Wait till next year.
That cry might offer the only consolation for racing fans who saw the 2002 season come to a dispiriting climax in the Breeders' Cup Classic. The nation's most prominent horses delivered a pitiful collective performance, making this yet another year in which America didn't produce a worthy champion thoroughbred. But the races for 2-year-olds at Arlington Park on Saturday suggested that some bright stars are on the horizon.
When Volponi won the Classic by 61/2 lengths -- the largest winning margin in the race's history -- he didn't even have to run particularly fast to do so. (His speed figure was slightly below par for the race.) Any of his main rivals -- War Emblem, Medaglia d'Oro and Came Home -- could have earned the horse of the year title with a victory, and all failed miserably. War Emblem had been the most celebrated horse in the country after his victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, but we now know that he is a one-dimensional speed horse who earned his reputation at the expense of an undistinguished bunch of 3-year-olds.
In an era when most horses don't have the constitution to withstand hard racing, the trainers of the three leading contenders decided it was a virtue to bring their horses into the 11/4-mile Classic "fresh" -- without having raced in the previous two months. Phil Johnson, the 77-year-old trainer of Volponi, is such a Neanderthal in the business that he dared to get his colt fit by racing him. Maybe that's the reason the 43-to-1 shot was pulling away from his staggering rivals in the stretch.
If the Classic was a disappointment, so too was the Mile, because a genuinely great horse was in the race and he lost it -- through no fault of his own. Rock of Gibraltar had been billed as Europe's most brilliant racehorse after winning seven straight Grade I stakes. He had won them in the textbook European manner, lingering near the rear of the pack until he turned into the stretch, then angling out for room and accelerating past the leaders. That style works in Europe with its long straightaways, but speed-oriented American courses, with their short stretches, are a different game.
Yet Mick Kinane rode Saturday as if he were at Longchamp and Ascot. He made no attempt to get Rock of Gibraltar into contention in mid-race, staying at the rear of the congested 14-horse field. A quarter-mile from the finish line the Irish colt had one horse beaten. He had to hesitate slightly when his stablemate, Landseer, broke down in front of him. And then he flew -- showing what all the hype was about. He accelerated past some of the world's best milers as if they were standing still, but his furious rally fell short of catching Domedriver, whose jockey had been smart enough to get within striking distance early. Rock of Gibraltar deserved to win and, if he had done so, some Eclipse Award voters (including me) would have chosen him as America's horse of the year.
However, the victories by the 2-year-old colt Vindication and the filly Storm Flag Flying raise hopes that American racing will have some superior performers next year. Both won their Breeders' Cup races with elan. Vindication dueled for the lead in a sizzling pace (setting fractions comparable to those of the 4-year-old Azeri in the Distaff) and drew away to win by nearly three lengths -- his fourth victory in as many starts. Storm Flag Flying looked beaten in mid-stretch when Composure rallied past her, but she dug in, surged back and won by a half-length to keep her unbeaten record intact. Storm Flag Flying ran one-hundredth of a second faster than the colt, with both of them earning solid Beyer Speed Figures of 102.
What makes these youngsters look so promising is their lineage. Two-year-old prodigies often turn into disappointments because they don't have the pedigree to be effective in the 3-year-old classics. That was the case with last year's Juvenile winner, Johannesburg, and many others.
But these 2-year-olds are bred to improve with age. Vindication is a son of Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew and cost $2.15 million as a yearling. Storm Flag Flying has a matchless pedigree; she is a daughter of America's leading sire, Storm Cat; her dam, My Flag, won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and her grand dam, the great Personal Ensign, completed an undefeated 13-race career by winning the Breeders' Cup Distaff.
The only reason for mild skepticism about Vindication and Storm Flag Flying is the fact that they were abetted Saturday by the Arlington Park racing surface. Uncharacteristically, the track was lightning-fast and highly speed-favoring. Nobody won on the main track by coming from far behind, and most front-runners didn't get tired, even after setting a rapid pace. (In the Sprint, for example, Orientate pressed the 48-to-1 shot Thunderello through a half mile in 43.91 seconds, but they still finished 1-2.) Both Vindication and Storm Flag Flying benefited by racing on or near the lead.
Under these conditions, the European invader Hold That Tiger gave one of the day's most eye-catching performances in the Juvenile. He had won a major stakes at Longchamp by sweeping from 14th place to first in the final eighth of a mile -- a phenomenal effort. His style was ill-suited to Arlington, and after a half mile he was running dead last in the 13-horse field. Then he launched a powerful five-wide move on the turn and rallied to finish third. His trainer, Aidan O'Brien, will have to choose whether to pursue glory on the turf in Europe or the dirt in America next year.
Perhaps racing fans can look forward to a confrontation between a brilliant American speedster and a mighty European stretch-runner in next year's classic races. After Saturday's unsatisfying Classic, the sport needs some great horses who can produce great drama.