In a year when 3-year-old thoroughbreds already have generated high drama, the best may be yet to come.
Genuine Risk ran admirably throughout the Triple Crown series, and both Codex and Temperence Hill had moments of glory, but there is another member of their generation who is more gifted than any of them.
His name is Danzig, and while he has not yet even run in a stakes event, New York racetrackers are talking about him with the kind of superlatives usually reserved for champions. t
Danzig has raced three times and won each time so brillantly that he looks virtually unbeatable. In fact, his major obstacles are likely to be posed by himself rather than his competition. The great question about Danzig is whether he will be able to fully demonstate his ability before he breaks down.
Woody Stephens, the Hall of Fame trainer, knew even before Danzig ever raced that the well-bred son of Northern Dancer had a lot of ability. He also knew that the colt had a troublesome left knee.
Both of these impressions were confirmed when Danzig made his racing debut at Belmont Park in June 1979. The colt ran away with the maiden race by 8 1/2 lengths, missing the track record by three-fifths of a second and convincing people who saw him that he was the best 2-year-old in America. But when Stephens had Danzig x-rayed after the race, he saw a bone chip "as big as the tip of your finger."
Because of the colt's enormous potential, Stephens wanted to do everything possible for him. So he sent Danzig to Kentucky for a knee operation, then took him to Florida this winter for therapy. Danzig went swimming for 40 straight days, trying to build up the strength in his knee, then resumed slow training at Hialeah under Stephens' tutelage.
"I've lived with this horse," the trainer said. "We ice and hose his leg regularly, and I'm always watching to see if the knee fills with fluids."
Stephens became even more apprehensive as he prepared Danzig for his first start of the year. "I was worried," he said, "because in those first couple works we really had to put pressure on him."
Danzig withstood the training and ran away with his 1980 debut, covering six furlongs in 1:09 2/5 and scoring by 7 1/2 lengths.
Two weeks later, he won again, by nearly six lengths, running seven-eights of a mile in 1:22 flat. In the view of speed handicappers, it was the most impressive single performance by a 3-year-old this season.
Stephens has no illusions about managing Danzig through a long, productive career. He just hopes the colt can do enough to establish credentials that will insure his future value at stud. Years ago, the trainer had the same sort of task, nursing a colt named Battle Joined through a limited campaign, then sending him off to stud where he sired a future horse of the year, Ack Ack.
Any trainer would be nervous about handling such a fragile piece of merchandise with millions of dollars in stud value at stake, but Stephens can approach the task more calmly than most. He is equipped with knowledge and skill gleaned from a lifetime in the business and he can say "If the knee goes, I'll know at least that I've done the best I can."
Stephens has mapped out three objectives for Danzig. The colt probably will run in one more allowance race at Belmont, a week from Saturday. On July 5, he will either run in Belmont's Dwyer Stakes, where he would face Temperence Hill, or in a rich stakes race at Chicago's Arlington Park.
The trainer's ultimate objective for Danzig, however, is the famed Travers Stakes at Saratoga. In the so-called "midsummer Derby," he might face Genuine Risk, and he could establish his credentials for all time.
Stephens knows that to make any further plans for Danzig beyond the Travers would be overly optimistic.