The Mid-Summer Derbies are at hand

August, 21, 2014

More than two months have passed since that afternoon at Belmont Park when we learned California Chrome is a very good 3-year-old, but not one of the sport's immortals.

Relatively little has changed in the interim.

We found out through the Haskell that the superstar 3-year-old filly Untapable lacks the moxie that past distaff champions like Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra had when it comes to beating the boys at their own game.

The same race illustrated how dangerous Bayern can be when allowed to cruise on the front end in a nine-furlong race.

Yet in terms of the search for an Eclipse Award winner, the quest still begins where it stood before the Belmont Stakes, with Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome front and center.

That could, though, begin to change after this weekend. While California Chrome continues to train toward his first race since finishing in a dead-heat for fourth in the Belmont, the bi-coastal duo of the Travers and Pacific Classic should answer the question if there's a 3-year-old good enough to eventually wrest the moniker of "pro-tem" leader away from him.

In a sense both races are basically elimination contests in that chase.

A win in either of them could put someone in contention while a loss would derail their hopes. Then a follow-up win in a race like the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont or Awesome Again at Santa Anita would maintain the momentum and the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic would be the race that promises to settle everything.

For horses like Tonalist, the Belmont winner, Bayern and even Wicked Strong any hope of becoming a champion will most likely hinge on a victory in the $1.25 million Travers at Saratoga.

Bayern is the 2-1 morning-line favorite in the Mid-Summer Derby and the one bringing the most intrigue with him to the Spa.

For horses like Tonalist, Bayern and even Wicked Strong any hope of becoming a champion will most likely hinge on a victory in the $1.25 million Travers at Saratoga.

His 3-year-old campaign delayed by a bruised foot, Bayern failed to crack the field of 20 for the Kentucky Derby and trainer Bob Baffert instead ran him in the Preakness. After a poor start, Bayern checked in ninth at Pimlico and the general reaction was that it exposed the son of Offlee Wild as a sprinter or miler more than a classic runner.

A dominant 7 -length win in the seven-furlong Woody Stephens on the Belmont Stakes card underscored that notion, but it also convinced Baffert to test Bayern in the mile and an eighth Haskell. When he rocketed to a 7 -length romp at Monmouth over a field that included Untapable, it raised the notion that he could be something special -- if he can win at the classic distance of a mile and a quarter.

The 10-furlong Travers will answer that question for everyone, including Baffert, who understands that extra furlong is a gray area for his speedy colt.

"The Haskell was pretty impressive," Baffert said. "Will he take a step backward? I don't know, but he looks good. He's not a really big horse, but he's fast. He's a handy horse, and he's got a lot of speed. I'm not totally convinced he can go a mile and a quarter, but he's pretty fast. You just have to let him go and see what happens. You can't worry about it. When you have a horse with that kind of brilliant speed, you have to use it."

Tonalist can surely handle the distance based on a win in the mile-and-a-half Belmont. He finished second to Wicked Strong in the mile-and-an-eighth Jim Dandy at Saratoga in his first start since giving trainer Christophe Clement his first Triple Crown triumph and figures to benefit from the seasoning gained in that July 26 race over the racetrack.

"I think everything was fine. He just got beat. It's called a horse race, and you get beat sometimes. I don't think he ran a bad race, he just got beat," Clement said. "I'm looking forward to the Travers. I'm looking forward to a mile and a quarter. I'm looking forward to the pace scenario. I'm excited. Let's go."

Wicked Strong won the Wood Memorial and sent off as the 6-1 second-choice in the Derby but finished fourth there and wound up in a dead-heat for fourth with California Chrome in the Belmont.

He rebounded in the Jim Dandy to beat Tonalist by 2 lengths while wearing blinkers for the first time and staying closer to the early pace than usual. If he tries that tactic again, it could be problematic with Bayern in the field, but trainer Jimmy Jerkens likes what he's seen lately from his colt.

"We needed to see that from him," Jerkens said about the Jim Dandy. "He's been slowly developing all along. He certainly didn't run bad in those [Triple Crown] races, but he hadn't put it together like that. It was good to see.

"I'm really happy with where we're at right now. He's doing good. We've just got to hold him together another few days until the race."

Adding to the interest in the race is Mr Speaker who was last seen winning the Belmont Derby, a Grade 1 mile-and-a-quarter stakes on turf. He has raced only once on the dirt, finishing a distant seventh in the Holy Bull this winter at Gulfstream, but with Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey calling the shots, it's impossible to ignore him.

"It's just a matter of whether he takes to the dirt or not," McGaughey said. "He'll be fine if he takes to the dirt. You never know on the dirt when you turn their head loose and ask them to run what they're going to do or if the dirt gets to hitting them. I don't think that will be a problem. If he takes to it and does fine, I think we'll be in the ballgame."

The field also includes potential spoilers like Kid Cruz, V.E.Day, Kentucky Derby runner-up Commanding Curve, Viva Majorca, Charge Now and Ulanbator, who would each be deserving of a thank you note from California Chrome's "Dumb-Ass Partners" ownership group if they spring an upset at "The Graveyard of Favorites."

Meanwhile, on Sunday, another major player in the 3-year-old division, the undefeated Shared Belief, will face an acid test in the Pacific Classic. For those with short memories, Shared Belief was last year's 2-year-old champ. But foot issues kept the gelding out of the Triple Crown and his lone 2014 starts -- and wins -- are just a Golden Gate allowance race and the Grade 2 Los Alamitos Derby.

The $1 million Pacific Classic, against older horses at a mile and a quarter, represents a huge step forward in terms of a challenge, and a victory against a field that's expected to include Gold Cup at Santa Anita winner Majestic Harbor and $6.4 million earner Game On Dude would be an even bigger feather in his cap than the one that will go to the Travers winner.

Put it all together and the winds of change are surely beginning to swirl in the 3-year-old division and by the end of the weekend a forecast for the fall could be in the place.

The Mid-Summer Derby, or in this instance, Mid-Summer Derbies, are at hand.

• Bob Ehalt grew up a few furlongs from Belmont Park and has followed horse racing as a fan, turf writer or owner since 1971.
• Has won three Associated Press Sports Editors awards and was the recipient of the '09 Breeders' Cup media award for outstanding social media.



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