Shanghai Bobby, the champion 2-year-old of 2012, won last year's Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga; Violence, a two-time stakes winner who was also one of the most accomplished 2-year-olds of 2012, won his debut at Saratoga; seven horses in this year's Kentucky Derby raced last year at Saratoga.
And the three winners in the Triple Crown all raced as 2-year-olds at Saratoga. But they were hardly the most eye-catching, head-turning youngsters around. Orb had his gate issues, Oxbow popped a stifle, and Palace Malice bucked shins. They were like Shrodinger's cat, existing in two states simultaneously, the troubled tyro and the future classic winner.
You have to pick out the 2-year-olds you need to wait on, and if you pick wrong it can be a costly error.
”-- Steve Asmussen, Thoroughbred trainer
Saratoga is obviously the place for the best 2-year-olds, whether they're racing to win now or to win later. And, of course, distinguishing between the two types is essential, for horsemen and bettors alike.
"There are quite a lot of financial opportunities there for 2-year-olds," said trainer Steve Asmussen, who'll saddle horses in both stakes races for 2-year-olds on opening weekend at Saratoga, Brazen Persuasion in the Schuylerville and Southern Blessing in the Sanford. Asmussen already has won with 15 2-year-olds this year, most of them during the Churchill Downs season. And he'll have 12 at Saratoga, some of those winners as well as some maidens. "But they're not for everybody," he continued, speaking about the early opportunities. "You have to pick out the 2-year-olds you need to wait on, and if you pick wrong it can be a costly error."
Bahnah, the 7-5 favorite for Friday's Schuylerville, and Debt Ceiling, the likely favorite for Sunday's Sanford, are obviously "now" youngsters, precocious types that, in most cases, can dazzle with their maturity or speed and leave their rivals looking like bumfuzzled Shangri-Las, lovingly dedicated to following the Leader of the Pack. Bahnah, who's no bigger than a paperweight, won her debut by six lengths at Churchill; and Debt Ceiling, who's unbeaten in three races, already has won two stakes.
Brazen Persuasion has flashed brilliance, too, and she's 3-1 for the Schuylerville. Second in her debut, the Indian Charlie filly returned to win in her second start at Churchill by nearly five lengths while running three-quarters of a mile in 1:09.69, nearly a full second faster than the Bashford Manor Stakes run later in the day (after a shower forced the sealing of the track).
"She progressed after her first race," Asmussen said. "She's talented, and she has the ability to compete at this high level."
Conformation and pedigree, Asmussen pointed out, are the main factors in determining what 2-year-olds can take advantage of these early opportunities and which ones require patient handling. A long-striding grandson of A.P. Indy, Orb, for example, clearly wasn't going to excel in the juvenile sprints at Saratoga. But they were essential to his education and development. And while some horses can soar almost immediately to a high level of performance as 2-year-olds but then, as if having approached too near the sun, never advance much further and might even regress -- Uncle Mo, Hansen, Midshipman, Nobiz Like Shobiz and Rockport Harbor leap to mind -- others, such as Palace Malice, a late foal, are destined to develop slowly and incrementally. But even those youngsters that need patience can benefit from early racing and from the lessons that are only gained through competition.
Considerable research, the latest coming out of Australia, has concluded that horses that have raced at 2 generally have longer, more productive careers than those who didn't debut until later.
Because 2-year-olds require so much education, a trainer just "can't mail it in with these young horses," said Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas. He said he has held back his 2-year-olds until now, waiting for the lucrative opportunities of Saratoga. "And I think I have some really nice young horses," he said.
Considerable research, the latest coming out of Australia, has concluded that horses that have raced at 2 generally have longer, more productive careers than those who didn't debut until later. The recent study from the University of Sydney, which looked at more than 117,000 horses, found that early racing contributed to longer careers. The benefits, according to the Australian study, actually increased as the youngsters raced longer distances.
Orb, Oxbow and Palace Malice didn't become stakes winners until this year. Would they have had their Triple Crown success without the conditioning and education they received last year? Maybe not.
Yes, the most talented and most promising 2-year-olds converge on Saratoga, whether they're racing to win now or later. And it's important to distinguish between the two while closely watching both the winners and the losers.