Photo: Eclipse Sportswire - Alex Evers
NTRA Polls are back in session, and with 9 1/2 weeks of racing action already
in the books, there were plenty of performances to choose from in determining
the Top 10 Active Thoroughbreds. Even those that have not yet faced the starter
in 2014 but have been working towards a return as well as those retired in the
calendar year were eligible to receive votes. With a spectacular,
"my saddle towel has not been put away yet" performance by Game On
Dude in this year's Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap, it's not hard to guess who
topped my list (and the NTRA list), but who filled out spots 2-10? Read on!
1. Game On Dude—In case anyone was wondering, Game On Dude’s best days are not in
fact behind him. Proving that he still deserves to be atop the Older Male
division despite a string of losses, Game On Dude utilized both his tactical
advantage and his love for the Santa Anita strip, to take it to his competition
right from the break in the Big Cap. Going straight to the front with a
confident Mike Smith aboard, the popular gelding clicked off blazing fractions, and rather than back pedal in the stretch, he just kept right on going…and
going…and going…much like the Energizer Bunny. He stopped the clock in a stakes
record time of 1:58.17, just a tick off the track record. Folks at the race
were given a real treat as Smith paraded Game On Dude before his adoring
audience prior to heading to the winner’s circle.
2. Will Take Charge—Despite not having a win in 2014 yet, Will Take Charge has given
a good accounting of himself in his first two starts. Facing unfavorable pace
scenarios, speed-favoring strips, short stretch runs and track and stakes
record-setting winners, Will Take Charge nonetheless showed up and made his
characteristic stretch charge both times. The end result was a 1 ½ length
defeat at the hooves of Lea in the Grade 1 Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park and
a 1 ¾ length defeat to annual top handicap runner Game On Dude in the Grade 1
Santa Anita Handicap at Santa Anita Park. As HRN editor Brian Zipse pointed out
in the latest edition of his weekly column From the Eighth
Pole to the Wire, it is only a matter of time
before the strapping 4-year old Unbridled’s Song colt catches more favorable
conditions for his running style…and when he does, watch out!
3. Wise Dan—The two time Horse of the Year has just recently gotten back to
work, and without a start in 2014, I found it personally difficult to put the
chestnut gelding at the top of the list, especially with others in his division
already making cases for themselves. Training toward his 2014 debut at
Keeneland, Wise Dan had his third breeze Sunday morning, working a half-mile in
:48 and galloping out in a minute and change, as reported by DRF’s Marty McGee.
I have little doubt that Wise Dan will go right back to his winning ways when
he returns to the starting gate and anxiously await his 2014 bow.
4. Mucho Macho Man—Last year’s Breeder’s Cup Classic champion didn’t quite give the
type of race fans were expecting in the Big Cap. Staying near Game On Dude
throughout the race, he made a bid for the lead in the far turn but flattened
out and faded to finish a non-threatening 4th, his first off the board finish
at 10 furlongs. Off for 8 weeks since demolishing a grossly overmatched field
in the Sunshine Millions Classic, it’s possible the big guy just needed to get
a race under his belt. Regardless of the dull effort this past weekend, Mucho
Macho Man is far from being anything less than a top player in a highly
competitive Older Male division.
5. Lea—Former turf runner Lea has found a new home on dirt in the early
part of 2014. A smart score in the G3 Hal’s Hope at Gulfstream Park indicated
an affinity for the surface, but a stakes and track record-setting performance
over a deep field in the G1 Donn Handicap solidified the William Mott trainee
as one to watch throughout the year. Whether or not he can take his winning
ways on dirt on the road remains to be seen, but for now, Lea can at least
boast that he beat highly regarded Will Take Charge.
6. Winning Prize—While Wise Dan and Obviously are away, Winning Prize plays…and
wins. A perfect 2-for-2 for the year thus far, Winning Prize has
accounted for both the G2 Arcadia and the G1 Frank E. Kilroe Mile, both run at
1 mile on the lawn. A Group 1 winner in Argentina, I knew Winning Prize could
be a big player in the turf division here in the States. I selected him to
upset Wise Dan in the 2013 renewal Shadwell Turf Mile, but when that race came
off the turf, Winning Prize finished 4th, 5 lengths behind upset winner Silver
Max. It has taken him a few races to really get his legs under him, so to
speak, but now that he has, he’s showing up in a big way. He has a versatile
running style, and if anyone can give the Big Two a run for the top prize money
this year, it will be this son of Pure Prize.
7. Twilight Eclipse—When he’s on his “A Game,” Twilight Eclipse is a very dangerous
contender running a route of ground on the turf. Best at 1 ½ mile, the gelding
made his 2014 bow in the 1 3/8 mile G2 Mac Diarmida. Despite being a furlong
shorter than what he would generally prefer, Twilight Eclipse got the job done
by a length. With Point of Entry retired, the turf route division lacks a solid
standout, and there are several that could step up and claim the top spot. For
now, Twilight Eclipse is the only one that has made a start in 2014. Other top
contenders Big Blue Kitten and Real Solution are currently targeting races in
Dubai. Real Solution is being pointed toward the Dubai World Cup, and Big Blue
Kitten is heading to the Sheema Classic where he will potentially face Twilight
Eclipse as well as a host of international competitors.
8. Palace Malice—Off since finishing a troubled 6th in the Breeders’ Cup Classic,
Palace Malice made his return a winning one. Part of a quick early pace, Palace
Malice looked beaten in the stretch before re-rallying to hold off closers Golden
Ticket and Uncaptured by a head. The field he beat was a good one, and his
final time of 1:33.80 was just a tick off the track record recently set by the
returning Normandy Invasion. The fact that he won at a mile opens up more
options for him other than the classic distance, traditional top races for the
division. Whether at middle or classic distances, this gritty son of Curlin is
going to have a say in stepping up into the big boy division.
9. Pontchatrain—With Mizdirection retired, Pontchatrain is stepping up to take
over as the Queen of the Downhill Turf. A perfect 2-for-2 for the year,
Pontchatrain has won both the 6.5 furlong G2 Monrovia on the downhill turf and
the 1 mile G2 Buena Vista on the turf. Sprint and middle distance turf
specialists may not be in the glamour divisions of American horse racing, but
no one can deny that Pontchatrain is looking very, very good thus far.
10. Groupie Doll—Making her swan song in the G3 Hurricane Bertie, Groupie Doll
only wanted her competition to think that she was hopelessly out of the race
when she was slow breaking from the gate. Toying with her 6 rivals, Groupie
Doll gave the field a good head start before finding her best stride entering
the far turn. From there it was game over as the popular mare inhaled her
competition and sprinted away from them to cross the wire clear by 7 lengths.
She has been without a doubt the best in her division for the last couple
years, and it will take a serious sprinter to replace her. She has since moved
to second career for owner Mandy Pope and will give birth to a Tapit baby
sometime next year.
was the case last year, the way I vote is a little "quirky" in comparison
to the way others vote. For example, Beholder and Princess of Sylmar,
ranked 9th and 10th respectively by the NTRA voting body, are not a part of my
Top Ten because we have not seen the two lovely fillies in the starting gate
yet in 2014. It seems a little unfair by comparison since I did include Wise
Dan, but I like to have recent races by which to judge. We all know Wise Dan is
a freak of a nature, and a two-time Horse of the Year should not have to fight
for his spot in the Top Ten.
The above ten are only my votes and do not represent
the final results of the NTRA vote. Stay tuned throughout the year as I bring
you more Top Ten votes and the reasons why I voted the way I did.