ARCADIA, Calif. — The Breeders’ Cup Classic owes Game On Dude and Bob Baffert.
Last year, the 5-year-old gelding was beaten in the closing strides of the $5 million race. Drosselmeyer won by 1 1/2 lengths and was retired soon after, while Game On Dude has soldiered on to win four stakes this year. He faltered in the Dubai World Cup, but his worst effort in two years was overshadowed by a heart attack suffered by Baffert.
The 59-year-old Hall of Famer survived his March ordeal in the desert, while Game On Dude rebounded to win three of his next four starts.
Now they have a second chance to win the Classic, a feat that has eluded Baffert in nine previous attempts.
Game On Dude is the early 9-5 favorite for Saturday’s 1¼-mile race at Santa Anita, where he is 5-0 and Baffert is based. Among his rivals are Flat Out, Ron the Greek and To Honor and Serve – all trained by Bill Mott, who guided Drosselmeyer last year; and Richard’s Kid, a horse previously trained by Baffert and now in the barn of Doug O’Neill.
“He’s a better horse this year,” Baffert said of Game On Dude, co-owned by MLB executive Joe Torre. “He seems more relaxed.”
So does Baffert, who has endured what he calls a “crazy” year that included his heart attack, runner-up finishes in each of the Triple Crown races, his young son’s emergency appendectomy, and the death of his 88-year-old father last month.
“After the heart attack, it changed my way of thinking,” the white-haired trainer said. “I got a second chance. It just wasn’t meant to be. I can digest it much easier that way.”
Baffert is quick to credit his wife, Jill, for getting him urgent help when he fell ill in Dubai. Game On Dude’s co-owner, Bernie Schiappa, was there, too.
“He really got scared when he had the heart attack,” Schiappa recalled. “No more Diet Cokes and steak and extra blue cheese.”
Baffert is now fitter than he has been in years, the result of regular workouts and the vigilance of Jill and their 7-year-old son, Bode, who doesn’t hesitate to chastise his father for any moments of dietary weakness.
“He’s very strong physically,” Jill said of her husband. “He’s doing all the things now he should have been doing. He feels good, his energy is up.”
Baffert is embracing extra time with his family, including three grown sons from his first marriage. He spends the occasional Saturday at home instead of the track, getting in the pool with his boys and leaving longtime assistant Jim Barnes to saddle his horses.
“He’s just grateful for the days he has and the family and friends he has. He shows more,” Jill said, recalling that as Baffert lay in the hospital uncertain of his outcome he lamented not taking Bode on a big slide the boy was interested in rather than anything involving the racetrack.
The couple has moved from a house across the street from Santa Anita to one about 15 minutes away - far enough for Baffert to put some mental distance between his job and the rest of his life.
Losing his father, who mentored him growing up on the family ranch in Nogales, Ariz., was a blow. Baffert’s mother, Ellie, died last year, and now he’s without both of his biggest fans.
“I think of them every day when I run a race,” Baffert said. “My mother took the losses harder than I did.”
The last time the Breeders’ Cup was run at Santa Anita in 2010, Baffert went 0-for-3.
Now he’s got 10 starters, including Power Broker and Title Contender in the $2 million Juvenile and the pair of Capital Account and Coil in the $1.5 million Sprint.
Despite his frustrations in the high-profile Triple Crown races, Baffert finished second at Del Mar’s summer meeting with 85 victories and he’s winning at Santa Anita this fall.
“If you’re in this game long enough, you’re going to have highs and lows,” he said. “If you can ride out the lows, you know the highs are just around the corner.”