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Friday, January 10, 2014
Unraveling the 2014 mystery

By Gary West
Special to ESPN.com

As a youngster, he seemed so helpless and so lost that his connections were moved to name the colt after a similarly needy character that had been popular in movie theatres a few years earlier. E.T. eventually went home, of course, and Lil E. Tee went on to win the Kentucky Derby.

That's a large part of horse racing's appeal, the possibilities and potentialities that always seem lurking, some like nightmares, it's true, but others like ping pong balls that can converge almost magically to create a winning lottery ticket. A chronic loser of his first 17 races becoming one of the most popular sports heroes of the 1930s, a clubfooted horse from Texas sweeping the Triple Crown, a little lightning bolt selling for $4,700 and becoming the champion 3-year-old filly -- nobody could imagine such happenings. And yet nobody in this sport would dismiss such possibilities simply because, well, this is horse racing.

The next Extra Heat or Mine That Bird could be making his debut today in some sleepy backwater.

Shake up the sport's glass paperweight, and the snow flurries swirl and settle uniquely, arranging themselves differently each and every time, the possibilities endless.

Compared to other sports, horse racing's an everlasting mystery. The NBA has some of the greatest athletes in the world, and when they soar they're especially exciting -- for a moment anyway. The excitement trips inevitably into this little abyss: Only four, maybe five, NBA teams have any real chance to win a championship, or even get to the finals -- Miami will probably get there for the fourth consecutive year. All the other teams are, well, fodder. As a result, the NBA barely moves the intrigue meter. There are more possibilities in a kindergartener's box of crayons. And yet more than half the NBA teams make the playoffs, a specious extravagance that momentarily disguises the fact that only a handful of teams actually matter.

Major League Baseball fares somewhat better, with as many as eight to ten teams in any given year nurturing championship hopes. As for the other 20 teams, their aspirations seem as reasonable as the Duchy of Grand Fenwick's invasion of America. And then, for people who like to watch large ursine creatures pummel each other into submission, there's the NFL, but even there, amid ballyhooed parity, with 32 teams, there are, even if all championship chances are equal and injuries wreak havoc, only 256 possible match-ups for the Super Bowl.

But how many lineups are possible at this point for the Kentucky Derby or any of the Breeders' Cup races? The possibilities -- well, they swirl and settle uniquely. And the daily racing, its fuzzy texture compacted of thousands of fibers and countless scintilla, can intrigue no matter what the race or level of competition simply because possibilities and potentialities always loom. The next Extra Heat or Mine That Bird could be making his debut today in some sleepy backwater.

Potential can bloom slowly, burst suddenly, emerge unexpectedly. Nobody knows for certain where the next superlative racehorse will surface or what his provenance might be, not even the most prescient and greatest of trainers. Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons sold Seabiscuit for $7,500. Stymie, whose career began in obscurity, was claimed from Max Hirsch and King Ranch for $1,500.

Horse racing remains the most intriguing of sports. And here are some specific reasons, some intriguing horses for 2014.

1. Honor Code
Despite having three races, he has only outlined his potential. He didn't leave the gate alertly in his debut, but then ran the final three-eighths of a mile in about 33 seconds to win by more than four lengths. He broke slowly and raced seven-wide in the Champagne. He seemed confused in the Remsen and lost his focus when he found himself on the lead in soporific fractions; still, he fought back to win. In other words, although already a major stakes winner, he has only begun to figure things out. He could be the great A. P. Indy's best last chance to win the Kentucky Derby.

2. Will Take Charge
He improved so dramatically the second half of 2013 that it's impossible not to wonder what's ahead for him. At the end of year, after he defeated Game On Dude to win the Clark, his Hall of Fame trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, said, "He's probably the best horse in training right now." Will Take Charge finished the year by winning three of last four races, including the Travers, with his only loss, of course, being the Classic, by a nose, to Mucho Macho Man. And so what will he accomplish if he takes that form into 2014? Even more, what will he accomplish if he takes another step forward?

3. Zaikov
Breaking his maiden by more than 14 lengths last March, he excited expectations. But those high expectations were put on hold. He returned last month to win again in style, running the three-quarters of a mile in 1:08.73 with a final quarter-mile in 23.61 seconds. Speedy, eager, talented and powerful, he, too, could become just about any kind of horse. Distance will be the question for him. He's by Distorted Humor out of the champion Wait A While.

4. Samantha Nicole
A name that screams intriguing possibilities has been appearing regularly on the Fair Grounds' work tabs. Samantha Nicole has had four workouts in New Orleans, the latest being a five-furlong move (1:00.80) last Monday, all of which suggests the 3-year-old is about a month or so away from her debut. And what's so intriguing about Samantha Nicole? She's Rachel Alexandra's full sister.

5. Shared Belief
He has won his three races by a total of 20 ½ lengths, including the CashCall Futurity by more than five. And so can he transfer that talent and professionalism from a synthetic surface to dirt? He hooks his left foreleg, which is to say he moves like Joe Frazier, only faster. And so can he take that style on the road, all the way to Kentucky?

6. Beholder
The most dominant winner of the Breeders' Cup, where she took the Distaff by more than four lengths, she could be ready to assume the position once held by Royal Delta. Still lightly raced, she could continue to move forward in 2014 and take on males.

7. Wise Dan
It might seem strange to find a Horse of the Year on this list, but Wise Dan remains one of the sport's most intriguing horses simply because he has left so many questions unanswered. If he continues to race almost exclusively on the grass, will he stretch out, possibly to try a race such as the Arlington Million? Or could he try something even more daring and move to the dirt, perhaps for the Breeders' Cup Classic? Or if his connections continue to keep him focused on eight and nine-furlong turf races, where his virtuosity approaches greatness, will he continue to dominate and scintillate?

8. Tap It Rich
His debut was so impressive -- he rallied from far back to win on a speed-biased surface -- that he was 3-1 in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile in only his second start. Rank early, he finished fifth. And then in the CashCall Futurity, he ran as though he were having second thoughts about this racing vocation. The Equibase chart was succinct in its distillation of events: Tap It Rich "broke slowly and awkwardly" and then became "rank," and then "swerved five wide." But he recently got back to work, his first since the CashCall debacle, and fired a bullet (three-quarters in 1:11 from the gate at Santa Anita), suggesting that he still has the talent, visible in his debut, to be special.

9. Fiftyshadesofgold
She looked a potential superstar in her first two outings, winning by a total of 18 lengths, including the Debutante at Churchill by eight. But then, at Saratoga, in the Adirondack, she got hammered and battered, possibly even smashed into the inside rail. Injured, she had surgery. Could she recover that potential she flashed as a 2-year-old? On the comeback trail, she has had four workouts in New Orleans.

10. Flashback
After he won the Bob Lewis by more than six lengths in the second start of his career, he jumped into the vanguard that was rolling down the highway in the direction of the Triple Crown. He looked like a major player. But then he was injured in the Santa Anita Derby, where he finished second. Could he fulfill his potential? He recently rallied strongly to finish fourth in the Malibu and should be poised for a strong Strub. Yes, he still could deliver on that potential he flashed last year.