After dusk-to-dawn work in bone-chilling temperatures by Churchill Downs’ track maintenance team, there was a small window for training activity over the main track early Thanksgiving morning, and California-based visitor Game On Dude made the most of it.
The 8-5 morning line favorite for Friday’s 139th running of the $500,000-added Clark Handicap Presented by Norton Healthcare (Grade I) galloped one mile over a fast track, which opened for one hour of training between 6-7 a.m. (all times EST) following the long night of work by Churchill Downs’ Track Superintendent David Lehr’s experienced crew.
The Bob Baffert-trained Game On Dude arrived at Churchill Downs early Wednesday afternoon, but the opportunity to get a jog or gallop over the track on Thursday seemed at least a 50-50 proposition at that point. The weather forecast called for temperatures to dip into the teens, and the track crew was most concerned with keeping the track from freezing and endangering the 12-race Thanksgiving Day racing program – a task made more delicate because of the day’s early 11:30 a.m. post.
But Lehr was comfortable with the one-hour training window, which was especially valuable for horses entered to compete on Friday’s “Black Friday” card topped by the Clark Handicap and Saturday’s closing day “Stars of Tomorrow II” program devoted exclusively to 2-year-olds.
So Game On Dude got a feel for the track under regular exercise rider Dana Barnes, his first journey over the Churchill Downs oval since his runner-up finish to WinStar Farm’s Drosselmeyer in the 2011 Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI). Baffert assistant Jim Barnes was, in the spirit of the day, thankful for the opportunity to get Game On Dude out of the barn.
“We’re happy as can be,” Jim Barnes said. “It makes us feel much more comfortable getting him out. We had our work day (on Sunday) and we had our walk day. We did jog (on Tuesday), then we walked again because we shipped. We’ll probably just stay in the shed tomorrow and do something light.”
Game On Dude was eager to check out his surroundings immediately following his arrival on the grounds, and Barnes said Friday’s jog was a good way to keep him from being a little too eager.
“He was just fresh – he’s like a baby,” Barnes said. “He was just feeling way too good and we just wanted to let him stretch his legs.”
The 1 1/8-mile Clark is expected to be the final race of a spectacular season for Game On Dude, but one that is tainted, at least at this point, by a disappointing ninth-place finish as the favorite in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI) on Nov. 2 at Santa Anita. The loss snapped a six-race win streak, with five of those wins coming in 2013 and three in Grade I competition: the Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup and the Pacific Classic.
The 6-year-old Awesome Again gelding has been frisky and curious since his first minute at Churchill Downs. If there is any hangover from his successful year and the Breeders’ Cup run, it has not been evident to those at Churchill Downs who have seen him since his Wednesday arrival.
“He’s doing super-good,” Barnes said. “He’s very young-at-heart and we’re expecting big things from him (Friday).”
Game On Dude has a career record of 28-15-5-1 and earned $2,470,000 of his career winnings of $5,602,158 in 2013. He will break from the rail post under Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith when he faces eight rivals in Friday’s Clark.
Baffert won the 1998 Clark with Silver Charm, winner of the 1997 Kentucky Derby. Smith earned a Clark win in 1993 aboard the Peter Vestal-trained Mi Cielo.
OUR DOUBLE PLAY, BAUER BID FOR HOME RUN IN CLARK HANDICAP – He’s named for a defensive gem in baseball, but the frame of reference will change significantly should Rigney Racing’s Our Double Play pull off a major upset of favorites Game On Dude and Will Take Charge in Friday’s $500,000-added Clark Handicap Presented by Norton Healthcare (GI) at Churchill Downs.
A Clark win by Our Double Play would definitely put the improving colt on offense. It would be nothing less than a home run, which is fitting since the best horse in the young training career of trainer Phil Bauer is a 3-year-old son of Grand Slam.
A win would be a huge step for both Our Double Play and his young trainer, a former assistant to trainer Kenny McPeek who went out on his own last spring with the support of Richard and Tammy Rigney, the Louisville couple who entrusted the horses that they solely own in Bauer’s care.
Our Double Play has won four of nine starts at three, including a victory in the Prairie Mile at Prairie Meadows in June. But his most impressive win might have come in a Halloween allowance race at Churchill Downs in which he defeated Clark rival and 2012 Super Derby (GII) winner Bourbon Courage. Our Double Play led all the way over sloppy footing that day, took the best shot that Bourbon Courage could offer in upper stretch and pulled clear under Francisco Torres to win by 3 ¾ lengths.
After searching for another allowance race for the colt, Bauer and the Rigneys decided to take a big swing and drop Our Double Play into the entry box for the Clark.
“We’re all systems go,” Bauer said. “He’s as ready as he’s gonna be. We’ll try him.”
Our Double Play’s record heading into the Clark is 11-4-1-1-with earnings of $162,572. All four wins have come this year and he enters Friday’s big league race in the Clark with one more career win than his trainer, who earned his third career victory last week with the Rigneys’ Cookie.
One of Our Double Play’s victories was a 4 ½-length romp in a seven-furlong allowance at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby Day. With the exception of an eighth-place finish in the $400,000 Researcher at West Virginia’s Charles Town, he’s run well since and his ongoing improvement has earned the colt a shot at the big boys in the Clark.
“The horse seemed to wake up on Derby Day here,” Bauer said. “We always thought he had a lot of talent and I worked with him even when we had him with Kenny. I was thrilled when the Rigneys gave me an opportunity and he was coming with us.
“If you put a line through that Charles Town race, he’s just getting better and better. That last race, hopefully, is a sign of what’s to come. With the way he crossed the wire at 7 ½ furlongs in his last race, we all thought that as he matures, he’s going to be able to go longer. With horses it sometimes takes a while for them to catch-on mentally, and he seems to be doing that.”
Bauer knows that Our Double Play, a 20-1 shot in Mike Battaglia’s morning line odds for the Clark, will be one of the outsiders in the Clark. But he also knows that when his colt breaks from post eight he should have a clear path to use his early speed and get the position he wants in the early stages of the race.
Then Bauer and the Rigneys will see what happens.
“With our post position and how the race lines up, I see us second into the first turn, right off the hip of Game On Dude,” Bauer said. “If we do outbreak him, we’ll be able to cross over in front of him. I definitely see us being involved in the early pace. The last thing I want to do is get involved in a speed duel and use him up early, but coming out of a one-turn race and the history of his past performances, he’s going to show early foot. So, I’m not going to take anything away from him.”
Regardless of the ultimate Clark Handicap result for Our Double Play, the 28-year-old Bauer has no problems finding reasons to smile on his first Thanksgiving holiday on his own as a Thoroughbred trainer. He has the support of enthusiastic and supportive owners in the Rigneys, he has enjoyed on-track success with their horses in the early months of his career and now will saddle a horse he trains in an important Grade I race for older horses.
And then there are family developments. Bauer missed being in the winner’s circle when Our Double Play downed Bourbon Courage on Halloween because he was at Louisville’s Norton Hospital, where his wife, Ashley, gave birth that day to their first child. Young Philip Wyatt Bauer is just about ready to celebrate the one-month anniversary of his birth and his father said life with his son has been a wonder.
"I keep telling my wife to pinch me because of the way everything has gone,’ Bauer said. “We kind of got the picture developed with the Rigneys back in May, and if you had told me that at the end of November we’d be running in a Grade I, it would have been hard to believe it. I couldn’t be happier where we’re at.”
The only thing that might make Bauer and his connections happier would be to make international racing headlines with an upset by Our Double Play in the Clark. But despite his youth, Bauer has been around horse racing enough to take race, dreams and home runs one step at a time.
“There are no expectations going into to it,” Bauer said. “He’s earned this, so we’re going to let him try it. We won’t hang our heads if it ends in defeat. We’ll move forward, regardless.”
WISE DAN TO BE PARADED ON SATURDAY – Reining Horse of the Year Wise Dan, a leading contender to repeat that honor after a second straight win in the Breeders’ Cup Mile (GI), will be paraded in the paddock at Churchill Downs on closing day, Saturday.
Trainer Charlie LoPresti will van Wise Dan from his Keeneland barn in Lexington to Churchill Downs so local fans can show their appreciation to the 6-year-old gelding. His special appearance will occur with horses for Race 3 between 1:15-1:45 p.m.
Wise Dan, owned and bred by Mort Fink, won six of his seven starts this year, including a pair of stakes at Churchill Downs: the $546,400 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic (GI) on Kentucky Derby Day and the $168,450 Firecracker Handicap (GII) in late June.
His three-quarters of a length victory over Za Approval in the $1,840,000 Mile at Santa Anita on Nov. 2 improved his overall record to 19 wins in 27 starts. His $6,293,610 career bankroll ranks 22nd on the North American all-time earnings list.
Wise Dan, a six-time winner at Churchill Downs dating back to 2010, ranks third on the most current “Longines World’s Best Racehorse Rankings” – behind Black Caviar-AUS and Treve-FR – which ranks 3-year-olds and up that raced between Jan. 1 and Oct. 6.
BARN TALK – Churchill Downs-based Taptowne got the Thanksgiving Weekend off to a good start when he journeyed to Penn National on Wednesday evening and won the $150,000 Swatara Stakes by 5 ½ lengths under jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. Trained by Tim Glyshaw for Clovertowne Farm, Taptowne concluded his most successful season with a record of 10-3-5-1 and earnings of $466,916. His career slate stands at 29-7-8-3 with earnings of $637,788 … Jockey Corey Lanerie held a commanding lead in the Fall Meet race of leading rider heading into the 12-race Thanksgiving Day program and the 26 races over the meet’s final three days. Lanerie held a 30-18 lead over Miguel Mena, who was followed by Leandro Goncalves (17), Julien Leparoux (16) and Shaun Bridgmohan (13) … After being atop the battle for leading trainer of the Fall Meet for the first month of the five-week session, Bret Calhoun has given way to Mike Maker, who had surged to a 15-13 leading heading into the Thanksgiving program. It’s far back to Chris Richard (8) in third and a three-way tie between Tom Amoss, Steve Asmussen and Ian Wilkes for fourth … Ken and Sarah Ramsey are home free in their bid to become the first to earn three Churchill Downs “leading owner” titles in a single year. The Ramseys, the record-smashing titlist in the Spring Meet and leading owner of the track’s first September Meet, led Maggi Moss 16-9. Midwest Thoroughbreds is third with four wins, and is followed by William Stiritz and Marylou Whitney, who are tied at three wins … HRTV will be on-site at Churchill Downs on Friday and Saturday for coverage of the Clark Handicap and Stars of Tomorrow II programs … Friday’s HRRNLive! Show from 3-7 p.m. ET on XM 208 and www.horseracingradio.net will include live coverage of the Clark Handicap … Reserved indoor premium seating at Churchill Downs is still available for Saturday.