In every racing season there are negativists who proclaim that the current generation of 3-year-olds is a lousy bunch.
Since 1980, these dour assessments have generally been right. Too many Triple Crown races have been won by forgettable animals such as Gato Del Sol, Sunny's Halo, Summing and Tank's Prospect. But the 3-year-olds of 1986 may make these mediocre recent years be remembered as the good old days.
The undefeated colt Ogygian had looked last fall as if he might be one of the best U.S. racehorses in years, but an injury knocked him out of competition.
Only one other member of this age group, Meadowlake, showed any flashes of brilliance last season, but he hasn't started as a 3-year-old and it remains to be seen whether he is anything more than a sprinter.
As for the rest of the generation, the mere fact that Tasso was voted the champion of the generation is indictment enough. Most speed handicappers would concur that he is the slowest horse ever to win an Eclipse Award. I have been calculating speed figures since 1970, and Tasso is a full five lengths inferior to any other 2-year-old champion during that period.
This doesn't mean that the 1986 Triple Crown series necessarily will be boring, but it does suggest that no horse will dominate the classics because of sheer superior ability.
The winner of the Kentucky Derby is likely to be a colt who starts to get sharp in March and April, then hits his peak on the first Saturday in May (as Spend A Buck and Sunny's Halo did). Such a contender could conceivably emerge on Saturday from the $500,000 Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park or the $100,000 Federico Tesio Stakes at Pimlico. Local racing fans will have a chance to see both, for Pimlico will simulcast the Florida Derby and conduct wagering on it.
Snow Chief, the invader from California, is the legitimate favorite in the 16-horse Florida Derby field. Undefeated in three starts since trainer Mel Stute equipped him with blinkers, he has an edge in seasoning and fitness over his key Gulfstream rivals.
Snow Chief, racing this winter, became the youngest thoroughbred millionaire in history, while his well-regarded foe, Mogambo, has run only one sprint as a 3-year-old. Trainer Woody Stephens' superbly bred colt, Glow, won a fast allowance race by nearly a dozen lengths last week, but he has never run in a stake. These horses may catch up to Snow Chief within a few weeks, but as of now the Californian has the edge.
The 1 1/16-mile Tesio Stakes would ordinarily be considered a minor-league event compared with the Florida Derby. But from a speed-handicapping standpoint, the principal contenders in the 13-horse lineup belong in the same league with the Florida favorites.
Broad Brush and Fast Step looked very impressive when they ran one-two in a division of the General George Stakes last week. They beat the rest of the field by seven lengths, and they ran 1 2/5 seconds faster than the other division of the stakes. They may have the edge over New York invader Point Of America and the winner of last fall's Maryland Juvenile Championship, Miracle Wood.
It may seem implausible to suggest that a contender for the 3-year-old classics could emerge from a relatively minor stake in Maryland. But Deputed Testamony won the 1983 Tesio and went on to capture the Preakness, and this looks like the kind of wide-open year when any decent 3-year-old might have a chance for glory.