Photo: Don August
Heading into the 2014 season, it would seem that the handicap division is relatively strong. Led by Mucho Macho Man, Will Take Charge, and Game On Dude, our top older dirt males already bring to the table solid credentials. To put a little test to this belief, and as a point of comparison, I decided to use a random year from modern racing history, to see how this group stacked up against a representative bunch from the past. Giving no thought to what I would find when I got there, I went back a quarter century for the comparison. How do the older dirt males going into 2014 compare to their predecessors going into 1989? Let’s take a look.
Seeking the Gold was the heir apparent that winter coming off a solid three-year-old season that saw him run good seconds in several big races, including the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Travers, Haskell, and Wood Memorial. Wins for him that year included the Super Derby, Dwyer, and Peter Pan. While certainly more consistent than the 2013 season of Will Take Charge, it is interesting to note that he also disappointed when 7th in the Kentucky Derby. Like Will Take Charge, his reputation was greatly bolstered with a big performance in the Breeders’ Cup, when second to Alysheba. Will Take Charge does get the slight nod in the importance of wins category, but competition and consistency tip the scales in favor of the Phipps’ runner, Seeking the Gold. Unfortunately for race fans of 1989, Seeking the Gold only ran twice as an older horse, winning an allowance, before losing a tough decision in the Met Mile.
At seven years-old, Game On Dude has yet to show signs of slowing down. Much talked about disappointments in the last two Breeders’ Cup Classics, should not take away too much from a career that has seen him win 15-of-29 lifetime starts. Meanwhile, the old pro that winter of 1989, Cryptoclearance, was not all that old at five, but very experienced. After two solid seasons chasing a lot of good horses at three and four, it was thought that, with the division seriously thinned out, he could finally step to the front of the class. He did win more stakes that final year, but his dominance never materialized, and his career concluded with a third straight fifth place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. While the competition comparison may have been with the closer from 25 years ago, a career mark of 12-of-44 is no comparison at all against the accomplished Californian speedster.
Other solid older returnees of 1989 included Cutlass Reality, and Slew City Slew. The latter was always a threat on the lead, but never quite able to beat the very best, while the former had a big year the year before, but likewise was unable to make much noise in his biggest race, the 1988 Breeders’ Cup Classic. Not that it matters for this comparison, but Slew City Slew was very good in the spring of 1989, but tailed off in the fall, and Cutlass Reality only ran once before retirement. Comparing them to older dirt males this year; Mucho Macho Man clearly has the class edge on Cutlass Reality, and if healthy, Cross Traffic becomes a bigger threat than Slew City Slew ever was.
If Palace Malice is the second best returner from the three-year-olds of last year, we can compare him to Brian’s Time of 1989. A winner of the Florida Derby, Jim Dandy, and Pegasus out of 11 stakes tries at three, Brian’s Time was solid, but never quite the horse that Risen Star or Forty Niner, the best three-year-olds of 1988, were. On the other hand, Palace Malice did win the Jim Dandy, and Belmont, while finishing second in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, in a season that often made you wonder what could have been. In this one, I would also give the edge to the current runner, as Palace Malice seems to have better potential to be a champion than Brian’s Time did. Hopefully, Palace Malice will do more than the disappointing 0-for-6 performance of Brian’s Time as an older horse.
Other older males to make noise in 1989, include: Proper Reality, whose claim to fame was defeating Seeking the Gold in the Met Mile, Private Terms, remained a consistent winner, but never against the best, Present Value, who won several stakes around the U.S. that year, but never a grade 1, imports Martial Law and Nasr El Arab had their moments in the sun in California, but could never duplicate their best performances, and Dancing Spree, who had solid, if not inconsistent, success both sprinting and at a distance.
Can today’s older dirt males like Last Gunfighter, Goldencents, Revolutionary, Departing, Normandy Invasion, River Seven, Cyber Secret, Lea, Sahara Sky, Blueskiesnrainbows, Moreno, and Hear the Ghost, just to name a few prove to be a stronger group than that one? Only time will tell, but overall, I like the older dirt males this year a little bit more than those going into the 1989 season.
As it turned out in 1989, it was a horse that was previously a turf runner, Blushing John, who went on to become the top older male on dirt that year. The French import won four stakes, including the Hollywood Gold Cup and Pimlico Special, but could not handle the elite three-year-olds in that year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic.
In retrospect, going back exactly 25 years ago, proved fortuitous for this year’s older dirt male division. Had I gone back either a year farther back, led by Alysheba, or a year less, when Sunday Silence and Easy Goer were returning four-year-olds, for example, the results would have been decidedly different.