Game On Dude rebounded from a poor performance in the Breeders’ Cup Classic Nov. 3, winning the $242,500 Native Diver Stakes Saturday at Betfair Hollywood Park.
The 10th lifetime victory for the 3-10 favorite did not come easy. The 5-year-old Awesome Again gelding was challenged by 5-1 shot Nonios.
At the finish of the Grade 3, Game On Dude, who is trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert for a partnership that includes Joe Torre’s Diamond Pride LLC, Lanni Family Trust, Ernie Moody’s Mercedes Stable LLC and Bernie Schiappa, prevailed by 1 ¼ lengths, completing the 1 1/8 miles over Cushion Track in 1:52.27.
Ridden for the first time by Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, Game On Dude, who is out of the Devil His Due mare Worldly Pleasure, boosted his bankroll to $3,132,158 in 22 starts. The win was his third in four races over Cushion Track. The Kentucky bred won the Grade II Californian and the Grade I Hollywood Gold Cup during the Spring/Summer meet.
Nonios, who won the Grade 3 Affirmed Handicap June 3, broke in front of Game On Dude Saturday, but Smith moved inside of the son of Pleasantly Perfect to gain the advantage on the clubhouse turn, then got the dark bay to relax through 49.81 and 1:14.97 fractions through six furlongs.
Game On Dude appeared ready to take charge of the Native Diver approaching the quarter pole, but Nonios was resurgent, drawing alongside the public choice in the final eighth of a mile, but Game On Dude, who spotted the runner-up five pounds (124-119), edged away in the closing yards.
Favored for the seventh consecutive time in the United States, Game On Dude paid $2.60, $2.20 and $2.10, making him the shortest priced winner in Native Diver history – Twilight Agenda paid $2.80 when he won in 1991.
“I thought Nonios would be the horse to beat in here,’’ said Baffert after his second Native Diver win, the first coming with General Challenge in 1999. “I figured (jockey Martin) Pedroza would try to get aggressive with him.
“I saw Pedroza go over there and I thought he was to get in `Dude’s psyche a little bit, maybe try to cut him off or get him off his heels.
“When I saw Nonios making that move and coming back on, I said, ‘Whoa,’ because this track is pretty demanding. But then (Game On Dude) cut back in and he wasn’t really tired when he got back. It’s just a shame that he ran great races all year-long and had a bad trip in the Breeders’ Cup. It’s a new day today.’’
The victory was the first in the Native Diver for Smith. His best previous finishes were thirds aboard Slew’s Tizzy (2008) and Neko Bay (2009).
“He had a little hiccup coming out of the gate,’’ said Smith. “He was squatting a little. I have a couple of ideas maybe we’ll try (next time). The idea was just to stay out of his way.
“Martin secured the lead and if he wanted it going at a decent pace, I was going to let him have it. But he really didn’t go on and I was determined to stick him in there.
“I know this horse is brave, so I just put him where I thought I had to. He handled the track well. The key for me was to win and if I could win without gutting him, it would be really good.
“I wanted to see if he’d fight, he acted like he would in the mornings and he certainly did in the afternoon. He won pretty much within himself.’’
–Hollywood Park Publicity
Game On Dude/Benoit photo