Up the Backstretch: Make room for the big boys
By Don Agriss, Horse Racing Editor
(Sports Network) - Here we are two months away from the most prestigious race in America - the Kentucky Derby - with all sorts of prep races leading to the event, and who should pop up and demand some exposure right now, then big boys of the thoroughbred world.
Saturday's $750,000 Santa Anita Handicap (Big 'Cap) brings together some of the best older male thoroughbreds on the scene with defending winner Ron the Greek and 2011 Big 'Cap victor Game On Dude topping the field.
These are the heavyweights of horse racing, the ones which the other horses have to defeat in order to gain any credibility.
Taking the spot as early favorite for the 1 1/4-mile race is Game On Dude, trained by Bob Baffert and ridden by Mike Smith, a pair of Hall of Fame members.
Game On Dude is the 6-5 favorite and has been designated to carry high weight of 125 pounds. The 6-year-old gelding has never won when carrying more than 124 pounds.
Baffert's charge has drawn post 9 in the 10-horse field, which means Smith may have to gun the horse to get to the front in the early going.
"There'll be no rating tactics with him. He needs to rock and roll," Baffert said. "He likes to run like that. He's not the kind of horse that can make the lead in 49 and change and then kick away. He's better off with somebody going with him. You gotta let this horse run early and you can't take a hold of him.
"I think he's better than he was two years ago. His sheet numbers are better and he's doing good."
Ron the Greek is the 5-2 second choice and will carry 122 pounds, including jockey Jose Lezcano. Trained by Bill Mott, the 6-year-old horse likes to come from off the pace - a style that worked in last year's Big 'Cap.
"I wasn't really happy with the weights," Baffert said. "I thought I'd at least get the same weight as Bill Mott's horse. That's a good horse. Every time I run against those good horses, they beat me. My horse is a tough little horse, but Ron the Greek's tough, too."
Of course, Baffert's horse wins his share of races versus good horses. Game On Dude has won the last two San Antonio Stakes with a victory in last year's Hollywood Gold Cup and has earned more than $3 million.
Ron the Greek is only in his second season as a major player in thoroughbred racing. With the same number of career starts as Game On Dude, 23, he's banked about $1.4 million less.
"We did the exact same thing last year, shipping in the Sunday before," said Rudolph Brisset, assistant to Mott. "He is doing as good as he was last year, but this year it is a very different race. We have to stop talking about last year."
The co-third picks at 6-1 are Baffert's Guilt Trip and Called to Serve trained by Nick Canani. Guilt Trip has the far outside post with Joe Talamo riding and Called to Serve will be ridden by Hall of Famer Gary Stevens from post 4. Both horses are making their first start against older runners.
"Any horse can be beat," Canani noted. "He's definitely still improving and had improved by leaps and bounds from race to race. I don't see why this race will be any different."
The best known among the remaining runners is Richard's Kid, two-time winner of the Pacific Classic. The 8-year-old was installed at 12-1 after finishing 10th on Feb. 9 in Santa Anita's San Marco on the turf.
Trained by Doug O'Neill, Richard's Kid keeps coming up short against Game On Dude with losses in the Gold Cup, Awesome Again Stakes and Native Diver last year.
Also making his first start against older horses is 4-year-old Stephanoatsee. Trained by Graham Motion, the horse is 8-1 in the program with Julien Leparoux riding and will break from post 8.
Stephanoatsee was second in the recent Strub Stakes at Santa Anita behind Guilt Trip and third to Called to Serve in the Discovery Handicap at Aqueduct in November.
Pennsylvania Derby winner Handsome Mike, another O'Neill trainee, has post 2 with jockey Mario Gutierrez and is 20-1 in the morning line.
In post 3 will be Deacon Speakin', ridden by Alberto Delgado, the longest of the longshots at 50-1. He's taking a big step up in class in his 57th career start for trainer Mike Pender.
Although second to Game On Dude in the San Antonio, Clubhouse Ride is 30-1, but getting the services of jockey Rafael Bejarano. Leaving from post 5, the chestnut 5-year-old has been second the last three starts for local trainer Craig Lewis.
John Scott, funny name for a horse, will be ridden by Martin Garcia in the biggest race of the 6-year-old's career. The gelding, 20-1 in the program, has drawn post 7 in only his 13th lifetime start. Carla Gaines conditions John Scott.
From the rail out, here's the field for the 76th Big 'Cap: Ron the Greek, Jose Lezcano, 5-2; Handsome Mike, Mario Gutierrez, 20-1; Deacon Speakin', Alberto Delgado, 50-1; Called to Serve, Gary Stevens, 6-1: Clubhouse Ride, Rafael Bejarano, 30-1; Richard's Kid, Tyler Baze, 12-1; John Scott, Martin Garcia, 20-1; Stephanoatsee, Julien Leparoux, 8-1; Game On Dude, Mike Smith, 6-5; and Guilt Trip, Joe Talamo, 6-1.
02/28 11:13:30 ET