Commentary

Hope for the future

Updated: November 23, 2012, 10:58 AM ET
By Gary West | Special to ESPN.com

Up to your earlobes in hokum and weary of apocalypse-talk, your head throbbing from all the Lasix debate and your financial future teetering on the edge of a baleful cliff, you're nevertheless expected to be thankful this time of year. Sometimes giving thanks can be like giving blood.

Despite some exhilarating moments, for the most part 2012 has been disappointing, and the sport, like the country, often has seemed riven by binary thinking.

But just look at the entries in New York, Kentucky and California for the next few days, look especially at the Hollywood Prevue, the Remsen and the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, and you'll find that promising young horses will be racing everywhere. And so for this we can all be thankful: horse racing's boundless capacity for replenishing itself.

Despite some exhilarating moments, for the most part 2012 has been disappointing, and the sport, like the country, often has seemed riven by binary thinking. But looking at these 2-year-olds, at the promise and ambition they represent, you have to be optimistic, or at least hopeful, about 2013.

John Kenneth Galbraith once said that there are two types of people who tell you what will happen: those who don't know and those who don't know they don't know. Still, without the accompaniment of a flamboyant prediction, optimism can be reasonable. From here, the talent among this season's juveniles appears to be as deep as the Mariana Trench, and it's not just a sparkly precociousness, but rather it's a talent that bespeaks potential. For whatever reason -- perhaps the new point-based criteria for determining Kentucky Derby starters or the Breeders' Cup ban on Lasix -- this season's juveniles, as a group, seem to have come along unhurriedly. Some already have emerged stylishly, and many more are just about to.

"Right now, we're just taking baby steps," Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert said about the progress of his many 2-year-olds. And his stable seems especially strong with youthful potential, with flashy juveniles whose baby steps could soon stretch into long gallops. On Thursday, for example, Baffert has four of the five horses entered in the Hollywood Prevue Stakes, including the two favorites in the morning line, Super Ninety Nine (7-5) and Shakin It Up (8-5).

Super Ninety Nine would have been one of the favorites in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Sprint, but was scratched on the morning of the race, having banged himself up in his stall. Although a minor setback, the incident, Baffert said, was the "first domino to fall" on what turned out to be a disappointing Breeders' Cup for him.

"He's a beautiful horse," Baffert said of Super Ninety Nine, a brightly chestnut son of Pulpit. "He was training great before the Breeders' Cup, and he's been training great since."

Having raced but once, Super Ninety Nine won his debut at Santa Anita in early October, beating Shakin It Up, who rallied from last, by a little more than a length. Shakin It Up returned 20 days later to win by more than four lengths, again rallying from last while racing three-to-four wide in the turn and running the final quarter-mile in 23.94 seconds.

"If they're going to run in the CashCall [Futurity on Dec. 15]," they need this race," Baffert said, explaining the importance of the Prevue. And if all goes well, Baffert said, he could have as many as four or five starters in the $750,000 CashCall, including Power Broker, who finished fifth after a nightmarish trip in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

Based largely on the colt's jaw-dropping six-length victory in the FrontRunner Stakes, Baffert expressed considerable confidence in Power Broker as they approached the Breeders' Cup. But that confidence lasted about as long as the run to the first turn in the Juvenile, where a horse to his inside (Fortify) drifted out and forced Power Broker to race six-wide. On a speed-favoring surface, Power Broker's chances ended there.

"He's going to be a good horse," Baffert said, as if cautioning against placing too much emphasis on the Juvenile. "But he's still immature and figuring things out. He just needs racing."

All youngsters, of course, need racing to discover their talents and realize their potential, but there's plenty of racing in the offing. In fact, Saturday might be the best day of the year for scouting potential. In New York, where Groupie Doll will attempt to argue for Horse of the Year honors, Aqueduct will offer six races for 2-year-olds, including two stakes.

Emollient, who'll be the favorite in the Demoiselle, "could be the real deal," according to her Hall of Fame trainer, Bill Mott. The youngsters in the Remsen Stakes seem short on accomplishments, but they could be long on potential, with Delhomme, Normandy Invasion, Overanalyze and Micromanage having made promising gestures.

Promise should not be confused with accomplishment, but Uncaptured, the star of the Kentucky Jockey Club, seems to have a plentiful supply of both.

And in Kentucky, the entire Churchill Downs card Saturday is dedicated to 2-year-olds -- long and short races, dirt and turf, for fillies and colts. The Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, which has attracted four stakes winners, just might produce the early favorite for next year's Derby, and if not the favorite then several possibilities.

Tesseron is among several intriguing horses in the Kentucky Jockey Club. In only the second start of his career, the long-striding gray colt closed relentlessly to finish second in the Grey Stakes at Woodbine despite having to race wide in both turns. And Indiano Jones, who ran third in the Grey but finished strongly, galloping out beyond the winner, also has traveled to Kentucky for a race that could serve many as a springboard. Dewey Square is unbeaten in two races, having won by nearly 16 total lengths; Joha is a two-time stakes winner; Frac Daddy scored his initial victory by nearly 10 lengths.

Promise should not be confused with accomplishment, but Uncaptured, the star of the Kentucky Jockey Club, seems to have a plentiful supply of both. A beautiful mover who can accelerate in a blink, he has won five of his six races, including three stakes in Canada and, in his most recent outing, the Iroquois Stakes at Churchill, where an explosive move carried him more than five lengths clear of the field.

"The way these things go, it's about how they progress, and he's progressed," said Uncaptured's trainer, Mark Casse, about the promising son of Lion Heart. "It looks like he's a really nice horse, but we still have to figure out if he's top of the class."

Uncaptured traveled to Churchill Downs for the obvious reason, with his connections having an eye on a future that might include the Kentucky Derby.

"You always have to focus on the first Saturday in May," Casse said. "If he pulls off the win Saturday, I think he'd have to be considered one of the best 2-year-olds in the country."

And with a convincing win Saturday, he'd probably be considered a favorite for next year's Derby. Yes, that time already has arrived, that stage in the sport's relentless process of replenishing and restoring itself, when talk turns to the Kentucky Derby and to the promising youngsters who'll travel along the celebrated and varied road to the Triple Crown, a road gravid with potential that holds in each and every turn the possibility of emerging greatness, and that's reason for thanks indeed.