An undefeated two year old champion, topped by a much-the-best win in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and trained by Bob Baffert, you’d think Game Winner would be one of the most glamorous of Kentucky Derby starters. Though a top contender, you’d be wrong. Game Winner is a hard-nosed, consistent blue collar grinder who won’t ever quit. With two top notch, close second place finishes in some of the best Derby preps this spring, Game Winner may be in peak form. Now, when he makes the flight to Churchill, he may be the third-likeliest Derby winner from his own stable. Such can be life for a Baffert three year old at this time of year.
As a juvenile, Game Winner was fantastic, whether it was him wearing down the field in the G1 Del Mar Futurity beating Roadster (one of Baffert’s others) or his tactically pleasing win in the G1 American Pharoah at a mile and a sixteenth. Though we maintain that Game Winner is better than ever at the moment, he doesn’t appear to be the same horse he was at two.
This year when facing better and more mature competition, Game Winner has appeared to lose much of his tactical speed. He’s been left wide from mid-pack in his last three starts. Without much of a setup in each of those races, he’s still produced a proficient rally. However, newfound poor habits have lead him to getting beat in both starts this year. In the Rebel, Omaha Beach was able to record the win largely due to his ability to control the early pace up front, while Game Winner was given an exhausting, wide task and just missed at the wire. In the Santa Anita Derby, he was in grind-mode throughout, wide again, which decided the margin he was beaten by (just a half-length) after covering 38 more feet than the winner, Roadster. Both of these efforts gave off the look of a horse who did not want to pull away from his foes in either stretch run, hanging a bit late in Arkansas, and never quite making the lead from Instagrand last out. This is plenty concerning if he’s lost the ability to go on at this level.
Obviously, Game Winner can win the Kentucky Derby. With a great pedigree, a win at Churchill, fast speed figs, while clearly as classy as any of his opponents in this division, Game Winner is going to settle at a very fair price in Louisville. A taxing effort in his final prep in the Santa Anita Derby may set him up beautifully for the first Saturday in May. Game Winner ought to be at peak fitness level, and now has plenty of battle experience. No horse will be better suited nor thrive as much as Game Winner will at the demanding mile and a quarter distance, which often decides the race more than any other factor.
Although there’s plenty to like about Game Winner, he’s not likely to be our pick simply because of the bad habits he’s picked up as a three year old thus far. Game Winner is consistently running his best, which is plenty suitable, but he’s now allowing himself to get beat by circumstance. Last year’s Game Winner, with more early speed, would be quick to pounce and finish off his foes in the stretch. We’re quite dubious that he can live up to this again at this stage of his career. He’s improving, but others in this race have been improving faster. Having lost that early speed, Game Winner is now pace-dependent. If the pace isn’t particularly fast (which would be our guess), Game Winner will again be subjected to another wide journey against the flow of the race, which will be enough to get him beat. This was the case in the Rebel, which very well could repeat itself with the formidable Omaha Beach expected to control the KY Derby pace once again. The pace was also a disadvantage for Game Winner at Santa Anita.
Because he’s such a gritty horse, Game Winner is not one to be against, but he’s lost his edge on his opposition and now stands firmly on his grit to out-game you.
Here are our trip notes of Game Winner:
6th career start: April 6th, Santa Anita, G1 Santa Anita Derby, one mile and an eighth
Game Winner is #6
No real speed from the outside post, kept 3/4 wide on first turn behind sluggish pace, began the race early as he slowly advanced out to the outside in the far turn when in a line of four, was really getting to the leaders into the stretch, finally by pacesetter Instagrand in the stretch but Game Winner was already passed by eventual winner Roadster on the outside, attempted to battle back, too late.
This seemed to be a bit of a step in the wrong direction for Game Winner, even while he was probably ‘best’ in this race having covered 38 more feet than Roadster. Game Winner was a bit dull here, grinding it out consistently, never able to come to a full sprint to pass the pacesetters (which he had every right to), even with the wide trip.
5th career start: March 16th, Oaklawn, G2 Rebel (second division), one mile and a sixteenth
Game Winner is #5
Bumped inside foe out of the gate, no real speed, outside in three path on first turn, made advance up to leader Omaha Beach far mid-turn, initially rebuffed rounding into the stretch, maintained position a length and a half back, late rally, seemed to hang in the very final strides, missed. The resulting finish was decided when Game Winner was forced to come from too far back without any real tactical speed in a race where the winner, Omaha Beach, sat just off of the average pace. Despite this, Game Winner ran a winning race first off of the long break, in what may have been the strongest KY Derby prep of the season.
4th career start: November 2nd, Churchill Downs, G1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, one mile and a sixteenth
Game Winner is #9
Outbroken and impeded by Knicks Go to his outside out of the gate, relegated to midpack while 5 deep (widest of them all) on first turn, behind average pace up front, gradual gain up to leaders rounding into the stretch, wore down longshot Knicks Go in the stretch, bumped when forging to the lead inside the 8th pole, going away with momentum. Another professional, grinding win for Game Winner, while perhaps not on his “A” game judging by his lackluster break from the gate. While a Breeders’ Cup win is always impressive, he didn’t actually beat much here once the 2nd choice Complexity spit the bit up front on the lead. Knicks Go (who he bested here), turned out to be a fraud and was blatantly dismissed on the Derby trail this winter, but Game Winner was totally much-the-best here.
Trip notes of Game Winner’s first three career starts can be found in the comments.
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