If Untapable wins Sunday on the Jersey shore, she'll join the leaders, Palace Malice and California Chrome, in the race to be named Horse of the Year. And if she loses, she'll be all but eliminated from the golden contest. In another sport, it'd be called the elimination round. That's what's at stake at Monmouth Park, that and the Haskell's million bucks.
Although flexible when circumstances push thinking outside its traditional comfort zone, precedent is rather insistent that a filly or mare must win against males if she's going to be Horse of the Year, Azeri and Zenyatta being the exceptions. When Azeri won the Golden Eclipse Award in 2002, she was essentially a default choice because the other options were simply unthinkable. Winning eight of nine, including the Breeders' Cup Distaff, she carved out an artful campaign. War Emblem, on the other hand, topped off his season with a prune, finishing eighth in the Breeders' Cup Classic. And the Classic winner, Volponi, had won only one other stakes all year, the Poker Handicap. Zenyatta didn't win against males either during her Horse of the Year campaign, but the great mare had taken the Classic the previous season in dramatically exhilarating style and she inspired fanatical devotion.
Aside perhaps from Secretariat's Triple Crown, has any horse ever accomplished more in a short time than All Along, 1983's Horse of the Year? Two weeks after winning the Arc de Triomphe, the 4-year-old filly invaded North America, winning the Rothmans International at Woodbine; and then, in quick succession, she took the Turf Classic at Aqueduct and the Washington D. C. International Stakes at Laurel. Lady's Secret won the 1986 Whitney, and Havre De Grace the 2011 Woodward on their way to being named Horse of the Year. And, of course, in 2009 Rachel Alexandra authored one of the most glorious, unbeaten campaigns ever seen from a 3-year-old filly, winning eight stakes, including the Preakness, the Haskell and the Woodward.
And so to put herself in the Horse of the Year vanguard with Palace Malice and California Chrome, Untapable must win Sunday. This isn't 2002, when the dearth of worthy candidates made the Horse of the Year race seem more like a political debate. Untapable doesn't have an army of fanatical devotees or a resume as long as Monmouth's stretch; she has to win now, on Sunday, if she's going to be a serious candidate for the sport's top honor. And the Haskell could be the perfect place for her to make her case.
"It's a tremendous opportunity for her," said her trainer, Steve Asmussen. "Her races early in the year aroused some curiosity about how she would match up against the males. She's doing extremely well, and it's the right time to take them on."
Because Asmussen also trained Rachel Alexandra, comparisons are inevitable. And it flatters Untapable enormously that people even think for a moment to compare the fillies. At this point in her campaign, Rachel Alexandra had won all six of her outings by a total of 59 lengths, and yet the Haskell might have been her summit, her greatest performance. She stalked the speedy Munnings from the outside while racing three-to-four wide. Entering the second turn, Munnings still led and Summer Bird advanced along the rail to edge his way into second, and then suddenly there was this sonic boom and Rachel Alexandra turned the Haskell into a solo performance, a walkover, a soliloquy. At the wire, six lengths back in second was Summer Bird, who, of course, had just won the Belmont and would go on to win the Travers and the Jockey Club Gold Cup.
"Rachel was very strong and very aggressive," Asmussen said, recalling the Horse of the Year whose first foal is now a 2-year-old. "She said, 'Here I am; now deal with it.'"
Untapable is more temperamental, more aloof, but at the same time more demanding. As her regular rider, Rosie Napravnik, put it in an interview with ESPN.com's Barry Abrams, Untapable is "a little princess." It's as if, the jockey said, Untapable believes this is her world, "and we're all just living in it."
She has an attitude, in other words, a regal, haughty, supercilious confidence that she can do whatever she likes, however she likes -- or not do it, if that's what she likes. And that's why Untapable's victory in the recent Mother Goose was an important step in the filly's maturity and development. It was the first time, Asmussen pointed out, she took her show on the road successfully; the first time she won away from her home base. For all her prior victories, she merely had to step casually out of her own stall, saunter like a princess over to the paddock and then effortlessly establish her dominion. But for the Mother Goose, she had to hop onto a van and then onto a plane and then onto another van, hardly a regal mode of transport, to travel to Belmont Park; still, despite some trouble in the race, she won by more than nine lengths. Granted, her talent cast such a huge shadow that it was hard even to see anybody else in the field; she's one of the game's great movers, a study in graceful mo-tion. Still, winning by more than nine lengths, the graceful, little princess suggested she might be ready to accept the queen's crown.
This Haskell could be the perfect place for her to accept that role and its concomitant responsibility, the perfect place, in other words, after this year's four easy victories by a combined 31 lengths, for her to realize that all her rivals won't submit readily. The others expected for the Haskell are certainly formidable. Bayern won the Woody Stephens Stakes by more than seven lengths. Wildcat Red, who made his big splash in the Fountain of Youth Stakes, won the recent Quality Road Stakes by 10 lengths. Social Inclusion ran third in the Preakness, and Medal Count third in the Belmont. And Albano got a good feel for Monmouth when he took the recent Pegasus by more than six lengths. Yes, this is a good group, with abundant speed.
But, Asmussen said, they'll have to adjust to Untapable, not the other way around. That's the way it is with royalty. And if she wins Sunday, she's very much in the discussion for Horse of the Year.