Even ten years ago, if I had been given the task of writing about impressive two-year-olds, I would have jumped at the opportunity. However, fewer two-year-old races are being carded each year, and juveniles, collectively, are becoming less tried and tested. This reality has helped diminish the importance of two-year-old racing in recent years.
Indeed, if you took a poll during the Triple Crown series last year and asked fans to name the most significant two-year-old race of 2012, they probably would have pointed to an Aqueduct Maiden Special Weight race run on November 24th. The race took part on the Cigar Mile and Remsen undercard, and it was won by a mediocre fourth-time-starting maiden named Orb, in slow final time of 1:38.73. The second-place finisher of this slow maiden race, Freedom Child, would eventually dominate the Grade 2 Peter Pan Stakes by more than 13 lengths over a sloppy and sealed main track at Belmont Park, in a race run one week after Orb won the Kentucky Derby. The third-place finisher, Revolutionary, would later finish third to Orb in the Kentucky Derby as the second choice in the wagering.
Think about it. At this exact date last year, that celebrated maiden race at Aqueduct was just having a morning line assigned to it. Not only that, but eventual Preakness winner Oxbow was still a maiden. Meanwhile, Palace Malice had only two maiden races under him, and was being laid off for more than three months at this time. The supposed top-class freshmen who competed in the 2012 Breeders' Cup Juvenile now seem like a case of Shanghai Bobby defeating nobody.
There was a time in the 1970s when the two-year-old champion had to be respected and feared. From Riva Ridge through Spectacular Bid, the horse voted two-year-old champion went on to win the following year's Kentucky Derby six times in a span of just eight years. Honest Pleasure almost made seven Derby wins in a span of eight years by a champion juvenile, but he had to settle for second behind fellow two-year-old sensation Bold Forbes in the 1976 Derby. Since Spectacular Bid, only one of the next 34 champion two-year-olds would go on to capture the Kentucky Derby the following season. That was Street Sense.
I believe these types of statistical oddities can be explained by the lack of durability of the modern horse, and the shift in training methods used to prepare them.
Here are a couple of old examples demonstrating how much more was asked of young thoroughbreds from previous generations, both in terms of racing and morning workouts:
In the 1935 Kentucky Derby, three different horses entered the race with 37 or more starts already under their belt. The seemingly indefatigable colt Tutticurio had already made 43 career starts, and had a 10-furlong morning workout over the Churchill Downs main track just two days before the race. The three-year-old gelding Blackbirder has already raced 41 times, and he had a nine-furlong morning workout just three days prior to the first Saturday in May. Finally, there was McCarthy, who had won that year's Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds. He was set to make his 38th career start in the Kentucky Derby.
"The club-footed comet," Assault, won the Triple Crown in 1946. He raced "only" nine times as a two-year-old. However, his worktab from that season was kept by trainer Max Hirsch and handed over to Hall of Fame trainer Preston Burch, who published it on page 60 of "Training Thoroughbred Horses," a fascinating book he authored in 1953.
Assault had 24 workouts between Feb 3rd and March 30th of his three-year-old season. 22 of the 24 workouts came between the distances of four furlongs and a mile.
He won the Wood Memorial on April 20th, finished 4th in the Derby Trial on April 30th, won the Ky Derby on May 4th, and won the Preakness on May 11th.
After four tough races between April 20th and May 11th, Assault was shipped to Belmont Park on May 12th.
He worked four furlongs on May 16th, three furlongs on May 18th, four furlongs on May 20th, a mile on May 22nd, three furlongs on May 24th, ten furlongs on May 25th, four furlongs on May 28th, followed by a 12-furlong work in 2:32 flat on May 29th.
So, after winning the Preakness on May 11th, Assault was put through a series of 8 published workouts before winning the June 1st Belmont by 3 lengths.
After winning the Belmont and sweeping the Triple Crown, Assault was given a rest of just 3 days before he returned to the worktab on June 5th. He worked again on June 7th, and again on June 9th, and again on June 11th, and again on June 13th, before winning the Dwyer by 4.5 lengths on June 15th.
Assault managed to stay around long enough to win the Brooklyn Handicap at age six and wasn't retired until late December of his 7-year-old season.
If anyone today trained a thoroughbred the way Max Hirsch trained Assault, there would be cries of animal cruelty.
I don't mean to be a weasel about this assignment. I genuinely believe that it is just very treacherous to try and rate the modern two-year-old, but here are the six best I've observed so far this season:
#1: Havana One of the sensations of the two-year-old-in-training sale season, Havana absolutely dazzled in both of his first two starts. For his brilliant debut victory at Saratoga, he owns a share of the best TimeformUS speed figure of any two-year-old in the country at a sprint distance so far this season. In career start number two, he won the Champagne Stakes with a TimeformUS speed figure of 110 after surviving an almost impossibly fast pace.
The only blemish on Havana's resume was a second-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Trainer Todd Pletcher had a tough Breeders' Cup. He was shut out and his horses produced multiple last-place finishes. But Havana was seemingly on his way to an easy win before tiring badly under a hand-ride in the final half furlong of the Juvenile. That race was without lasix, and a mile appears to be as far as Havana wants to go, but people are kidding themselves if they don't think he's a phenomenal talent. Lightly raced Pletcher two-year-olds usually step way up and dominate once they get to Gulfstream Park in the winter. He's probably not a Derby horse, but look out for Havana this winter.
#2: Honor Code After an extremely impressive debut win that was covered pretty thoroughly on this blog, Honor Code returned to run an excellent second in the Champagne Stakes at Belmont and earn a 105 TimeformUS speed figure in the process. That figure is the second-highest route figure by a two-year-old so far this season, and it came after an extremely wide trip. This son of A. P. Indy will obviously love added ground, and he should be a lot of fun to follow both in his next scheduled engagement in the Remsen Stakes and going forward after that.
#3: Strong Mandate D. Wayne Lukas had a very rough year with two-year-olds, with the exception of this promising son of Tiznow out of the excellent race mare Clear Mandate. Everything about Strong Mandate's pedigree certainly suggests a classic distance. Tiznow won two Breeders' Cup Classics. The dam Clear Mandate was a five-length Grade 1 winner going 10 furlongs on dirt at age five. Both horses improved with experience. Interestingly, because of the extremely fast pace in the Juvenile, Strong Mandate received the best TimeformUS figure of any horse in the race--even though he finished third.
#4: Shared Belief After an eye-catching debut win at Golden Gate, this son of Candy Ride was exceptionally impressive while winning the Hollywood Prevue by almost 8 lengths. He was assigned a TimeformUS speed figure of 102 for the effort, and should only improve with added distance. The big question mark is that he hasn't been tried on dirt yet, and some Candy Rides won't handle the dirt as well as the synthetic. Remember Sidney's Candy? He was also a Candy Ride out of a Storm Cat mare. He dominated the Santa Anita Derby, winning by 4.5 lengths over a synthetic surface which has since been removed. However, in the Kentucky Derby, Sidney's Candy finished 17th, and he never proved himself a top-class dirt horse in subsequent tries over the surface.
#5: New Year's Day This son of Street Cry out of the very good race horse Justwhistledixie made a successful dirt debut with his victory in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. However, he was aided by an extremely fast pace that collapsed late. New Year's Day was assigned a speed figure of just 95 for his victory. It was tempting to pitch him from the top five, but he does have that running style similar to Honor Code's, and Bob Baffert is the type of trainer who can suddenly get hot.
#6: Cairo Prince This son of freshman stallion Pioneerof the Nile is a perfect two for two lifetime, and I was extremely impressed with his performance in the Grade 2 Nashua Stakes. His TimeformUS speed figure of 103 that day has been exceeded at a route distance by only Havana and Honor Code, our top two horses. Honor Code will have his hands full with this guy in the Remsen stakes on November 30th.
If anyone is looking for a potentially live maiden race that might develop a few serious horses, the recommendation is to look at the 3rd race at Belmont Park on October 27th. The top three finishers were all first-time starters and all received excellent speed figures. Of course, a lot can (and will) change when you're talking about young horses who are fairly untried and untested.