Palace Malice and Orb are in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, Beholder is in the Zenyatta, and Princess of Sylmar will challenge Royal Delta in the Beldame. Saturday will be a good barometer to see how the three-year-olds stack up against their elders
“Good three-year-olds can beat older horses.” You hear it every fall, and while occasionally it comes true, more often than not, they fail in their attempt to handle their older competition. A quick review of the last 10 or 20 years of any major race for three-year-olds and up should point that out. When two horses faceoff, that are destined to have similar career successes and failures, or in other words, are of comparable ability, the older horse will win more than 80% of the time. Sure, there are always cases when the younger horse is just coming into the race in a better way, or perhaps they take advantage of a clear tactical advantage, but generally speaking, and especially running a route of ground, the older horse holds a distinct advantage over the three-year-old due to physical maturity. Mental, or emotional, maturity also gives the experienced runner an edge. Never was this more true than with the great three-year-olds of the late seventies.
When the three-year-old Triple Crown winner, Affirmed, met the best older horse around twice in the fall of 1978, he simply could not deal with what Seattle Slew brought to the party. Frankly, Affirmed was no match. Taking advantage of being the older one the following year, Affirmed repelled several advances made by the hotshot youngster, Spectacular Bid, in the ‘79 Jockey Club Gold Cup. The result was closer than Affirmed had come to Slew the year before, but still the older horse proved best.
Looking at these results on face value, you might say that Seattle Slew was better than Affirmed, and that Affirmed, in turn, was better than Spectacular Bid, but I disagree. In fact, I think the four-year-old version of Spectacular Bid was the best of the bunch. Of course, we will never know for sure, but I believe most of what happened in the above three races can be chalked up to maturity besting immaturity.
It’s not all bad news for the three-year-olds, though. They have their day in the sun when they are simply better than their older counterparts. The 2007 Gold Cup is a good example of this. Lawyer Ron was a nice older horse, and gave Curlin everything he wanted, but by no means, was he the talent that his young rival was. It wasn’t easy, but even at three, Curlin could beat Lawyer Ron and the rest of the older horses that day.
What does all this mean for Palace Malice, Orb, Beholder, and Princess of Sylmar?
In the Jockey Club Gold Cup, there are no classic winners other than the two sophomores. I would argue that the two best horses in the race are Palace Malice and Orb, but are they ready to beat good olders? Not an easy call, as much like the Curlin-Lawyer Ron example, the overall difference in talent vs. the advantage of being older will probably be relatively close. Palace Malice is my pick, but of course, it would be no surprise to see one of his elders in the winner’s circle.
Meanwhile, out west in the Zenyatta, the young champion, Beholder, takes on a representative group of older mares headed by Joyful Victory, Include Me Out, Authenticity, and Flashy American. In this one, I have even less hesitation saying that the three-year-old is a better racehorse than any of her older competition. I see this advantage being greater than what she loses in the others being more developed than she is, and therefore, I expect her to win this one.