John Pricci executive editor John Pricci has over three decades of experience as a thoroughbred racing public handicapper and was an award-winning journalist while at New York Newsday for 18 years.

John has covered 14 Kentucky Derbies and Preaknesses, all but three Breeders' Cups since its inception in 1984, and has seen all but two Belmont Stakes live since 1969.

Currently John is a contributing racing writer to, an analyst on the Capital Off-Track Betting television network, and co-hosts numerous handicapping seminars. He resides in Saratoga Springs, New York.

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Saturday, March 08, 2014

The Dude Abides

HALLANDALE BEACH, March 8, 2014--—If all the renewals were like yesterday’s, the Big Cap would be the BIG CAP again. And unless Meydan, for some reason, installs a dirt track, the Santa Anita Handicap will continue attract many of the best older horses in America.

Saturday’s renewal was billed as the “Epic Rematch,” of course. After all, the last time the win and place horses continued their battle from the previous year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic was in 1988; in the end Alysheba over Ferdinand.

The rematch was the draw, not the fact that redoubtable Game On Dude was trying to become the first horse to win the Big Cap thrice, thus surpassing three dual winners; Lava Man, Milwaukee Brew and the legendary John Henry.

On Saturday at Santa Anita, Game On Dude became a bone fide legend. Yes, speed had a big advantage in Arcadia yesterday, with four of the seven dirt races won wire to wire, one from a chaser, one from a close-up inside stalker and, oh yes, Sahara Sky.

Game On Dude, who I believed was done, D-U-N, stunned everyone at the track, those in simulcast land and still more on national television. He just didn’t become the first three-time winner of this West Coast classic, he made his rivals look outmatched.

Even as Hear the Ghost chewed on him through fast splits; 22.91, 45.34 and 1:09.39, the Dude had the audacity to trip the timer in 1:32.57 for the mile and stopped it completely after a mile and a quarter in 1:58.17.

Are you kidding me? Seven year olds not named Kelso or Forego or John Henry are not supposed to do things like this. As the kids would say; it was awesome. Awesome Again, as the pedigree would say.

And there was Bob Baffert telling the national TV audience that he was sand-bagging us this week, how a lot of people had written him off, and how quietly confident that the Dude was going to run his race because he’s doing so well. Mike Smith said the same thing, only before the race.

“When he runs his race he belongs on the track with anyone,” said Smith. But then it was Baffert, too, who, on a national conference call Tuesday, said “Game On Dude has some big ones left in him.”

I guess.

Favorite Mucho Macho Man had every chance but wasn’t the same horse that dusted Florida breds at Gulfstream Park in January, and Gary Stevens gave all fair warning on the same teleconference. “I shut him down well before 16th pole. It’s one thing win by a margin [14 lengths] bit it still takes a toll on them.”

And it sure appeared that way. Stevens moved him up to challenge leaving the five furlong pole, battled semi-between as Will Take Charge swept up alongside but the Macho Man started to come out of the bridle before reaching the quarter pole, where Game On Dude began to separate himself from the challengers.

Meanwhile, the 2013 three year old champion was a good second for the second time this year, although his inability to change leads smoothly caused him to drift wide, making his job that much tougher. But Game On Dude crossed the wire the stronger of the two animals.

Misremembered, bred by Bob and Bill Baffert, provided the Hall of Famer with his most thrilling Big Cap victory, until Saturday. And, so, Game On Dude is back. That, or he never really left.

Three Year Old Star Is Born: Whatever happens in the Santa Anita Derby and beyond, one thing became eminently clear in the Grade 2 San Felipe: California Chrome is not your father’s Cal-bred.

Now, wasn’t it supposed to be Midnight Hawk in front, being entertained by Kristo, or vice versa? Instead, it was California Chrome showing a new dimension, one of pace setter, a pace setter that got stronger and the race lengthened.

And he made the stalking Midnight Hawk look ordinary when Mike Smith asked the question approaching headstretch, got a favorable response, just before California Chrome blew the doors of this mile and a sixteenth, drawing out by 7-1/4 lengths in 1:40.59.

The place finisher had another 6-1/4 lengths on Kristo, absolutely reaching bottom just to secure the show. For the winner, it was a tour de force romp in 1:40.59 over a very fast surface.

We all know Santa Anita’s a speed-biased type of track,” said winning trainer Art Sherman, “so it was really great to see him with the hold [Victor Espinoza] had on him.”

“He ran like I expected him to,” said Espinoza. “I wanted to try something new today, so I let him go right out of the gate. I don’t know if people expected me to go right to the lead, but I wanted to let him enjoy his race—I just let him go.

“In these races, you can’t just try and do too much with them. I think it’s important for him to do his thing for the first five-eighths and be happy.”

No one should bother splitting hairs off Saturday’s performance.

Palace Malice in Thrilling Gulfstream Comebacker: Making his four year old debut a winning one, Palace Malice looked beaten. Twice.

First, it was Uncaptured who had the 2013 Belmont Stakes winner collared and past in midstretch. Then, when that one appeared to hang nearing the sixteenth pole, Golden Ticket was a full stride and appeared set to blow by both horses.

But Palace Malice and Johnny Velazquez kept finding and dropped his head on the line a nose before his late running rival. Trainer Todd Pletcher saw it this way:

“He pressed solid factions, and was carrying top weight and he went a little wide. It looked like they took a couple of big runs at him and he fought back. It was a heck of a horse race and a huge effort coming off a layoff.

“It’s pretty rare you have a horse that can win the Belmont and also run 1:33 and change and stalk solid fractions. I think he put the Met Mile into play today.”

And served notice that he’ll be ready for Game On Dude and Will Take Charge and Mucho Macho Man when the time comes. Did anyone see Normandy Invasion’s come-backer a few weeks ago? If this keeps up, the elders just might steal the sophomore’s thunder.

Written by John Pricci

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