We’re nearly eight months into the 2014 racing season, and California Chrome is the clear leader of America’s glamour division. Deservedly so; the flashy, copper-colored chestnut rattled off five straight stakes to begin the season, including the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Santa Anita Derby. In fact, he was knocking on the door of not only clinching the divisional Eclipse Award, but also wrapping up the Horse of the Year title, with one more victory in his last race. Becoming only the twelfth horse to win the Triple Crown surely would have secured both honors, but alas, it was not to be. A bloody hoof, and the arduous twelve furlongs at Belmont Park, did him in, and now the son of Lucky Pulpit enjoys his time away from competition saddled with a one race losing streak.
Has he already done enough to clinch a championship, or does he need to finish the season off strongly in order to collect the hardware in January? It all depends on what his closest competition does in the same timeframe beginning this weekend. Tonalist, Bayern, and Wicked Strong are set to headline a solid Travers field on Saturday, while out West, Shared Belief will be the first of the top sophomores to challenge his elders in the Pacific Classic. A big win, or two, by any of the four would move them a big step closer to California Chrome in the divisional race. No matter how good they look at Saratoga or Del Mar, though, we cannot forget the earlier brilliance of performances like this…
Impressive, but let’s take a look at the four horses with a good opportunity to narrow the lead California Chrome enjoys among the three-year-old males...
Tonalist - As the only top contender with a winning record against California Chrome, and a classic winner, this strapping son of Tapit would have a very attractive resume with a win in the Travers. He returned from his thrilling Belmont Stakes win with a good, but bridesmaid finish to Wicked Strong in the Jim Dandy. Was it a sign of what is to come in the upcoming Mid-Summer Derby, or was it simply a tightener for the big one? I side with the latter, and as of now, the Belmont winner is my top pick for the Travers. Wins in the Peter Pan, Belmont, and Travers would still not quite equal the top one’s accomplishments, but it would put him right there in the thick of the race heading to Autumn.
Wicked Strong - A loss and a tie to California Chrome in the Derby and the Belmont leave this Jimmy Jerkens trained colt behind the eight-ball in the divisional race. He currently has a Grade 1 win in the Wood Memorial, to go along with his recent score in the Grade 2 Jim Dandy over Tonalist, as his only victories in 2014, but an impressive victory when adding blinkers last time make him one of the ‘now’ horses. If he can repeat the feat in the Travers, he moves from well behind, to at least in the discussion in the sophomore race. It would also bode well for his chances in some of the most important races still to come like the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Bayern - Within a few months, Bayern has spanned the gamut from a hotshot newcomer, to a not-quite-ready-for-primetime runner, to finally being one of the most exciting young horses in the nation. His performance on Belmont Day in the Grade 2 Woody Stephens was a true eye-opener. The seven furlong dismantling of a deep field can easily be called the most impressive sprint performance of the year. If your eyes weren’t wide open after that one, the son of Offlee Wild came back to be equally impressive in the Grade 1 Haskell, this time around two turns. We will find out soon enough if he can keep it going in the ten furlongs of the Travers, but talented speed is as dangerous as anything in racing, and Bayern has it in spades.
Shared Belief - The only champion of the bunch, he is also the only one never to taste to defeat. In fact, no horse has ever come close to knocking him off to date. Whether or not you believe the smooth striding son of Candy Ride is truly in the divisional race, likely comes down to how well you feel he will do in the huge test he is about to face in the Pacific Classic. Facing older, and stretching out to ten furlongs seems daunting, but as easily as he has dispatched of his first five assignments, including his only two races this year, it would seem foolish to discount his chances in any race. If he can pass the large test on Sunday, who’s to say he cannot sweep his way to victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic? And as good as California Chrome’s chasers look, that could be the race that decides the whole thing.