THE DARK DAY FILES: Trying to Make Sense of the 3-Year-Old Male Division
I was really, REALLY hoping I didn’t have to write this column.
You see, like pretty much everyone else, I’ve been hoping for months that a 3-year-old would separate himself from the rest of the division. Briefly, Always Dreaming did that, but he was knocked off the mountaintop just as quickly as he ascended it. Ever since the Preakness, the division has been shrouded in confusion, with big efforts often followed by duds that only serve to make things more difficult to decipher.
In what doubled as a dream come true for the NYRA marketing department, the three winners of the three Triple Crown races lined up in last Saturday’s Travers. Much like the last time this happened (1982), though, the race wasn’t won by one of those horses. West Coast, whose lone graded stakes win before the Midsummer Derby came at Los Alamitos against what would charitably be called a mediocre bunch, went wire-to-wire under Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith and earned the top Beyer Speed Figure of any 3-year-old router to this point in the season.
I’ll attempt to decipher the division here. Essentially, this acts as a quick and dirty summary of the main players, as well as what they likely need to do to emerge as a contender for the division’s Eclipse Award. I only considered horses that had won at least one Grade 1 race in 2017, which means horses like 2-3 Travers finishers Gunnevera and Irap, as well as Jim Dandy winner Good Samaritan, are out.
Disagree? Think I missed something? Shoot me a message, and I’ll be happy to discuss what I think.
Claim to Fame: Beat the winners of all three Triple Crown races in the Travers.
Drawbacks: Hasn’t done much else to this point. He was visually impressive in both stakes wins earlier in the year, but he didn’t beat many quality foes in either spot.
Eclipse Chances: High. A win in either the Pennsylvania Derby (against 3-year-olds) or the Jockey Club Gold Cup (against older horses) would give him a resume very few in the division could match. Fun fact: If West Coast wins the award, this will mark the third time in the last five years that it has gone to a horse that did not win a Triple Crown race. Before Will Take Charge won in 2013 despite lacking such a win, the last thoroughbred to pull it off was Tiznow, who did so in 2000.
Claim to Fame: Won the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby back-to-back, both by daylight.
Drawbacks: Has failed to win any of his three subsequent starts. I’m a bit higher on his Jim Dandy than most (he did salvage third over a very tiring track), but his Preakness and Travers efforts were lousy.
Eclipse Chances: Higher than you may think. As of this writing, no active 3-year-old can match his top-end wins, and even if he never runs again (which is possible, maybe even likely), there’s a chance he’ll end the year as this season’s only 3-year-old male with multiple Grade 1 wins on dirt. That would make him a popular “hold your nose” vote.
Claim to Fame: Won the Belmont, and did so in impressive fashion. He and runner-up Irish War Cry were well clear of the rest of the field.
Drawbacks: He’s only won twice, and while he didn’t run terribly in the Travers, he was fourth behind three horses that had previously combined for zero Grade 1 victories to this point in the season.
Eclipse Chances: Medium. There’s a chance he needed the Travers off a 12-week layoff, and a run in the Jockey Club Gold Cup would mean a chance at another Grade 1 victory at the scene of his greatest triumph to date. Such a win would give him two signature victories and would put him squarely in the middle of the conversation ahead of the Breeders’ Cup.
Claim to Fame: Has won back-to-back Grade 1 races, and is the only 3-year-old male in the country besides Always Dreaming with two such wins on his resume this year.
Drawbacks: He’s a turf horse.
Eclipse Chances: None most years, but this year, he’s got a shot. If ever there was a year for an unconventional winner of this award, it’s 2017, and a win over older horses would do wonders for his candidacy. He could get such a victory in the Grade 1 Joe Hirsch, provided his connections opt to bypass the Grade 3 Hill Prince, which boasts a similar purse and (likely) much less in the way of opposition. If he wins the Hirsch and runs well in the Breeders’ Cup (no easy task, since the Turf’s distance would be uncharted territory for him and the Mile is never an easy race to win), it would be impossible to keep him out of this discussion.
Claim to Fame: When he’s right, he’s probably the best horse in this division in terms of pure talent. He won the Arkansas Derby, was the victim of a lousy trip when fourth in the Kentucky Derby, and just missed in the Preakness…
Drawbacks: …but he hasn’t been seen since. His connections had eyed the Pennsylvania Derby, but those plans fell through.
Eclipse Chances: Low. On one hand, if this horse hangs on in the Preakness, we’re probably not having this conversation (it’s at least much more concentrated in nature). On the other hand, how can one consider this horse a contender when he hasn’t raced since mid-May? Maybe he runs again in either the Breeders’ Cup or the Cigar Mile. Maybe he doesn’t and we’ve seen the last of him. If the latter is the case, it’s a real shame.
Claim to Fame: Won the Allen Jerkens on Travers Day, and an argument can be made that he’s the best 3-year-old in the country at what he does.
Drawbacks: What he does is run one turn. He’s not the same horse going a conventional, two-turn route of ground.
Eclipse Chances: Low, and it’s no fault of the horse or his connections. If the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile was contested around one turn (like it will be next year at Churchill Downs), or if the Sprint was seven furlongs and not six, he would be in a great spot. However, he’s between distances and will need to overcome the lack of an ideal race on racing’s biggest weekend. A Sprint win would almost certainly vault him to the head of the class, and a Dirt Mile win would also be helpful, but if he loses either race and salvages the Cigar Mile or Malibu, would that be enough of a resume? I don’t think so.
Claim to Fame: Won the Grade 1 Haskell over a solid group, which included next-out Jerkens winner Practical Joke and next-out Shared Belief winner Battle of Midway. Earlier this season, he also captured the Louisiana Derby and Risen Star Stakes.
Drawbacks: Misfired in both the Travers and the Kentucky Derby, which were prime opportunities for him to show he belongs at the top of this division.
Eclipse Chances: Slim. Most years, he’d already be eliminated, counted out as a nice horse, but not one of the best. However, if he wins the Pennsylvania Derby, all of a sudden, we’ve got a horse that’s won two Grade 1’s, two Grade 2’s, and a lot of money. Is it unlikely? Yes, but then again, so was his Haskell win.
Claim to Fame: Reeled in Classic Empire in the Preakness, giving Chad Brown his first win in a Triple Crown race.
Drawbacks: He’s done nothing since then, throwing in two clunkers at Saratoga.
Eclipse Chances: Slim to none. If he comes back with a winning effort in a Breeders’ Cup prep race, we can more easily throw out the Saratoga races. However, those races were dreadful, and it’s tough to swallow something like that in this sort of a discussion.