgenes, Santa Anita Oaks and the Fantasy Stakes at (my hometrack) Oaklawn Park.  Baffert, in all his wisdom, decided to run EM in the ’99 KY Derby.  She ran as part of an entry with the gelding General Challenge.  Three Ring also contested the Derby after dominating performances in the Davona Dale and Bonnie Miss stakes.

The “Demolition Derby” of 1999 was one of the slowest, messiest traffic jams in the history of the race.  Excellent Meeting was jostled around terribly but still managed to run 5th, far ahead of General Challenge.  Three Ring’s saddle slipped during the bumper cars and retreated to last of 19.

The other TC races also featured these top 2 fillies:  Excellent Meeting contested the Preakness but was pulled up.  Baffert then sent his star, Miss Bullet, to the Belmont.  I was not totally on board with Bob’s decision – yes, my devotion was tested!  But I believed in Silverbulletday!  She didn’t disappoint, setting the quick early pace in the Belmont that cooked Charismatic.  The Derby winner injured his leg long after Lemon Drop Kid and Vision and Verse passed him. 

Silverbulletday returned to the distaff division after the Belmont and won 2 stakes before finally meeting her match in Beautiful Pleasure in the Beldame and BC Distaff.   She was awarded the Eclipse for Champion 3yo filly by a unanimous vote, the first time I had ever heard of that happening. 

Excellent Meeting placed in a few stakes at 4.  EM was bred to Storm Cat and produced 2 foals by him before her death in 2004. 

After her disasterous Derby, Three Ring won the 1999 Acorn by a neck over Better Than Honor, the future Blue Hen mare.  She was in the Belmont saddling area before the Mother Goose Stakes when she suddenly reared and flipped over, striking her head on the ground.  Her injury was so severe that vets could not save her.  It was a tragic end for a beautiful and talented filly. 

Silverbulletday now lives at Hill and Dale farm, where she has produced foals by AP Indy, Storm Cat and Vindication.  So far, none of them have been as brilliant as their mom.

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Favorite Breeders’ Cup Race #5: GREATEST COMBACK SINCE LAZARUS

DA HOSS(right) held off Hawksley Hill by a head in the biggest comback since Elvis in 68, the 1998 BC Mile.

DA HOSS(right) held off Hawksley Hill by a head in the biggest comback since Elvis in '68, the 1998 BC Mile.

The first time I watched the Breeders’ Cup was the 1996 edition, when the championships were held at Woodbine in Canada.  I was excited to see the legendary Cigar try and repeat in the Classic.  Cigar would fail in his quest, to a grey horse named Alphabet Soup and the Preakness winner Louis Quatorze, but a plain brown horse named DA HOSS would be the one to leave a lasting imprint on my memory.  That was still when I picked horses off their names, and who wouldn’t go for a horse named HOSS?

DA HOSS won the Breeders’ Cup Mile easily in ’96 with Gary Stevens up for trainer John “The Genius” Dickinson.  Dickinson is a master turf trainer.  He even invented a tool to determine a grass course’s exact condition (firm/yielding/soft/etc) and also developed a type of synthetic racing surface, named after his Maryland farm, Tapeta.  But Dickinson’s genius would not be fully realized until the 1998 Breeders’ Cup Mile.

Shortly after the ’96 Mile, Da Hoss was out of training due to a chronic foot injury.  He was out for the entire year in 1997, and spent most of 1998 recuperating as well.  But Dickinson recognized the competitive fire still burning within the then 6yo Da Hoss.  He brought the horse back slowly, entering him in one allowance prep 30 days before the Breeders’ Cup, held at Churchill Downs that year.

I was tuned in to the ’98 BC for Skip Away’s attempt to be the first dual Classic winner, and prove to the world that he was Cigar’s equal, if not superior.  What I got instead was a heckuva blast from the past: DA HOSS, on da LEAD, in da MILE…and then a gritty duel with Hawksley Hill in deep stretch…DA HOSS looked beaten…but then the old gelding, who had only ONE START in TWO YEARS surged to put his nose in front at the WIRE!  Race caller Tom Durkin called it “The greatest comback since Lazarus!”

Da Hoss was also SuperJock John Velasquez’s first BC winner.  Johnny V would go on to ride 5 more BC winners, most recently English Channel in the 2007 Turf.

Today, Da Hoss resides in luxury at the Kentucky Horse Park’s Hall of CHampions, where he gets to stick out his tongue at Cigar and say, “Neener neener, *I* won TWO Breeders’ Cups!”

Alas, the iron horse Skip Away could not capture a 2nd Classic, either.  It would take a national tragedy, a beloved veteran jockey and a lame ex-champ with nothing but grit to do that.  But that is for another story.

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Autumn

As the year winds down and the temps turn cooler, I get excited about the Breeders’ Cup and the year-end awards, the opening of Keeneland and Churchill and Oak Tree.  But this is also the time to remember the horses who have thrilled me in the past, the great champions in the autumn of their lives.  Two of those legends left this life on Tuesday, PRINCESS ROONEY and COZZENE.

Back in 1984, when they called it the BC DISTAFF, Princess Rooney won the inaugural filly/mare

Princess Rooney triumphs in the first Breeders Cup Distaff at Hollywood Park in 1984.  Photo by Tony Leonard/The Bloodhorse

Princess Rooney triumphs in the first Breeders' Cup Distaff at Hollywood Park in 1984. Photo by Tony Leonard/The Bloodhorse

championship at Hollywood Park by 7 lengths.  The race was run at the 1.25 mile distance at that time, the same as the Classic.  The grey mare covered the DIstaff distance in 2:02.2/5, a full second faster than the boys ran the Classic the same year.  Princess Rooney was expertly conditioned by trainer Neil Drysdale for owner Paula Tucker.  She was voted Eclispe champion older mare for 1984, over Life’s Magic.

The Eclipse was a well-deserved trophy for the multiple-graded stakes winner, who also won the 1983 Kentucky Oaks.  Though she was a terror on the track, her progeny couldn’t live up to her golden standard.

Princess Rooney was diagnosed with EPM earlier this summer, and though she was given the best care at Rood&Riddle, her condition didn’t improve.  She will be missed.

Cozzene and Gainesway.  Photo from Thoroughbred Times

Cozzene and Gainesway. Photo from Thoroughbred Times

The year after Princess Rooney’s romp in the Distaff, COZZENE won the second Breeders’ Cup MILE.  I always like watching this race because halfway through, the huge flock of birds engulfs the screen, and the camera angle warps your perspective, and it appears as though the horses have taken flight.  It’s awesome.  At his retirement, Cozzene became a prominent sire of stakes winners, including a Breeders’ Cup Classic winner.  The grey horse by Caro was owned by the potentate of the turf, John Nerud, and trained by his son, Jan.

Cozzene sired Alphabet Soup, winner of the 1996 Breeders’ Cup Classic, as well as Tikkanen, ’94 Turf winner, and 81 other stakes winners.  Cozzene stood at Gainesway Farm in KY his entire stud career.   

This weekend, 2 of my watch horses run at Keeneland: LICKETY LEMON in the QEII Cup and COWBOY CAL in the Bryan Station Stakes.  Lemon is a big longshot; they didn’t even mention her in the write-up at BloodHorse.com!  But for loyal readers of The Infield, this filly is a wonder on poly, especially the longer distances.  Storm Mesa will try to recapture her west coast form here.  BH likes Ariege.

Cowboy Cal hasn’t run since the Derby, but after a long break, he’s back!  He’s been working a lot, so I hope he’s ready for this.  There’s a security guard I know who’s rooting for him.

One last thing:  I am always looking for more awesome things to do for this blog (I haven’t forgotten the Infield Experience photos…those will be coming up soon) and I think I have hit the motherlode: BREEDERS’ CUP LIVE BLOG!!  Tell your friends!

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