Commentary

Horse of the year begins

Updated: June 15, 2012, 12:47 AM ET
By Gary West | Special to ESPN.com

The first season in the books, horse racing begins its second season Saturday. The Triple Crown dominates the sport's first season, of course, and with all its focus on jewels it can be more glittery than substantial, more about anticipation than realization. There's no disputing jewelry's dazzling allure. The first season's appeal reaches even the most casual fans whose interest may not endure the distraction of multiplicities.

But now the second season begins, the championship season, most notably with Saturday's Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs. This second season, of course, culminates with the Breeders' Cup championship races, run this year on Nov. 2-3 at Santa Anita.

And now the tone becomes more serious. This is like September of the baseball season, when every game weighs heavily on the standings. Yes, the jewels have their everlasting allure, and sport offers few moments more emotionally stirring than the annual eruption that follows the rendition of "My Old Kentucky Home" and greets the Derby horses as they come onto the track. But for serious fans of the game, there probably hasn't been a better race this year than the Stephen Foster.

The first season belongs to the celebrated pursuit of the jewels, but this second season determines the winners of the Eclipse Awards. And for many, the race to be Horse of the Year is about to begin in earnest.

Even though I'll Have Another was retired a day before the Belmont Stakes, with his victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, he became the early leader to win horse racing's highest honor. But history says he probably won't.

Even though I'll Have Another was retired a day before the Belmont Stakes, with his victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, he became the early leader to win horse racing's highest honor. But history says he probably won't.

Since Affirmed swept the Triple Crown series in 1978, the 11 horses who won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness all earned championship honors. But only two of them, Charismatic in 1999 and Sunday Silence in 1989, were named Horse of the Year.

I'll Have Another isn't even assured the 3-year-old championship. In 1969, Majestic Prince won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness before finishing second in the Belmont Stakes, the only loss of his brief but brilliant career. But Arts And Letters, who won the Belmont, Travers and Jockey Club Gold Cup, was named the season's champion 3-year-old and Horse of the Year.

So who are this season's leading candidates for Horse of the Year? Perhaps the discussion should start with Game On Dude, who returned from his Dubai sojourn to win the recent Californian Stakes by more than seven lengths in one of the best performances of the year. Although his Belmont hardly sparkled, Union Rags could follow Arts And Letters' path to become a championship contender when he takes on older horses in the fall.

And beyond that  well, just look at the Stephen Foster, where Wise Dan will probably be heavily favored, even after the scratch of his stablemate and half-brother, Successful Dan.

"Wise Dan is spot on," said his trainer, Charlie Lopresti, explaining that entering both horses was simply a just-in-case move but that it's Wise Dan's turn to shine. A highly respected Kentucky horseman, Lopresti seldom ventures into the spotlight, but the two Dans should take him there.

Wise Dan won the Clark Handicap at Churchill last year, and in his seasonal debut, he romped by more than 10 lengths while winning the Ben Ali Stakes at Keeneland. But it's hard to say which of the Dans is better. Successful Dan has won five consecutive races, including the Alysheba Stakes. Lopresti said he could aim Successful Dan at the Suburban, on July 7, at Belmont.

"I don't like all the hype," Lopresti said. "I don't want the pressure on my horses. I'm a little nervous because there's a lot on the line. Everyone is expecting him (Wise Dan) to run the same kind of race he ran in the Ben Ali, but this is a lot tougher spot."

The Stephen Foster is such a tough spot that the winner of the Santa Anita Handicap, Ron The Greek, is 6-1 in the morning line. But having demonstrated his fondness for Santa Anita and for the classic distance, Ron The Greek could be a contender for honors at the end of the year. And Nehro, the runner-up in last year's Kentucky Derby, appears to be approaching top form. He finished second in the recent Pimlico Special to Alternation, a winner of four consecutive stakes and the 4-1 second-choice in the Stephen Foster.

Yes, the race for Horse of the Year begins in earnest Saturday.

An early line on the race for Horse of the Year:

Horse: Odds
1. Game On Dude: 5-1
2. I'll Have Another: 6-1
3. Wise Dan: 8-1
4. Successful Dan: 10-1
5. Union Rags: 10-1
6. To Honor And Serve: 12-1
7. Shackelford: 12-1
8. Acclamation: 12-1
9. Bodemeister: 15-1
10. Alternation: 15-1
11. Ron The Greek: 20-1
12. It's Tricky: 30-1
13.Royal Delta: 30-1
14. Nehro: 30-1
15. Mucho Macho Man: 30-1
16. Awesome Maria: 50-1
17. The Factor: 50-1
18. Nates Mineshaft: 50-1
19. Paynter: 50-1
20. All Others: 6-1