What a great year it has been for the three year-olds. There have been stars and new prospects and great performances and setbacks all year long. The three-year-olds have garnered the racing headlines. What has made it so exciting is the ways that cast of characters have changed along with the passing of the seasons.
During the long cold months of the 2011 winter, all the racing talk focused on Uncle Mo. He was coming off one of the best juvenile campaigns in a long time and there was an excited anticipation surrounding his return to the track. But his mediocre return with an 89 BSF in the Timely Writer at Gulfstream Park changed the media buzz into one of doubt. Out west Bob Baffert was keeping things warm as The Factor blazed to victory in the G2 San Vicente with a 103 BSF. They headed to Oaklawn Park and repeated that performance with a win in the G2 Rebel. What could be better for racing than Bob Baffert having a speedy Triple Crown prospect? Back east the long snowy winter was coming to an end and a new name appeared, as Stay Thirsty won the G3 Gotham for the Repole/Pletcher barn with a mediocre 89 BSF. Stay Thirsty was quickly dismissed as a second stringer, a mere bench warmer that beat a very weak field.
Spring began with Uncle Mo’s disastrous third place finish in the Wood Memorial. Everyone was jumping off the Mike Repole runner looking for the next three year-old star. A Graham Motion runner named Animal Kingdom won the G3 Spiral at Turfway Park. Archarcharch comes along and wins the G1 Arkansas Derby with a 98 BSF. The veteran connections of trainer Jinks Fires and jockey Jon Court become racing’s feel good story. At the last minute Uncle Mo drops out of the Derby and it is unclear why he is not the horse of 2010. Still 19 horses went into the gate on the first Saturday in May and Animal Kingdom made a dominating move to win the Kentucky Derby and become the leading horse in the US. At this time of year racing is all about the three year olds. Animal Kingdom’s 103 BSF has people thinking about a Triple Crown. Team Valor’s Barry Irwin can’t help but make the discussion interesting and the last minute jockey change to John Velazquez added even more attention to the three-year-olds.
Two weeks later racing has another new three year-old star when Shackleford wins the Preakness with a 104 BSF. When the Belmont is run on a very sloppy track, $51 long shot Ruler On Ice defeats that second stringer Stay Thirsty.
With the Triple Crown season over and the summer at hand the limelight usually turns to the older horses. Instead Derby Fever breaks out. Yes, it is all about the secondary derbies but again thanks to Baffert for revving up Coil and Prayer For Relief. Coil gets Baffert another Haskell victory after weaving through the heavy traffic of Monmouth Park’s stretch. Prayer For Relief wins a summer triple crown by sweeping through the graded Iowa, West Virginia, and Super Derbies. That should be enough attention for the three year-olds, however, just maybe, the best is yet to come. How about a summer racing party of the coming out variety and the guest of honor is Stay Thirsty? He wins the G2 Jim Dandy with the highest three year-old BSF of 106. Yet the skeptics were still lurking around until he took the Midsummer Derby, too. The Travers has turned the second stringer into a star.
You want more excitement? How about the return of Uncle Mo? After he recovered from his liver ailment, I felt we hadn’t seen the last or maybe the best of the onetime Kentucky Derby favorite. Pletcher trained Uncle Mo up to the G1 King’s Bishop and lost by a nose to the powerful stretch run of a red hot Caleb’s Posse. As the summer drew to a close the west coast speedster, The Factor went back into training and he won the G1 Pat O’Brien at Del Mar with another big BSF of 104.
As the calendar turned to fall, a three year-old of great promise put it all together in the G2 Pennsylvania Derby. There is no trainer more willing to give his horses the time that they need than Bill Mott and his patience was rewarded. To Honor And Serve got his Derby victory and a 103 BSF at Parx racetrack.
It seems the final word of this debate will come on November 5th at Churchill Downs in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. I have complete confidence that the three year olds will get their 10th Classic win. Stay Thirsty is in top form and is scheduled to go in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Uncle Mo just shot a bullet work in preparation for the Kelso on Belmont’s Super Saturday card. Add in To Honor and Serve who finally seems to have figured out this racing game. I will be betting on the racing’s best division, the three year-olds, in the Breeders Cup finale. |
Matt, I think you know me enough to know that I’m an optimist, but … I have just seen too many excellent crops of three-year-olds over the past 40 to honestly say that the current crop is anything but inconsistent. They are only interesting because a different one wins practically every race. I feel much surer of what the older horses will do from race to race. And as far as headlines, I’ll take the pair of four-year-old fillies any day.
The fact that Stay Thirsty has risen to such heights in the division despite his dismal Florida and Kentucky Derby performances is a microcosm of the overall strength of the crop in my mind. One dismal performance is more easily excused than two. Uncle Mo and The Factor are interesting horses, but what have they really done yet in 2011? The Factor fizzled in the Arkansas Derby, and Uncle Mo has but one listed stake win this year. I am still hopeful that they can do something really big this year, but until they do…
OK, I’m changing gears here; let’s talk about the older horses. In opposition to their younger peers, the older group has been relatively consistent. Look at the 2011 records of horses like, Twirling Candy, Tizway, Game on Dude, First Dude, Big Drama, Trappe Shot, Acclamation, Cape Blanco, Stacelita, and of course, Havre de Grace and Blind Luck. You can say that other than the fillies, there are no world beaters there, but if consistency is a mark of quality, I worry that the less than consistent three-year-old crop will be in store for quite the beating, come the first weekend of November.
More evidence of that nasty ‘beating each other every race’ pattern. How many stakes have Shackleford or Ruler On Ice won besides their respective wins in the Preakness and Belmont? Zero. Meanwhile look at the lifetime records of some of the horses I just mentioned; Big Drama is 11 for 18, Blind Luck is 12 for 21, Cape Blanco is 8 for 14, Stacelita is 9 for 16, Trappe Shot is 6 for 10, Twirling Candy is 7 for 11. Also, Havre de Grace is a nose from being 5 for 5 this year, Acclamation has won four straight graded stakes, and Tizway has run two of the most impressive races in America in his last two starts. Even Gio Ponti, who has yet to win this year, has not finished worse than third in the States, running in big stakes races, in more than 2 ½ years, and all but one of those races he has finished first or second. I just don’t see this kind of consistency from the three-year-olds.
If you are really excited about Prayer For Relief winning those three Derbies against weak fields, in paceless races, you are a bigger fan than me. Coil looked good in the Haskell, but he lost to an inferior horse the race before, and then came back to run 10th in the Travers. Yes, Stay Thirsty was very good in two races at Saratoga, but I remain skeptical that he can take that form elsewhere. Frankly I was more impressed with what Jackson Bend did at Saratoga. Here’s a horse that was finally placed back in sprints and the result in the James Marvin and the Forego was explosive.
I wish Uncle Mo well, but if Jackson Bend beats Uncle Mo in the Kelso, our debate may be over in a New York minute-and-a-half.
I’ll match your The Factor with a Big Drama. He’s a true champion, and he is back. You remember his 120 Beyer from earlier this year, don’t you? Unlike the sophomores, Big Drama runs big every time, and is strictly the horse to beat in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint.
I must admit, I was impressed with To Honor and Serve on Saturday, but I think part of that is because of the lackluster year the three-year-olds have had, making his performance look all the better. He got ten pounds on a speed favoring track that day, I wonder how that will translate when he has to look Tizway and Havre de Grace in the eye.
Finally you have said something that I can agree with. The Breeders’ Cup will tell the tale. Not only will I predict that an older horse will win the Classic, but I will go out on a limb and predict that the three-year-old males will be shut out in every race, and the only reason I qualified that with ‘males’ is because I do have faith in Turbulent Descent for the BC Filly & Mare Sprint. Other than that, it will be a long weekend for the three-year-olds … the older horses are just better.