The sport's first season, of course, culminated with the Triple Crown. But the jewels, dazzling and exciting as ever, proved to be inconclusive. And so the 3-year-olds continue to sort themselves out, like youngsters pushing and shoving to get to the front of the line. Well, one of them probably will arrive there Saturday, assuming, at least for the moment, a leadership role within the division with a victory at Saratoga in the Travers. And these Travers youngsters, especially Orb and Palace Malice and Verrazano, look as if they could be capable in the fall of competing at the highest level with their elders.
Only nine 3-year-olds ever have won the Classic, the last one being Raven's Pass in 2008, a European invader who mistook the synthetic surface for the turf. Of the nine, four had won a Triple Crown race, and three of the four, Unbridled being the exception, were named Horse of the Year. A year before Raven's Pass, also as a 3-year-old, Curlin won the Classic on his way to being named Horse of the Year.
Could the same happen this year? Could a 3-year-old seize the Classic and maybe even the sport's top honor, the golden Eclipse Award? Maybe. The initial ESPN.com Classic poll includes three 3-year-olds in the top 10.
But secure at the top of the poll is Game On Dude. The Dude just keeps getting better. A 6-year-old, he's unbeaten in four starts this year, most recently taking the Hollywood Gold Cup. In fact, he hasn't last year's Breeders' Cup Classic, where he was rated and taken out of his free-running game, which resulted his finishing seventh.
In preparation for Sunday's Pacific Classic at Del Mar, he worked five-eighths of a mile Monday in 59.60 seconds, spotting a stablemate, Bank of Eight, a seven-length headstart and catching him in the stretch. The Dude's trainer, Bob Baffert, said it was just what the veteran gelding needed.
Also among the top 10 are Fort Larned, last year's Classic winner; Cross Traffic, who never has finished worse than second; Royal Delta, who won the Ladies' Classic each of the last two years, but is good enough on her best day to take on anybody; Paynter, the best story in racing; and the Dan brothers, Successful and Wise. And so here's the first ESPN.com Classic Contenders Poll.
1. Game On Dude
A winner of more than $5 million in his career, he has been remarkably consistent and reliable. A Classic victory would put among the richest of horses and make amends for last year.
2. Cross Traffic
The tenacious winner of the recent Whitney has lost but twice in his career, both in a photo. He has continued to improve, according to his trainer, and will make his next start Aug. 31 in the Woodward at Saratoga.
3. Fort Larned
Last year's Classic winner has been a model of inconsistency this year. He looked invincible when he won the Stephen Foster by six lengths, but then he faltered when unable to get the early lead in the Whitney. He could return in the Woodward.
4. Palace Malice
His early races this year left the words of an old Ray Charles tune ringing in the ears: "If it wasn't for bad luck, ya'll, I wouldn't have no luck at all." But everything came together for him when he won the Belmont Stakes, then he took the Jim Dandy, and as he aims at the Travers he seems to have continued to move forward.
How good is he? The Travers could answer the question, as well as the lingering question about his classic-distance ability. He's a monster of a horse with a monstrous talent, having won his last two by a total of 19 lengths. His only loss came on a muddy Churchill surface in the Derby.
After disappointing efforts in the Preakness and Belmont, the Kentucky Derby winner is back. He worked sharply Monday morning -- a half-mile in about 47.60 seconds -- over the usually deep Oklahoma training track in preparation for the Travers.
7. Royal Delta
When she won the Delaware Handicap by nearly 11 lengths, she reminded everyone just how good she is. At her best, she can beat the "guys." Running in the Classic must be a temptation, but it'll be hard to resist going for a third consecutive victory in the Distaff, or Ladies' Classic.
After winning last year's Haskell, he nearly died. But he has come back from death's doorstep to be a Classic contender and the sport's best story. He's expected to travel to Saratoga for the Woodward.
9. Successful Dan
He closed powerfully to be second in the Whitney and could be better on dirt than his more celebrated brother, Wise Dan. Successful Dan could return in the Woodward.
10. Wise Dan
Including him in this Classic poll is a rather loud expression of wishful thinking. Yes, he would be an intriguing addition to the Classic lineup, but so would Pegasus. But like Pegasus, the reigning Horse of the Year is very unlikely to show up in the Classic starting gate. He's aimed instead at the Breeders' Cup Mile, which he won a year ago.
Also receiving votes: Will Take Charge (29), Freedom Child (23), Overanalyze (15), Princess of Sylmar (10), Beholder (8), Dreaming of Julia (7), Java's War (5), Palace Malice (4), Govenor Charlie (4), Noble Tune (3), Frac Daddy (2), Titletown Five (2).