by J. Keeler Johnson
Every year, many of the top 3-year-old colts head off to stud, often before they've been given a chance to show off everything they can do. In recent years, we've watched horses like Lookin At Lucky, Big Brown, Street Sense, and Hard Spun leave the racetrack at the conclusion of brilliant 3-year-old seasons, leaving us wondering what they might have accomplished at age 4. Can you imagine the excitement that would have been generated by Street Sense, Hard Spun, and Curlin facing off as mature older horses? What if Big Brown had stayed in training for 2009 and taken on Zenyatta in the Breeders' Cup Classic? And with 2011 turning out to be a weak year in the handicap division, could Lookin At Lucky have dominated had he come back for one more year of racing?
In light of these facts, it's easy to get excited about all of the talented 3-year-olds of 2011 coming back to race again in 2012. For the first time since 1998, the winners of all three Triple Crown races will be returning for what will hopefully be one of the most exciting years in recent history.
But here is the question that no one seems to be asking: which of these colts will have the biggest year in 2012? Will the winners of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont continue to win at the highest level; each adding depth and brilliance to their résumés? Or will some of the lesser-regarded colts from the 2008 crop step up and dominate their peers next year?
Animal Kingdom certainly has the potential to have a top-class campaign in 2012. Many feel he was the best 3-year-old of 2011, considering that he won the Kentucky Derby and finished a strong second in the Preakness before being injured in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I). Now, after months of rest, he is back in training and pointing toward the $10 million Dubai World Cup (UAE-I) next March. A victory there would stamp him as the early leader of the handicap division and set him up for what could potentially be a very big year.
Shackleford won only twice in 2011, but one of those wins was the Preakness Stakes in which he gamely held off the late charge of Animal Kingdom by a half-length. He also finished second in three other grade I races—the Florida Derby, the Haskell Invitational, and the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile. He could have a bit of trouble at a mile and a quarter, but eight- and nine-furlong races should be right up his alley.
Ruler On Ice also won only two races this year, but of course, one of those was the Belmont Stakes over the above-mentioned Shackleford and Animal Kingdom, in addition to other well-regarded runners like Stay Thirsty, Nehro, Mucho Macho Man, and Brilliant Speed. In my opinion, he was getting very good toward the end of the year, as his third-place effort in the Breeders' Cup Classic would imply. I expect this colt to run some excellent races in 2012, especially in longer events like the Jockey Club Gold Cup.
But these are not the only talented 3-year-olds slated to come back in 2012. To Honor and Serve, winner of the Cigar Mile Handicap and the Pennsylvania Derby could be very tough to beat next year if he continues to improve. Trainer Bill Mott has mentioned the Gulfstream Park Sprint Championship as a potential 2012 debut.
Then there is Caleb's Posse, the brilliant one-turn specialist who, if he remains healthy, may already have races like the Metropolitan Handicap in the bag. Stay Thirsty is quite simply a monster in New York, and at Saratoga in particular, so he should have every chance at winning races such as the Whitney Handicap and the Woodward Stakes.
But we mustn't forget about horses like Redeemed and Boys at Tosconova. Although not among the leading 3-year-olds of 2011, they could prove to be tough competitors next year. Redeemed is beginning to get very good, with late-season victories in the Discovery Handicap and the Oklahoma Derby setting him up for a big 2012. Boys at Tosconova was among the leading juveniles of 2010, but a setback forced him to miss the majority of 2011. He lost his first start back, but then took an allowance race in sharp fashion and is currently down at Gulfstream Park, entered to run in a one-mile allowance optional claiming race.
Mucho Macho Man was among the elite of the crop early this year, but was given some time off following poor efforts in the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes. He returned to take a one-mile allowance race at Aqueduct by almost six lengths. He is expected to make his 2012 debut sometime during the Gulfstream meet.
Brilliant Speed could be a threat in the nation’s major turf races, as he finished a strong third in the Breeders’ Cup Turf while ahead of some very good Europeans. Adios Charlie won the Jerome Handicap and placed in the Peter Pan and Dwyer Stakes before an injury forced him to the sidelines. He recently returned to take an allowance race at Gulfstream by 3 ¼ lengths and could run next in the Florida Sunshine Millions Classic or the Donn Handicap. Prayer for Relief took the Super Derby, the West Virginia Derby, and the Iowa Derby, but was soundly defeated in his first start against older horses in the Clark Handicap. The Factor could be dangerous in sprints, and even up to one-mile, while horses like Comma to the Top and Tapizar have the talent to step up and have big seasons as well.
How about injured 3-year-olds who could get back to the races sometime in 2012? The names Jaycito, Rogue Romance, Premier Pegasus, Dialed In, Nehro, and Toby’s Corner commanded a lot of respect at one time or another during the spring of 2011, and all six of them are scheduled to be back again next year. Remember Soldat? The versatile colt, who has won graded stakes races on both dirt and turf, was on just about every Derby Dozen list after taking the Fountain of Youth Stakes, but hasn’t run since finishing eleventh in the Kentucky Derby. But guess what? He’s back in light training in Florida and could turn out to be a multi-surface threat wherever he goes.
Coil won the Haskell Invitational to stamp himself as one of the leaders of his division, but disappointing runs in the Travers Stakes and Goodwood Stakes may have tarnished his reputation. He hasn’t breezed in a couple of months, but if he comes back for another season, perhaps he can regain some of his lost luster.
And believe it or not, others will be back, too! Does anyone else feel that Clubhouse Ride could have a big year? What about the Louisiana Derby winner Pants On Fire? Could Santiva come back strong? Brethren was highly regarded during the spring, while Rattlesnake Bridge gave Stay Thirsty a scare in the Travers and wasn’t badly beaten in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Smash has a tendency to turn in big figures when he’s sound, and could break through with a big win next Monday in the Malibu Stakes.
So who do you think will have the best season in 2012? Will the classic winners continue their rivalries, exchanging victories in one thrilling race after another? Will an injured colt return to fulfill his potential at last? Or will a previously unheralded colt step up and take command of the division with dominating performances reminiscent of horses like Curlin or Invasor? For the record, I think that Nehro will have the best year in 2012. Who do you like?
J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") is a racing enthusiast and blogs at triplecrowncountdown.blogspot.com