HALLANDALE BEACH, FLA.
The 3-year-old competition leading to the Kentucky Derby will begin in earnest Sunday with the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park. Racing fans can begin speculating, as they do annually, whether the sport will produce a superstar and possibly a Triple Crown winner.
Such high hopes have often turned into disappointments, especially in recent years. Last year, Eskendereya was a star in the making, but after he was injured, the Triple Crown series became one of the weakest in decades, with the forgettable Super Saver winning the Kentucky Derby and the even more forgettable Drosselmeyer taking the Belmont Stakes. The success of these ordinary colts came a year after 50-to-1 Mine That Bird won the 2009 Derby and then plunged back into obscurity.
Pessimists can reasonably worry that such weak Triple Crown races are not flukes and that the American thoroughbred is in decline. Modern-day racehorses are less robust than their predecessors and they have shorter, less productive careers. Moreover, the purchase of so many U.S. horses by the sheikhs of Dubai and other buyers who race abroad has stripped this country of some of its best talent.
In view of recent history, I may be guilty of wishful thinking, but I nevertheless believe that the 2011 racing season is going to be memorable.
The 3-year-old crop includes a budding superstar - perhaps two of them - as well as several other colts who have already proven themselves in high-level stakes company. Almost all the top prospects are in the hands of trainers who know how to succeed in the Triple Crown races.
Uncle Mo's 41/4-length victory in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile in November was obviously a dominating performance, but it was his winning time that put his talent into proper perspective. He earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 108 that equalled the second-best effort in the history of the nation's most important 2-year-old race. It was exceeded only by War Pass's freaky 113 on a sloppy track at Monmouth, and it equaled the figure earned in 2006 by Street Sense, who went on to capture the next year's Kentucky Derby.
Trainer Todd Pletcher has a barn full of top prospects every year, but he said, "I don't think we've ever had a 2-year-old as brilliant and accomplished as Uncle Mo is.'' Often, Pletcher said, brilliant 2-year-olds are merely precocious youngsters whose contemporaries catch up to them when they start running longer distances. Uncle Mo is not this type. "I feel that distance is not an issue with him. In the Breeders' Cup he impressed me the way he finished," said Pletcher. "John Velazquez had to grab him and say, 'We're done.' The one thing you worry about - what you worry about with all of them - is that he's got to stay healthy."
Uncle Mo, who will launch his 2011 campaign in the Tampa Bay Derby on March 12, stands alone as the leader of the 3-year-olds now, but there is at least one member of his generation who might prove to be just as brilliant. The Factor won a maiden race on Dec. 26 at Santa Anita with a performance that has almost no precedent, running six furlongs in an amazing 1 minute 6.98 seconds, smashing the track record and winning by more than eight lengths. The Santa Anita racing strip has been ultra-quick, producing consistently fast times, but trainer Bob Baffert says his colt's speed was the real thing: "The Factor is about as fast as a horse can be; he is something special."
Baffert said he is trying to teach The Factor to restrain his raw speed so he can go longer distances effectively, and he insisted, "I will not fry him to make the Derby." Baffert, however, has proved himself the most adept trainer in America at preparing horses for the Triple Crown series - and he surely would like to shoot for the Derby with a colt who has so much raw talent.
Two New York-based 3-year-olds come into the Triple Crown chase with more orthodox credentials. To Honor and Serve scored three consecutive dominating victories last fall. Boys at Tosconova would be hailed as the bright star of his generation but for the existence of Uncle Mo. The Breeders' Cup Juvenile was regarded as a virtual two-horse race between the colts, and "Boys" was hardly disgraced with his second-place finish behind a possible superstar.
Boys at Tosconova was supposed to make his 3-year-old debut in the Holy Bull, but trainer Rick Dutrow withdrew him because "he wasn't showing his usual high energy." In his absence, the most intriguing colt in the field is one who, on paper, looks badly overmatched. Dialed In has raced only once, winning a maiden race at Churchill Downs in slow time. But visually the performance was electrifying, as Dialed In broke last and knifed through the field in the stretch to win a 61/2-furlong race.
"It was unbelievable," trainer Nick Zito said. "I was over the moon."
Zito is not over the moon about running such a lightly raced colt in a stakes race, but he has limited options and he has to get the stretch-runner on the Derby trail somewhere.
If Dialed In can unleash his big late kick against this company, his name will go on the already formidable list of potential 3-year-old stars.