May 18, 2024

Game Winner steps up to give Baffert 14th Del Mar Futurity

Game Winner reels in Rowayton (right) in the Del Mar Futurity © BENOIT PHOTO

Going into Monday’s $300,345 Del Mar Futurity (G1), Roadster was all the rage to become Bob Baffert’s 14th winner of the seaside track’s marquee race for two-year-olds. But when the 3-5 favorite did not live up to billing, stablemate Game Winner stepped up to the plate for their Hall of Fame trainer.

Not that Game Winner lacked admirers himself, going off as the 8-5 second choice after being pegged at 4-1 on the morning line. The Gary and Mary West colorbearer ran himself into Futurity calculations with a 5 3/4-length debut romp at Del Mar August 18 – a tighter timetable than Roadster, who starred in his premiere back on July 29.

Game Winner came out of that effort in grand order, firing a five-furlong bullet in :59.60 on August 29, and Baffert decided to give him a shot here. With East Coast-based Joel Rosario having piloted him in his maiden score, and Hall of Famer Mike Smith obviously staying aboard Roadster, Game Winner picked up a new rider in Mario Gutierrez.

The early pace came courtesy of Rowayton, a flashy first-time winner from the same connections as unbeaten Best Pal (G2) conqueror Instagrand. Arguably a surprising drifter from a 3-1 morning line up to 7-1 on the tote board, the Jerry Hollendorfer pupil tried to wire them through splits of :22.53 and :45.35. Rowayton was still clear at the six-furlong mark in 1:10.05, but he was already beginning to shorten stride.

Roadster and Game Winner had separated themselves from the rest of the pack in pursuit. Favorite backers had reason for concern, however, as Roadster was making hard work of it. Instead, it was Game Winner who gradually built momentum widest of all.

Wearing down a laboring Rowayton, Game Winner edged away by 1 1/2 lengths and completed seven furlongs in 1:23.18. Roadster never managed to pass the longtime leader, checking in a half-length behind Rowayton.

The top three were virtually in a race of their own, for there was an 8 1/2-length chasm back to the 35-1 Sigalert in fourth. Next came the 20-1 Spin Lightning and 33-1 Sparky Ville, the Best Pal runner-up. Savagery was scratched.

Game Winner, now two-for-two, has earned $216,000. He may get to add to that record in the Santa Anita race formerly known as the Norfolk, rebranded as the FrontRunner, and now named the American Pharoah S. (G1) in honor of Baffert’s first Triple Crown winner. American Pharoah turned the Del Mar Futurity/FrontRunner double in 2014. Should Game Winner emulate him in the 1 1/16-mile test on September 29, he’ll earn a berth to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1).

Bred by Summer Wind Equine in Kentucky, Game Winner was purchased for his current connections by Ben Glass, agent, for $110,000 as a yearling at Keeneland September. The Candy Ride colt was produced by Indyan Giving, an unraced daughter of A.P. Indy and champion racemare Fleet Indian.

Quotes from Del Mar

Winning trainer Bob Baffert: “Going down the backside that other horse (Rowayton) was way out there and sometimes if you get out there like that you can steal a race. I just hoped my guys knew they were in good spots. I knew they’d have to sprint home.

“I knew coming in that (Game Winner) was coming back a little quick, but he’s a big, strong, heavy horse and I knew he could handle it. I’d rather run him again than keep working him.

“We’re an equal opportunity barn and sometimes I just throw them in there when they’re doing well and they even surprise me.

“I’m a little disappointed in (Roadster) but it was only his second outing and sometimes the second out when you break their maidens they can get a little flat on you.

Winning rider Mario Gutierrez: “He (Baffert) told me ‘You know how to ride good horses; go ahead and ride him like you can.’  He said he wanted me to give him a little help out of the gate, then he said he thought he’d be strong for the finish. He was so right. I’m so happy for this opportunity; I’m so happy this worked out this way.”

Jockey Drayden Van Dyke on runner-up Rowayton: “That was the plan – to just go for it. He did and he ran good. He fought me on changing leads once more; he fought me on the right (lead). But he’ll learn; he’ll get better.”

Hall of Fame rider Mike Smith on Roadster, third as the 3-5 favorite: “I don’t know what to say; I’m at a loss for words. I thought he’d run a whole lot better.”