If you asked Dale Romans, he probably would not trade his long-awaited first Triple Crown race win for anything. But as gratifying as Shackleford's Preakness win was for him, he had to be equally as devastated by the loss of Paddy O'Prado.
In winning the Dixie Stakes (gr. IIT) in the manner that he did-returning off a lengthy layoff and unleashing his huge kick while closing into a slow pace, Paddy O'Prado showed me that he was going to be the leader of the turf handicap division. What more, his loss not only leaves a huge void in that division, but with five months of racing in the books, it raises an important question:
Who are the stars of 2011?
Let's start with the older horses. Entering this year, we all knew star power was going to be at a premium after the losses of Blame, Lookin At Lucky, Quality Road, Rachel Alexandra, and Zenyatta. But with nearly half the year almost over, we are still lacking a standout older horse.
On the male side, the top horses seem to be stabled out West, led by Twirling Candy, Sidney's Candy, Game On Dude, First Dude, and Crown of Thorns. But none of them have really separated themselves at this point, and a couple of them are probably not best suited for real dirt. Of all of them, I think Twirling Candy has the most potential to be the star we are seeking, but I'm not sure how challenging his campaign is going to be. The retirement of Misremembered, who may have been the most talented of all of them, was also a big hit.
On the East, Regal Ransom seems to be coming into his own, Apart's win last weekend was encouraging, and Giant Oak has established himself as a top horse, but do any of them really get you that excited? I guess time will tell.
The older female division is lacking in depth, but at least there are are a couple legitimate stars, and they have developed a nice rivalry. Havre de Grace and Blind Luck have faced each other five times now, with each of the winning twice. Havre de Grace has gotten the better of it lately, and quite honestly, I am of the opinion that she might be might be the best horse in the country-male or female. We will have to wait and see what Larry Jones has planned for her, but her 2011 campaign could be very fun to watch. Let's hope.
With Paddy O'Prado now gone, reigning two-time champ Gio Ponti inherits the top spot in the turf handicap division. But there is no telling how his trip to Dubai will affect him when he returns and if he has lost another half-step (I thought he lost one last year). Get Stormy and Caracortado are both nice horses, but they are not Paddy O'Prado.
The Belmont Stakes (gr. I) will determine who winds up being the leader of the 3-year-old division-maybe. If Animal Kingdom wins, it's his championship to lose. Same with Shackleford, although I'm not fully convinced that he will run yet. Either way, I'm still of the opinion that this is a very average crop of 3-year-olds, based on that fact that nobody can string together back-to-back wins and how slow they are running.
I wrote an article earlier today about Bob Baffert being loaded with 3-year-olds that are either returning from injury or are late-blooming, so I think one or two of them (Awesome Patriot, Coil, Jaycito, Smash, The Factor, Uncle Sam) could wind up being stars. Todd Pletcher also has probably not fired his best shots yet either. Hopefully Uncle Mo will come back soon and maybe Cal Nation and/or Brethren return impressively. Other than that, I don't see a whole lot out there. Help me if I'm missing something.
Speaking of Pletcher, his leading 3-year-old filly, R Heat Lightning, was sidelined with an injury, which puts a damper on that division. I've always liked Royal Delta, so I was happy to see her win the Black-Eyed Susan (gr. II). Along with Plum Pretty and Joyful Victory, they become the leaders of the pack. Perhaps one or two of them will develop into superstars.
In summary, the retirement of the majority of last year's top older horses, this week's devastating career-ending injury to Paddy O'Prado, lack of older standouts, and the parody amongst this crop of uninspiring 3-year-olds has made the first half of 2011 a tough one to sell. Will the second half be better?