The Week in Review: Game Winner Finally Seems Ready to Deliver On His 3-Year-Old Potential


Game Winner | Benoit

The Week in Review, by Bill Finley

Had you told Bob Baffert and owners Gary and Mary West back in early November that their Game Winner (Candy Ride {Arg)} would go through the first half of his 3-year-old season injury free yet not win a race until July 13, they no doubt would have been shocked. So would have everyone else.

Everything that Game Winner did in 2018 suggested that he was a superstar in the making. He went four for four, won the GI Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, was named 2-year-old champion and was in the hands of a trainer who has no equal when it comes to winning Triple Crown races. Yet, it took four starts into the year until he won for the first time, the victory coming in Saturday’s GIII Los Alamitos Derby. He won by five lengths in his first start after finishing a wide sixth in the GI Kentucky Derby.

The win only told us so much about Game Winner. He faced just three opponents and went off at odds of 1-20. A loss was almost unimaginable. Yet, he did show enough to suggest that the first half of his year was the aberration and that Game Winner is ready to reclaim his status as the best male dirt horse in his crop.

But that still has to be proven on the racetrack, starting with the GI Runhappy Travers S.

Baffert believes that Game Winner’s three losses to start the year had a lot more to do with circumstances than the colt’s ability.

“When I shipped him to Oaklawn [for the GII Rebel S.], that race was really hard on him,” he said. “He ran wide and he wasn’t ready for what was a gut-wrenching race for him. He and Omaha Beach (War Front) ran so hard, so he went backwards on me a little bit after that. He got a little light on me. We ran him back in the [GI] Santa Anita Derby and the track was really deep. With all the stuff that was going on at the time at Santa Anita, they kept adding more and more sand. They were trying to make it as safe as possible, but they also made it really deep and demanding and that was hard on him. In the Derby, he got wiped out leaving there and was very wide. He ran his race, but didn’t run like he can.”

Rather than point for either the GI Preakness S. or the GI Belmont S., Baffert decided to simply regroup. He gave Game Winner over three months off and went back to blinkers. Game Winner wore them in his first start and won, but Baffert took them off afterwards because he thought they could make the horse too rank.

With the understanding that he had not picked the most difficult of spots, Baffert still liked what he saw from Game Winner in the Los Al race.

“I told (jockey) Joel (Rosario) to just get away from there, sit there with them, and just let him run the last part,” the trainer said. “I didn’t want a gut-wrenching racing out of him. That’s exactly how it worked out. The last eighth went in under 12 [seconds, :11.45, to be precise]. You could tell he just kicked in gear when he asked him to go. He came back and it looked like he never took a deep breath.”

The test, though, will be the Travers. Is Game Winner ready to climb back to the top of the division or will it turn out that he is just one of many good 3 year-olds?

“The Travers will be the race that is going to separate them all,” Baffert said. “It’s been a murky 3-year-old season. The Travers will separate the men from the boys.”

Baffert added that his first pick would have been to run Game Winner in Saturday’s GI Haskell Invitational, but decided not to do so because it made little sense for the Wests to run their two 3-year-old stars against one another at this point in the season. The Wests’ Maximum Security (New Year’s Day) will be the likely favorite in Monmouth Park’s signature race.

Don’t Forget About Mr. Money

Last weekend’s racing included another win by a talented 3-year-old who could yet prove to be among the best of this bunch. Mr. Money (Goldencents) has largely flown under the radar since his connections have decided to focus on the next level down when it comes to 3 year-old races. But when Mr. Money won Saturday’s GIII Indiana Derby, that marked his third straight stakes win. He’s ready for prime time.

“That’s been discussed a lot,” trainer Bret Calhoun said when asked if the connections planned on trying Grade I company. “We almost decided to run him in the Haskell. But our goal all along has been to keep him as fresh and as healthy as he possibly can be through his 3-year-old campaign. We felt we’d take a shot at the top when everything lined up right. Going against Maximum Security and King for a Day (Uncle Mo) in the Haskell in their own backyard didn’t seem like the right thing to do.”

Calhoun said Mr. Money is being considered for the Travers. The other option is for him to go first in the GIII West Virginia Derby, and if he is successful there, try the heavyweights in the GI Pennsylvania Derby.

The Comeback of Peter Brant

As is so often the case after a graded stakes race is run on the grass in New York, most of the attention was focused on winning trainer Chad Brown. Such was the scenario after the GI Diana S. Saturday at Saratoga. Brown ran four of the six horses in the race and finished one, two, three. It was his fourth straight win in the race and fifth overall. He is now tied with Hall of Famer Elliott Burch for most Diana wins and it’s not hard to see Brown winning this race seven or eight more times before his career is over. Remember, he is only 40.

But let’s not forget the impact his owner, Peter Brant, had on this race. He owned three of the four Brown-trained horses and his champion Sistercharlie (Ire) (Myboycharlie {Ire}) won the race for the second straight year.

Brant’s story might be unprecedented in racing. He was one of the top owners in the sport for years, left abruptly, stayed away for 17 years and has returned with a vengeance. Since 2017, the first year he had run a horse since 2000, he has won 36 of 115 starts and has had eight graded stakes winners, including two Grade I winners. The other is Raging Bull (Fr) (Dark Angel {Ire}), the winner of the 2018 GI Hollywood Derby.

In his second go as a major owner, most of his success has come with grass horses. The first time around, Brant was always a major player when it came to dirt stars like Mogambo and Gulch. He was also a co-owner, along with Claiborne Farm, of Kentucky Derby and Belmont winner Swale. It will be interesting to see if his next move is to tell Brown to direct some of his assets toward acquiring the type of horse that can give him a Classic win.

The Slugger Who is Hitting .430

Throughout his MLB career, Mike Napoli was always one of those swing-for-the-fences guys. The end result was often a home run or a strikeout, one of the reasons why he had a .246 career batting average before retiring following the 2017 season.

In his new pursuit, horse racing, Napoli looks like Rogers Hornsby. Now a racehorse owner, he never started a horse before the beginning of this year, but has already won 28 races and was the leading owner at the recently-concluded Gulfstream meet. He is 28-for-65 on the year–that’s a batting average of .430. Even Ted Williams never hit higher than .406.

Speaking of Former Red Sox Players

Anyone who bet on the winner of Saturday’s first race at Arlington hit a “Slam Johnson,” and with the horse paying $21.20, walked away with a lot of “iron.” The horses’s name was Eckersley (Congrats). If you’re a Red Sox fan, you get it. If not, well, nevermind.

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