There was much discussion, going into Sunday's $1-million Pacific Classic. It was about jockeys who have ridden, and might ride, super-horse Game On Dude.
It looks as if it doesn't matter. Shaquille O'Neal could ride this horse and win.
Winning is exactly what happened for Game On Dude, before a crowd of 29,319, on the usual ocean-breeze-kissed summer afternoon at Del Mar.
The turf meets the surf here, and trainer Bob Baffert's Dude met both success and the record books. His victory matched Lava Man's 2006 standard of winning all three majors in California's triple crown, the Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup and Pacific Classic.
There will be no third member of that group; if there is, it will receive an asterisk. Hollywood Park will close in late December, so whatever Gold Cup substitution they come up with, if any, won't carry the same import, at least for awhile.
That's fitting in several ways. Game On Dude won by 8 1/2 lengths, a record margin of victory by 3 1/2. Also, a smashing farewell to the state's triple crown as it currently exists. The series didn't just end. Game On Dude put an exclamation point on it.
It was the sixth win in a row by the 6-year-old gelding. Also the seventh in eight races, with his only stinker a lethargic seventh place in last year's Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita, won by Fort Larned.
Baffert indicated that that would be next for Game On Dude — no warmups needed before the Nov. 2 race at Santa Anita.
That means that the jockeying ahead by the jockeys and their jockey agents will be fascinating.
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Martin Garcia rode him perfectly to victory Sunday. He has ridden him before, won on him at Lone Star and has been his main workout rider in the mornings. Mike Smith had the reins for his previous five victories. Chantal Sutherland-Kruse, as Chantal Sutherland, guided him to victories in the 2011 Santa Anita Handicap and the '12 Hollywood Gold Cup, but was also aboard when Dullahan caught him and won the Pacific Classic last year.
Rafael Bejarano, the current leading rider at Del Mar, has won on him. Joel Rosario, the leading rider in the country, was to ride him Sunday, but broke a bone in his foot when a horse unseated him at Saratoga on Friday. That opened the door for Garcia, who picked up the 10% portion of the winning team's $600,000 share, or the $60,000 that would have been Rosario's.
Talk about bad breaks…
It's even more complicated. Smith took himself off Game On Dude so he could go back east to Saratoga and ride Royal Delta, a super filly, who easily won Sunday's $600,000 Personal Ensign Stakes. Now, Royal Delta looks as if she might try a Zenyatta and run against the boys in the Breeders' Cup Classic, rather than attempting to win a third straight in the female version thereof, the Breeders' Cup Distaff.
Baffert said as much Sunday, when asked about Smith's possible return to Game On Dude's saddle. The presumption seemed to be that, if Smith chose Royal Delta this time, he would do the same for the Breeders' Cup. But one look at a film of Game On Dude's Secretariat-like dominance of a strong 12-horse field might give Smith second thoughts.
Stay tuned. This is a horse race story with ongoing intrigue, and Baffert, a master of such things, will certainly seize the moment, even if that moment takes the next two months.
The only ongoing intrigue in this race was the first several steps out of the gate. Game On Dude started from the 11th post and, on the break, horses on both sides of him seemed to part like the Red Sea. Faster than you could say "See ya," Garcia was on the rail and in the lead, exactly as Game on Dude prefers.
"I was watching with Joe [Torre]," Baffert said, "and I told him, I don't know what just happened, but it is really good."
Race-caller Trevor Denman, as always, hit the perfect chords as Dude hit the home stretch and completed his demolition derby.
"This is total domination," Denman intoned. "We are looking at a walkover."
The blanket finish was for the also-rans. Kettle Corn got second by a nose over You Know I know, who got third by a nose over Richard's Kid.
Torre, the former Dodgers and Yankees manager — who has part ownership in a group that also includes Bernie Schiappa, the Terri Lanni Family Trust and Ernie Moody's Mercedes Stable — called Game On Dude's stretch run "goose bump stuff."
Baffert said he had little anxiety once the race unfolded.
"I just was saying, 'Don't fall off, Martin,'" he said.
Garcia responded, "And I didn't."
Racing got a nice bump from this one. Game On Dude has the star quality the sport can build on.
Plus, the jockey decision for the Breeders' Cup could bring much ongoing intrigue.
And Shaq hasn't even weighed in yet, so to speak.