Searching for the sport's future stars has been like panning for gold, with much of the time spent staring into a pan of sandy sediment. For the most part, the future stars have kept their sparkle hidden. Few 2-year-olds have distinguished themselves this season, and even fewer have jumped out of the bouillabaisse screaming for attention.
I hoped that might change last weekend, with the FrontRunner and Chandelier Stakes at Santa Anita. But, no, Bond Holder, who entered as a four-race maiden, won the FrontRunner, and Secret Compass, who had finished fourth in the Del Mar Debutante, won the Chandelier, and both upset winners were, well, rather slow by future-star standards. The California youngsters all look like they're just holding a place in line for somebody who's going to arrive later.
Remember how in 2011 Union Rags, Hansen, Creative Cause, My Miss Aurelia and Grace Hall had all announced themselves and revealed their rather large talents before the Breeders' Cup? And, last year, how Shanghai Bobby, Kauai Katie, Executiveprivilege and Dreaming Of Julia took their unbeaten records, like banners, into the championships and how Beholder already had dazzled with her speed?
Well, that isn't happening this year. As a group, this season's 2-year-olds continue to be rather coy, like teenagers at their first dance. Some of these youngsters, though, will certainly separate themselves from the crowd in the coming weeks and maybe even this weekend, at Keeneland and Belmont Park.
Friday's Alcibiades at Keeneland has attracted two intriguing fillies, My Conquestadory and Rosalind. So confident was trainer Mark Casse in what he had, he sent out My Conquestadory to make her debut in a graded stakes race, against "the boys." While racing three-to-four wide in the turn, she moved strongly at the leaders, and then in the stretch she just powered her way to the front, winning the Summer Stakes at Woodbine by more than three lengths. And Rosalind finished with a burst of energy in the Pocahontas Stakes at Churchill to be third, behind the highly regarded Untapable, who'll make her next start in the Breeders' Cup. Rosalind was compromised by a slow pace at Churchill, but should enjoy its opposite Friday at Keeneland.
Searching for future stars is really two searches, one looking ahead to the Breeders' Cup and the other to next year.
Because of Keeneland's synthetic surface, the relevance of its main track races to any others always proves difficult to measure. Are they preps for future dirt or turf races, and how will the form transfer? Hard to say, but Rosalind and My Conquestadory could be players at Santa Anita next month. Also at Keeneland, Saturday's Dixiana Breeders' Futurity looks like one those enigmas wrapped in a mystery and hidden inside a conundrum. The most talented horse in the field appears to be Kendall's Boy, who finished second in his debut at Saratoga, behind the ballyhooed Havana, and then easily won at Churchill. But Kendall's Boy never has raced on a synthetic surface or anything like it, which is to say turf.
But two Breeders' Cup juvenile favorites are likely to come out of Saturday's races at Belmont Park. Sweet Reason, who has won her two races by a total of 12 lengths, is the 8-5 favorite in the morning line for the Frizette. And although she has looked dominant, especially while taking the Spinaway Stakes despite racing five-wide, she hasn't convinced the world she's a star, not yet anyway, largely because the slop of Saratoga still adorns both her victories. Does she love the slop, or will she be as good on a fast track?
"I think she'll be as effective on a fast track," said the filly's trainer, Leah Gyarmati, who learned the game under the guidance of the great Hall of Fame trainer Allen Jerkens. "But it's a question for me, too," Gyarmati said.
Also among those entered in the Frizette are Stopchargingmaria, the 3-1 second choice who was the Spinaway runner-up; and Artemis Agrotera, who won her debut by nearly 12 lengths at Saratoga and could have the early lead in the Frizette. Her trainer, Michael Hushion, said her debut victory was a wakeup call for Artemis Agrotera, who has trained sensationally since then.
The Champagne will probably produce the Breeders' Cup Juvenile favorite, especially if the winner comes from the trio of Havana, Honor Code or Strong Mandate. When Havana won his debut at Saratoga, he led throughout and completed the 5 ½ furlongs in 1:02.64, just missing the track record (1:02.51). Stretching out to the Champagne's mile is a challenge, but one Havana his indicated he's ready for, according to his trainer, Todd Pletcher. The gray colt finishes and gallops out strongly in all his workouts, Pletcher said.
Back in mid-August, near the Oklahoma training track, across Union Ave. from Saratoga, trainer D. Wayne Lukas, in response to a passing question about his young prospects, casually said, "I'm running one Saturday I really like."
As it turned out, the son of Tiznow that Lukas was talking about ended up in what was probably the toughest maiden race of the Saratoga season. But Strong Mandate made it look easy, winning by more than four lengths. And then, a couple weeks later, in the slop, he won the Hopeful by nearly 10.
"He's going in the right direction," Lukas said about Strong Mandate, who's the 5-2 favorite in the morning line for the Champagne. "He's had a great month since the Hopeful."
Searching for future stars is really two searches, one looking ahead to the Breeders' Cup and the other to next year. So there are two futures to consider, and Strong Mandate could seize both. But nobody has shown more down-the-road potential than Honor Code, the 3-1 second choice in the morning line for the Champagne. A son of A. P. Indy, Honor Code won his debut at Saratoga after starting slowly and dropping back to last. With a rally that made up a deficit of 22 lengths, he ran the final three furlongs in about 33 seconds and won by more than four. He might not possess the speed that most juvenile races reward, but he has the determination and acceleration that next year's races could celebrate.
Of all the youngsters who have flashed potential, Honor Code and Strong Mandate, more than any others, have suggested stardom could be in their futures. But others will soon join them.
When it comes to this season's 2-year-olds, few conclusions could support the weight of even a svelte jumper, except perhaps this one: The Breeders' Cup will determine the champions.