Last night I wrote an opinion piece on Verrazano, that became a lightning rod. Some agreed with my stance that handing over the three-year-old championship to Verrazano, after his impressive score in the Haskell, was extremely premature. Others strongly disagreed, fully expecting Verrazano to go to Saratoga and prove too good for classic winners Palace Malice and Orb. That’s good. A difference of opinion, and the horse who elicits such strong opinion, is undoubtedly good for racing. We will find out soon enough if Verrazano can build on his electrifying score on the Jersey Shore. Today, I wanted to take a look at this debate from a different angle by analyzing recent three-year-old champions, and what it took for them to end the year with an Eclipse Award.
To no surprise, the overriding theme of any champion three-year-old male’s resume, has been the Triple Crown. More specifically, winning at least one leg of the Triple Crown. Of the last dozen winners of the award, all of them had success in either the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, or Belmont. Advantage Palace Malice and Orb. Well, sort of.
Of those twelve champions, seven, Point Given, War Emblem, Funny Cide, Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex, Big Brown, and I’ll Have Another, won two legs of the Triple Crown, while only five, Bernardini, Curlin, Summer Bird, Lookin at Lucky, and Animal Kingdom won just one leg. So, in a year where three different horses won America’s glamour series, perhaps the door remains open for a horse who did not win any of the three, to break the twelve year streak, and be named champion.
Going farther back, history gets a little better for Verrazano’s chances, but not significantly so. The impressive son of More Than Ready is trying to become only the fourth horse in the past 30 years to win an Eclipse Award sans a spring win at Churchill Downs, Pimlico, or Belmont. Only Breeders’ Cup Classic winner, Tiznow, Jockey Club Gold Club victor, Skip Away, and Travers winner, Holy Bull, have been able to turn the trick in the last three decades.
Of the three, certainly the 1994 champion, Holy Bull, is the one that most closely compares to Verrazano. A winner of 8-of-10 that year, the speedy gray colt had a very similar Kentucky Derby result to Verrazano, when he never could get to the lead before fading to finish 12th. Much like this year’s talented Todd Pletcher trainee, Holy Bull was able to bounce back from a Derby disappointment in high style. In successive races, Holy Bull won the Met Mile, Dwyer, Haskell, Travers, and Woodward. Of the spectacular five-race streak, only the ten furlong Travers proved to be a real test, as he bravely held off the strong challenge by Concern to win the Mid-Summer Derby. Even in a year when Tabasco Cat won the Preakness and the Belmont, Holy Bull was a very deserving three-year-old champion.
While a 6-for-7 Verrazano, clearly has his work cut out for him, history does show he has a chance to buck the trend of needing Triple Crown success to win a three-year-old championship. Four stakes wins (Tampa Bay Derby, Wood Memorial, Pegasus, and Haskell) is still a far cry from the eight won by Holy Bull in 1994, but the season is far from over. Add a win in the Travers, on the square against Orb and Palace Malice, and I will be the first to admit that Verrazano is well on his way to becoming only the 4th horse in the last 30 years to win an Eclipse Award without winning a single leg of the Triple Crown.