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Saturday, August 27, 2011
Stay Thirsty a deserving No. 1

By Bill Finley
Special to ESPN.com

It makes no sense that Stay Thirsty, on August 27, is the best 3-year-old colt in America. He was a second stringer in his own barn as a 2-year-old, was wretched in the Florida Derby, lousy in the Kentucky Derby and, less than three months ago, seemed to be going nowhere. But figuring out the how and why to this dramatic turnaround really doesn't matter right now.

With his decisive win in the Travers Saturday at Saratoga, Stay Thirsty left little doubt as to who's the best of this class.

With his decisive win in the Travers Saturday at Saratoga, in which he beat, among others, the Preakness, Belmont and Haskell winners, Stay Thirsty left little doubt as to who's the best of this class. He stumbled at the start battled for much of the race with Shackleford and then had to hold off all challengers in the stretch. There was nothing fluky about his victory. In fact, with wins in the Jim Dandy and Travers now on his record, he may just have wrapped up an Eclipse Award Saturday.

"Stay Thirsty separated himself from every 3-year-old by far right now," owner Mike Repole said. "He should have won the Belmont, but he didn't. He recovered in the Jim Dandy … There's no doubt in my mind he's the best 3-year-old in the country. The other three horses [Coil, Ruler On Ice, Shackleford] you could say were the best 3-year-olds in the country and were in this race. To me, he won the 3-year-old championship right here, unless somebody steps up and wins the Classic."

Winning the Travers is, of a course, a big deal. But the win has to be viewed in a larger context. Stay Thirsty did what no other 3-year-old seemed capable of doing this year. He won two big races back-to-back, finally adding clarity to a division that had been beset by inconsistent performers and performances, upsets and underachievers.

It can still be argued that he is the best of a bad lot or that there have been 10 different winners of this year's 10 Grade 1 races for male 3-year-olds. You might be right if you said Animal Kingdom is still better than any of them. Everything still adds up to Stay Thirsty being on top of the division, and his status is unlikely to change.

Stay Thirsty is done running against 3-year-olds. Winning trainer Todd Pletcher said the Oct. 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont is likely next for Stay Thirsty. A win might clinch the 3-year-old championship. A loss to an older horse would not be held against him.

As Repole said, perhaps the only way Stay Thirsty can lose the 3-year-old championship is if someone else from his division wins the Classic. It's an unlikely, but not impossible, scenario. Shackleford, Coil and Ruler On Ice don't look good enough to get it done, but what about Stay Thirsty's stablemate, Uncle Mo?

In Saturday's King's Bishop he was neither the bust he was in the Wood Memorial nor the superstar he was at 2. Nonetheless, to lose a Grade 1 race by a nose in your first start in nearly four months is a certainly a sign that he needs to be taken seriously.

"He ran awesome," said Mo's rider John Velazquez. "It was a tough task to ask of him off the bench. I'm just glad to have him back. He was fighting the whole way around. That's what I like about him."

Pletcher didn't say where he would run him next, but Uncle Mo will have to have at least one more start between now and the Breeders' Cup in order to be at his best in November. It might make sense to point him to something like the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile, but Pletcher indicated the Classic is in his plans.

Could Uncle Mo come all the way back and beat Stay Thirsty and the rest in the Classic? Could Pletcher and Repole have the one weapon out there good enough to beat their own horse?

That could be an intriguing subplot to the Stay Thirsty story. For now, though, he's on top. Someone has taken control of the 3-year-old division. At last.

Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact him at wnfinley@aol.com.