3-year-olds set to surge?
Updated: July 25, 2012, 1:28 PM ETBy Gary West | Special to ESPN.com
The race for the Eclipse Award could be over, the bejeweled winners of the Triple Crown races have been retired, and so spokespersons from the Cockamamie Institute of Mad Hatters have rushed forward to describe this season's 3-year-olds in terms suggestive of something wilting beneath a sneeze guard. But from here, these 3-year-olds still look solid. Only a division that's neck-deep in talent could produce races so intriguing as Saturday's Jim Dandy at Saratoga and Sunday's Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park. In the spring, when Bodemeister hit Arkansas like a williwaw and Gemologist rolled through New York like a motorcade, this group of 3-year-olds, nearly everyone agreed, had the right stuff. They displayed talent, shouted potential and sent expectations climbing. This was going to be a humdinger of a Triple Crown series. And it was, or it nearly was. But despite an anticlimactic conclusion to the Triple Crown and even with the retirements of Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner I'll Have Another and Belmont Stakes winner Union Rags, this season's 3-year-olds still look strong, and there remains the possibility they could be outstanding. Yes, even without the jewel-winners in the game, that possibility's still out there, like a live Daily Double ticket, because these 3-year-olds are still growing, learning, developing, still moving in a positive way in the general direction of superlativeness. This isn't about the Eclipse Award for outstanding 3-year-old. I'll Have Another has almost certainly won that already. In the last 20 years, only a trio of champions won the Eclipse as the best 3-year-old without having won a Triple Crown race: Tiznow (2000), Skip Away (1996) and Holy Bull (1994). And only one horse (Tabasco Cat) that won two-thirds of the Triple Crown wasn't named champion. And so, as Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert said, somebody would have to do something "really big" to take the championship away from I'll Have Another; somebody, in other words, would have to do something comparable to Holy Bull's winning the Met Mile, Haskell, Travers and Woodward. And that's not going to happen. No, at this point, for these 3-year-olds, the question is whether any of them can develop into superlative racehorses capable of competing at the very highest level. That's what would make this an outstanding group, and some of them indeed could take that next step, or maybe even a leap, forward before the Breeders' Cup in November. But who will they be that advance? And could Paynter, Gemologist, Dullahan, Nonios, Alpha, Liaison, Atigun or Neck 'n Neck step forward this weekend? "I think Paynter is a really exceptional horse," said his trainer, Bob Baffert. Tuesday, Baffert sent Paynter traveling from California to New Jersey, where the lightly raced son of Awesome Again could be the Haskell favorite. Baffert thought so highly of Paynter that he ran the colt in the Santa Anita Derby in only the second start of his career. And despite his inexperience and his having never raced in a stakes or even around two turns, Paynter finished fourth, less than four lengths behind I'll Have Another. And after a jaw-dropping performance on Preakness day at Pimlico, he finished second in the Belmont.
AP PhotoWill Alpha step to the front in the division?
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