Championship Season kicks off

Steve Coburn put a new spin on what it means to be a Dumbass Partner, but having apologized for his post-Belmont tirade, he'll quickly be forgiven -- not that it matters so much because, after all, Eclipse Award voters generally don't penalize horses for their connections' follies and failings. Most important, like his co-owner, California Chrome will be forgiven, too, for his Belmont Stakes, where he couldn't overcome a tough trip and an injured foot. He'll even be forgiven for what he's not, which means he'll be appreciated for the outstanding racehorse he is. And so if the voting were today, California Chrome would be Horse of the Year. In other words, he was the most accomplished racehorse for the first half of 2014.

And if this were a typical season, California Chrome would be the 2-1 favorite to be named Horse of the Year for all of 2014 when voters get around to tying a ribbon on it all. Already, in only six months, he has accomplished more than Wise Dan in all of 2013. Last season's Horse of the Year won six of his seven starts, including the Breeders' Cup Mile, and earned $2,751,972. California Chrome already this year has earned $3,317,800 while winning five of his six outings, including two-thirds of the Triple Crown.

But this isn't a typical year, or at least it's unlike recent seasons. This year, Palace Malice is showing fans and Eclipse voters, including many who seem to have forgotten, what a champion older horse looks like. And so California Chrome, although sparkling in his Kentucky Derby and Preakness victories and admirable even in defeat, is the most accomplished horse for the first half of 2014, but Palace Malice is the favorite to be named this season's Horse of the Year.

In a perversion of values that would seem, at best, unwise for a sport that desperately needs to keep its stars on the racetrack, horse racing insists on showering the youngsters, specifically the 3-year-olds, with riches during the first 5 ½ months of the year, a stretch which might be called the Triple Crown Season. But the Championship Season has begun and the focus shifts from winning floral arrangements to securing titles. The money shifts, too.

Although unbeaten in four races this year, including the Met Mile and the New Orleans Handicap, Palace Malice has accumulated less than half -- $1,150,000 -- of California Chrome's bankroll. But older horses will have more lucrative opportunities in the coming months, such as the $1.5 million Whitney on Aug. 2 at Saratoga and the $1 million Pacific Classic on Aug. 14 at Del Mar and the $1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup on Oct. 4 at Belmont Park, all culminating, of course, with the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic on Nov. 1 at Santa Anita.

Palace Malice has laid the foundation. In the Met Mile, one of the most prestigious races in the country, he had to break from the rail and then wait behind horses, but he shot through traffic like a runaway taxi when he got his opening and won by a length over an outstanding field. And a mile isn't his best distance. In March, at 1 ⅛ miles, he won the New Orleans Handicap by almost five lengths, and last year, of course, he took the Belmont Stakes. His trainer, Todd Pletcher, called Palace Malice's most recent victory remarkable and said the big colt is in terrific form. The division is deep and strong, and yet Palace Malice just might have the talent to dominate it. And so, to project forward, he could be poised for a sensational Championship Season. That's why he's the 4-1 individual favorite to be Horse of the Year.

No, the sport didn't get a Triple Crown winner. But it does have an intriguing race to be Horse of the Year:

1. Palace Malice (4-1)
He hasn't accomplished as much as California Chrome so far this year, but Palace Malice has become the most feared horse in the country, and maybe the best. He'll probably make his next start, Pletcher said, in the Whitney Stakes.

2. California Chrome (9-2)
He stood out through an outstanding Triple Crown campaign and will now get a rest before being aimed at the Breeders' Cup Classic. He indeed has sufficient talent to take on the older horses.

3. Game On Dude (8-1)
Just when you might have thought the 7-year-old gelding was slowing down, he romped in the Santa Anita Handicap, which arguably remains the best performance so far this year. If he had run that kind of race last November, he would have been Horse of the Year. But because of his on-the-pace style, he's always vulnerable, and as he has aged, he has become less consistent. But the venerable veteran can still drop jaws. He's aimed at the Gold Cup on June 29.

4. Tonalist (12-1)
The winner of the Belmont Stakes and the Peter Pan, he's lightly raced and improving. If Tonalist takes the Travers and continues to progress, he could be in the running for Horse of the Year honors as he goes to the Breeders' Cup.

5. Will Take Charge (15-1)
He has finished second more frequently than he has won this year. But before coming on strongly to be the 3-year-old champion, he accomplished little in the first half of 2013. He could do the same again, and he loves Saratoga, where he'll probably make his next start, in the Whitney.

6. Lea (20-1)
He looked sensational while winning the Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park, but then illness sidelined him. Lea recently worked three-eighths of a mile at Saratoga, where he'll probably return to competition.

7. Untapable (20-1)
Nobody is more dominant in a division than Untapable. She has won her three races this year by a total of nearly 22 lengths. But while she's among the best and most talented horses in the country, what are the chances for a 3-year-old filly to be Horse of the Year? Before Rachel Alexandra in 2009, the last 3-year-old filly to be honored as Horse of the Year was Busher in 1945. They both defeated males multiple times. Untapable returns to competition June 28 in the Mother Goose Stakes at Belmont Park.

8. Wise Dan (30-1)
The reigning two-time Horse of the Year is reportedly recovering nicely from surgery to repair a twisted small intestine. But he lost racing opportunities and considerable training so that winning the sport's top award would seem a long shot. Still, he's such a great competitor that he could repeat as champion turf horse.

9. Moonshine Mullin (30-1)
In the recent Stephen Foster Handicap, he won his fifth consecutive race, beating Will Take Charge, and becoming the first horse to earn an automatic berth in the Breeders' Cup Classic. How good is the former claimer? His trainer, Randy Morse, said he doesn't want to take on Palace Malice, but Moonshine Mullin could be a contender for one of the best stories of the year.

10. All others (7-2)
This group includes some outstanding horses, of course, such as Obviously, Close Hatches, Beholder, Princess of Sylmar, Shared Belief and Iotopa.