Thursday, August 2, 2012
Chasing Horse of the Year
By Gary West
Special to ESPN.com
Last November, trainer Bill Mott said he thought Ron The Greek, who hadn't won a significant stakes race since the 2010 LeComte, still had within him a store of unrealized talent. The stretch-runner, Mott said, in a Nostradamus moment, had the potential to reach a much higher level of performance. Since then, Ron The Greek has done just that, and with a victory in Saturday's Whitney at Saratoga, he could put himself in the middle of the Horse-of-the-Year discussion.
"I think he [Ron The Greek] is a real late-developing horse," Mott said at Wednesday's drawing of post positions. "He's a huge, gorgeous horse, actually, but a horse you could tell wasn't going to get good until later in his career."
After Mott made his prediction, Ron The Greek quickly and easily won two minor stakes at Aqueduct. And this year, he has stepped up to win the Santa Anita Handicap and the Stephen Foster, beating in the process several of the best older horses around.
Ron The Greek in the race for Horse of the Year -- a year ago it would have seemed as unlikely as a sous-chef at McDonald's, unlikely anyway for anybody lacking Mott's prescience. He welcomed into his stable a proven horse that had won three of 12 starts, with one second. Although very capable, Ron The Greek hardly looked like a horse that would ever be a contender in the race for the golden Eclipse Award. Since joining Mott's stable, however, Ron The Greek has won four of his seven starts and hasn't finished worse than second, a transformation that the Hall of Fame trainer modestly attributes to lucky timing.
From here, though, Ron The Greek appears to represent another masterful and patient job by a great horseman. And Saturday, with speedsters Trickmeister and Endorsement in the Whitney field, Ron The Greek could benefit from the kind of lively pace that makes his last charge most effective. A Whitney victory combined with a win in the Breeders' Cup Classic -- run this year at Santa Anita -- with an intervening good effort in perhaps the Jockey Club Gold Cup, would probably make him Horse of the Year.
Others in the Whitney field, such as Fort Larned and maybe even Rule, could launch themselves into the HOY discussion with a victory. For at least the moment, though, Game On Dude leads the HOY race. He's "much better" than he was a year ago, when he finished second in the Breeders' Cup Classic, according to his trainer, Bob Baffert. Since that game effort at Churchill Downs, Game On Dude has won three of four, his only loss coming on a synthetic surface after an eventful sojourn to Dubai. And his victories in the Californian and the recent Hollywood Gold Cup were luminescent.
If the older horses falter, of course, and a black swan wins the Breeders' Cup Classic, I'll Have Another could still be Horse of the Year. Although he has been retired, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner has won four major stakes this year. But with his dominating victory in last week's Haskell, another 3-year-old, Paynter, put himself in the discussion.
Tabasco Cat is the only horse in recent history that won two-thirds of the Triple Crown but didn't win the Eclipse Award as the outstanding 3-year-old. That honor, in 1994, went to Holy Bull, who won the Met Mile, Haskell, Travers and Woodward on his way to being named Horse of the Year.
Could Paynter displace I'll Have Another as the leader of the division? Perhaps, but Paynter spiked a temperature this week, putting a Travers appearance in jeopardy and bringing up the possibility of a start in the Pennsylvania Derby. Still, should he run the table, an Eclipse is possible, maybe even a gold one.
But many horses are still in the golden race. Mucho Macho Man, a huge horse with an equally sizeable talent that was on display most vividly in the Suburban, needs to burnish his resume with a Grade I victory, perhaps in the Woodward. Much the same could be said of Alternation, who could return to competition soon at Remington Park, where he'll prepare for a start possibly in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.
With her victories in the Fleur De Lis and the Delaware Handicap, Royal Delta suggested she could challenge males at Santa Anita in November and become the fourth consecutive female to win the sport's highest honor. Acclamation could also join the HOY leaders with a victory in the Pacific Classic. And although it's highly unlikely, it wouldn't be unprecedented for a 2-year-old filly, such as the sensational Landaluce winner, Executiveprivilege, to jump into the HOY race. In 1965, after an undefeated juvenile campaign, Moccasin was named Horse of the Year by the TRA.
Yes, the race for the golden Eclipse Award is heating up, and although it's hardly wide open, it still suggests many possibilities. But that, of course, will change dramatically over the next few months.
An early line on the race for Horse of the Year: