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Thursday, June 20, 2013
The championship season begins

By Gary West
Special to ESPN.com

The Triple Crown season proved little. Its conclusions, which were few, belied its importance. But, to take a half-full approach, the inconclusiveness of these last five months only adds to the weighty significance of the next five, the championship season, which, of course, includes many clarifying possibilities at Saratoga and Del Mar and then culminates on the first two days of November with the Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita.

These next five months will probably crown every champion. To use an NBA analogy, it's as if the first half of the year comprised the regular season, identifying contenders and revealing trends. Now it's time for the playoffs.

While Orb, the Kentucky Derby winner, remains the most accomplished 3-year-old in the country, he left considerable doubt about his superiority.

During the long run-up to the Triple Crown series and in the three jewels of American racing, some major players stepped forward, but no clear leader emerged. Usually the Triple Crown produces, at the very least, a leading candidate for divisional honors and, frequently, a possibility for Horse of the Year. But while Orb, the Kentucky Derby winner, remains the most accomplished 3-year-old in the country, he left considerable doubt about his superiority.

So who's going to be the champion 3-year-old? If Palace Malice, a late foal who found himself in the Belmont, continues to improve and mature through the second half of the year, he could make an argument for himself. Oxbow, the tenacious winner of the Preakness, certainly has the determination of a champion. And even though his recent romp in the Pegasus Stakes had all the significance of batting practice, Verrazano could yet prove to be the most talented of the group. A huge, heavy colt, he probably was ill suited for the slop at Churchill Downs, and his only loss came in the Derby.

But, of course, the most intriguing race during this Championship Season will be for the golden Eclipse Award, symbolic of the Horse of the Year. Could Wise Dan repeat? Having won six consecutive races, including two major stakes this year, the venerable gelding dominates his division and has the talent and versatility to step outside it. But some newcomers almost certainly will join the race, one or two of the 3-year-old colts perhaps, or maybe Dreaming of Julie, the sensational filly who won the Gulfstream Park Oaks by more than 21 lengths before disappointing in Kentucky. She returns Saturday at Belmont Park in the Mother Goose. Or perhaps Paynter will become the foremost challenger to Wise Dan's crown. Back from death's doorstep, he returned with a sensational allowance victory at Hollywood. The next logical step for the admirable revenant could be the Monmouth Cup on July 28, at Monmouth Park, where he won last year's Haskell.

This Championship Season, in other words, is brimful of intrigue. And so here's an early line on the race for Horse of the Year:

1. Wise Dan (6-1): Having turned in a bullet workout recently, he appears to be in top form aiming at the Firecracker Handicap on June 29 at Churchill.

2. Game On Dude (8-1): He has won four consecutive stakes since being rated into obscurity in the Breeders' Cup Classic. After a six-furlong (1:13.40) workout Tuesday, he's aimed at next month's Hollywood Gold Cup.

3. Fort Larned (10-1): Last year's Classic winner began the Championship Season with a dominating victory in the Stephen Foster Handicap. He's aimed at Whitney Handicap at Saratoga on Aug. 3.

4. Paynter (15-1): His trainer, Bob Baffert, said the 4-year-old will probably do most of his pre-Breeders' Cup racing in the East, which means he could face his first big test in the Woodward on Aug. 31 at Saratoga.

5. Orb (20-1): Having won three major stakes, the Derby winner deserves a break. He's to return at Saratoga.

6. Oxbow (20-1): He might not be the most talented, but he's the toughest 3-year-old out there and could show it in the Travers on Aug. 24 at Saratoga.

7. Palace Malice (20-1): The Belmont Stakes winner is to return July 27 in the Jim Dandy, a prep for the Travers.

8. Verrazano (20-1): The depth of his talent and his best distance are still unknown. But he could answer some questions in the Haskell on July 28.

9. Point Of Entry (20-1): Arguably the best turf horse in the country, he won the Manhattan despite injuring himself along the way. He won't return until the fall; otherwise he'd rank much higher.

10. Dreaming Of Julia (25-1): She has hinted that she possesses rare talent, but she needs to prove herself against top company on a big stage.

11. Royal Delta (25-1): On her best day, the two-time winner of the Ladies' Classic is capable of beating just about anybody, and despite a recent loss she could find her best day during the Championship Season.

12. Graydar (30-1): He won the Donn and then took the even tougher New Orleans Handicap before an ankle chip put him on the sidelines. But he could still be a noisemaker.

13. Flat Out (30-1): Third in last year's Classic and fifth in 2011, he's reliably formidable, but he seems to save his best efforts for Belmont Park.

14. Sahara Sky (30-1): He has won three of four this year, including the Met Mile. But he'll probably have to stretch out if he's going to be a contender in the race to be Horse of the Year.

15. Cigar Street (30-1): A winner of four of six and of his only two starts this year, including the Skip Away Stakes, he's improving and could make considerable noise in this Championship Season.

16. Ron The Greek (40-1): Although inconsistent because of his late-charging style, he's nevertheless capable; but he has yet to return to the jaw-dropping level of performance he displayed while winning the Sunshine Millions Classic.

17. Cross Traffic (40-1): He has lost two major stakes in a photo, but the lightly raced colt's determination and talent are conspicuous.

18. Last Gunfighter (50-1): He has won six consecutive races, including the Pimlico Special in his most recent outing; he could be ready to step out with tougher company.

19. Clubhouse Road (50-1): Just when it looked like his career would be defined by his runner-up finishes to Game On Dude, he won the Californian impressively. He'll again take on the Dude in the Hollywood Gold Cup.

20. Include Me Out (50-1): Third in last year's Ladies' Classic, she returned with an impressive victory in the Desert Stormer; she'll probably make her next start July 13 in the A Gleam Stakes.

21. Delaunay (50-1): With six consecutive victories, including three this year by a total of nearly 13 lengths, he might be the best sprinter in the country, but sprinters don't win Horse of the Year honors.

22. Suggestive Boy (50-1): After two victories he was sidelined with a splint injury.

23. Bright Thought (50-1): Unbeaten on turf, he set a world record when he won the San Luis Rey. He's aiming for a return to competition this summer.

24. Take Charge Indy (50-1): Although he disappointed in the Stephen Foster, he showed his talent with a convincing victory in the Alysheba Stakes.

25. Obviously (50-1): Third in last year's Breeders' Cup Mile, the speedster suggested he might be even better this year when he won the American Handicap.

26. Mucho Macho Man (50-1): The runner-up in last year's Classic has had a rough start to his campaign. But after finishing third in the recent Criminal Type Stakes, he should be ready to move forward.

27. Jimmy Creed (99-1): Beset by minor injuries that have compromised his career, he has raced only once this year. But he's extremely talented. And a string of solid workouts, the most recent one Thursday (seven-eighths of a mile in 1:26.20), suggests he's ready to return.

28. Kobe's Back (99-1): Two-year-olds rarely enter the race for Horse of the Year, but he looked very special when, despite breaking in the air, he won his debut in the Willard Proctor Memorial at Hollywood.

29. Normandy Invasion (99-1): He flashed his talent when he made the lead in the stretch of the Kentucky Derby; he has considerable talent and quality, but still needs to figure out that the goal is the winner's circle.

30. All others (8-1): This obviously includes a plethora of outstanding horses, such as Power Broker, Beholder, Fast Bullet, Comma To The Top, Liaison, Midnight Lucky, Bourbon Courage, Called To Serve, Declassify and Stephanie's Kitten, as well as any Europeans that might invade.

Paynter, of course, should top any list of intriguing horses to watch during this Championship Season. But champions Groupie Doll, My Miss Aurelia and Shanghai Bobby could all return. Amir's Prince, who won the Mervin Muniz Memorial in March, could develop into a top turf horse when he gets back to competition. And Eblouissante, Zenyatta's half-sister, had a recent workout in New York in preparation for the third start of her career. And then there are the 2-year-olds. In addition to Kobe's Back, several youngsters already have shown uncommon talent, including D'cajun Cat and two fillies that meet Saturday in the Debutante Stakes at Churchill Downs, Teardrop and Fiftyshadesofgold.

A year in horse racing is like a sumptuous meal that begins with the dessert. Well, the pudding, the cheesecake and the ice cream are gone.