SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - The winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness is retired in Japan. The runner-up in the first two American Classics for 3-year-olds, having accomplished little more, is retired and awaiting transport to Kentucky, where the Belmont Stakes winner is also at leisure until the breeding season begins in February.
At the moment, Questing is the only 3-year-old that matters, the standard by which the others are measured.
On Saturday, the $1-million Travers Stakes will be run here for the 143rd time. Perhaps someone from the New York Racing Association so empowered will order that the outdoor benches at Saratoga Race Course be cleaned for the occasion lest someone's seersucker suit be accidentally soiled. After the Ballston Spa, Test and King's Bishop Stakes are run for a total of $1.25 million in purse money, 10 3-year-olds will chase Alpha around a honed, speed-favoring racetrack in the Travers hoping to catch Questing's stablemate before the expiration of 10 furlongs.
They'll be chasing Alpha, or another sent to the lead hoping to take a surprise advantage, but they're really be running against Questing.
At the moment, Questing is the only 3-year-old that matters, the standard by which the others -- male and female, retired and active, infirm and too slow to hurt themselves -- are measured.
Questing proved everything required -- except perhaps how much is yet to be revealed -- a week ago with an astonishing performance in the Alabama Stakes, a performance beyond -- far beyond -- the capability of any of her male contemporaries. The effort was astonishing in a year when the male 3-year-olds are no more than astonishingly fragile with the best of them sent off to breed and produce more cripples.
In the process of establishing herself as the best 3-year-old of either sex to race in this country during 2012, Questing traveled 10 furlongs over the course on which what passes as a field of Grade 1-caliber males will run on Saturday in 2:01.29. She led at every call while setting a pace that should have left her in a smoldering heap somewhere near the quarter pole --:22.84, :46.01, 1:09.74, 1:36.06 -- and was nine lengths clear at the wire laughing.
A week later, there is no 3-year-old of consequence in the Travers. Alpha, Questing's male contemporary in the Godolphin Empire if only in terms of age, is the overnight favorite on the strength of his victory in the Jim Dandy Stakes here last month. When Hansen, whose inflamed left foreleg led to his withdrawal on Wednesday, came out of the Travers, Alpha, with a lone Grade 2 title, was left as the most accomplished colt in a field of 11.
The last Kentucky Derby winner with a productive racing career beyond age three was Funny Cide, a gelding, who won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 2003.
This probably says more about the frailty of the horses being produced by American breeders than it does about the survivors and raises questions about the willingness of breeders to send horses to stud after effective careers that spanned less than a year. Both Questing and Alpha are homebred products of the Darley Stable, with Godolphin part of the ruling family of Dubai's global racing colossus. The family breeds to race. If there is ever another American Triple Crown winner, it will likely carry the Godolphin colors and will not have been purchased at auction from a commercial breeder.
But there are more immediate titles at hand and within Godolphin's grasp than the elusive Triple Crown.
If Questing, who won the Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks prior to the Alabama, wins a Grade 1 race during the autumn and the Breeders' Cup Ladies Classic, she would be a strong candidate for Horse of the Year. If her owners elect to run her against a highly suspect group of older males in the Breeders' Cup Classic and she is successful, she would certainly be the fourth female American Horse of the Year following Rachel Alexandra, Zenyatta and Havre de Grace.
It is at this point unclear what the dominance of females and fragility of males says about American racing and breeding. Trends are manifest over periods longer than three or four years, but there may be more evolving here than is immediately evident in the crumbling upper crust of male thoroughbreds in this country, which is no longer coincidental but appears to have become perennial. The last Kentucky Derby winner with a productive racing career beyond age three was Funny Cide, a gelding, who won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 2003.
The root of this trend is yet to be identified. The trend itself, however, is troubling.
Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award and has received various honors from the National Association of Newspaper Editors, Society of Silurians, Long Island Press Club and Long Island Veterinary Medical Association. He also has been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.