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A few days before Todd Pletcher was to saddle five horses in the Kentucky Derby, somebody asked the trainer to evaluate the season's 3-year-olds. He handled the question deftly, as always, like Ozzie Smith with a routine grounder. Pletcher basically said that they appeared to be a solid group, these 3-year-olds, but that any conclusion could only come later, when they take on older horses.
Later arrives Saturday, when, most notably, Kentucky Derby winner Orb and Belmont Stakes winner Palace Malice get acquainted with their elders in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park. And from there, if the outcome encourages, Orb and Palace Malice will join Will Take Charge in the Breeders' Cup Classic.
And they'll make a solid trio. Pletcher's preliminary evaluation back in May will, I suspect, prove conclusive: This is a solid, if unspectacular, class of 3-year-olds. Although the febrile anticipation of the Triple Crown leads to an annual ritual of hopefulness and stargazing, there's no Tiznow, Smarty Jones, Curlin, Point Given, Bernardini or Rachel Alexandra in this group. This season's 3-year-olds, in other words, are average, their collective talents typical. And although for people of a certain sensibility nothing can approach the insult of being called average, in this case average is good. Average means these 3-year-olds will be competitive Saturday and again in the Breeders' Cup Classic.
In recent years, the 3-year-olds have been, for the most part, ordinary or less, their below-averageness backlit by failures in the fall or, in many cases, by an absence from the Classic. The Kentucky Derby winner hasn't raced in the Classic since 2009, and Mine That Bird finished ninth. In the last four Breeders' Cups, 18 3-year-olds have started in the Classic, but with nothing more to show for their efforts than two thirds: That's 18-0-0-2.
But recent years aside, 3-year-olds have had considerable success in the Classic, starting in 1985 with Proud Truth, who finished fifth in the Kentucky Derby but improved significantly in the fall and loved Aqueduct, the site of the second Breeders' Cup championships. Over the years, 125 3-year-olds have raced in 29 Breeders' Cup Classics: 37 percent of the starters. And they've won nine, or 31 percent of the Classics.
Yes, their win-rate doesn't quite match their participation, but given the jewel-centric nature of the division, their success has been more than a little surprising. Because 3-year-olds usually define themselves and anoint a champion in the Triple Crown series, they're often spent by the fall. That was certainly the case, for example, in 1997, when Silver Charm led an outstanding group that included Captain Bodgit, Free House, Pulpit and Touch Gold. But only Touch Gold ran in the Classic. And in 2004 -- another good year for the sophomores -- Smarty Jones was done after losing for the first time in the Belmont Stakes; done, too, were many of those that poured out their energies chasing him. And so only three 3-year-olds ran in the 2004 Classic; of those, Personal Rush, an invader from Japan, gave the best performance, finishing sixth.
But nine 3-year-olds have won the Classic, including four that also won at least one Triple Crown race -- Sunday Silence, Unbridled, A.P. Indy and Curlin. On four occasions, in 1989, 1994, 2000 and 2007, 3-year-olds dominated the race, shutting out the older horses from the exacta, or trifecta or, in two cases, the superfecta.
That won't happen this year. But the 3-year-olds will make some noise and compete and threaten. In 21 Classics, at least one 3-year-old has finished "in the money," or top three. And so from just an average class of 3-year-olds, a horse or two generally rises to the level of a Classic competitor.
Will that competitor this year be Orb, Palace Malice or Will Take Charge, or could all three threaten in the Classic? Right now, they're nowhere near the performance level of, say, Tiznow in September of 2000, or Curlin in September of 2007. But Orb, Palace Malice and Will Take Charge all seem to be gaining strength. And, as Will Take Charge's Hall of Fame trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, pointed out, enough time remains for a rapidly improving colt to take yet another step forward. (Lukas, by the way, trained Cat Thief, who won the Classic as a 3-year-old in 1999.)
And Pletcher, calling Palace Malice a "remarkable horse," explained that the son of Curlin has moved dramatically forward at a time when most 3-year-olds need a rest. Palace Malice seems to thrive on training and racing. Since his supernova burst in the Kentucky Derby, he won the Belmont, of course, and then the Jim Dandy, and then, in his eighth start of the year, he finished fourth in the Travers despite a troubled start and an overland journey that left many wondering if he might have been best.
"He has physically flourished through that kind of activity," Pletcher said about Palace Malice. "He looks to me like he's put on weight since the Travers and mentally he takes everything in stride."
He and Orb will distinguish themselves when they meet their elders Saturday. Will Take Charge, with his victory in the Pennsylvania Derby, already has punched his ticket to Santa Anita for the Classic. Yes, it's just an average group of 3-year-olds, but that's a good thing because it means that those rising to the top are special and, even more, capable of having an impact on the Breeders' Cup.