Seven years ago a late developing sophomore named Tiznow took on the world and won a thrilling stretch duel from the uber-talented European Giant’s Causeway.
And when Captain Steve roared home for third, at the direct expense of speedy Albert the Great, three-year-olds comprised a Classic superfecta for the first time in Breeders’ Cup history.
Can Any Given Saturday, Curlin, Hard Spun, Street Sense and/or Tiago duplicate that feat?
Will Curlin and Street Sense stage a Preakness redux, dominating the Classic the way Sunday Silence and Easy Goer did in 1989?
Or will Lawyer Ron, reprising the role played by Gate Dancer four years earlier, break up the party the way Jack Van Berg’s runner did when he prevented a sophomore sweep, separating Proud Truth from Turkoman and Chief’s Crown?
It’s this historical context that makes this year’s Classic the most anticipated renewal since the inaugural running in 1984.
If it turns out to be a sophomore sweep, Tiago likely will be the odd three-year-old out. He simply hasn’t caught up to his generation’s upper echelon on the Equiform performance figure scale and has been beating up on inferior opponents in California.
Encouraging is that Tiago’s best figure came in the Kentucky Derby at the Classic distance. The problem is, trips and inexperience notwithstanding, he wasn’t good enough to beat Street Sense, Hard Spun and Curlin then, and he isn’t good enough to beat all of them now.
Any finish better fourth for Tiago would be a stretch.
Should that happen, it likely would come at the expense of Hard Spun who has proven tough, very fast and completely genuine, but still suspect at 10 furlongs.
It’s unlikely Hard Spun will get loose on a lead easy enough to steal a Classic, in the manner of Black Tie Affair 16 years ago, even over a speed-kind Monmouth oval. But he never runs a bad one and that includes the Belmont Stakes. Garrett Gomez needs to take credit for that debacle.
Which brings us to Any Given Saturday, the only proven Monmouth horse for course. This Todd Pletcher three-year-old raised his game in the Dwyer, running as fast as colts his age can run.
The colt virtually duplicated that effort winning the Haskell with authority and managed to win a slower Brooklyn despite an out-of-comfort-zone journey. That soft win might prove beneficial when he meets the Derby colts again, without the hindrance of a foot bruise like the one he sustained in the Derby.
Curlin is back if, indeed, as trainer Steve Asmussen said early this week, he ever left. In the modern era, no three-year-old we’ve seen has accomplished as much as he has in a narrow career window spanning from Feb. 3 to Sept. 30 of his sophomore year.
It’s unknowable how badly this long striding colt was hampered by Monmouth’s tighter turns in the Haskell or his inactivity since his grueling match with the Belmont heroine last June.
In May, Curlin proved an extraordinary horse with a Preakness for the ages, running faster on the Equiform scale than any three-year-old this year not named Street Sense. Then last weekend he took measure of an older horse that had run nine furlongs faster than any horse in the storied history of Saratoga.
Curlin looked the part of a winner even as five furlongs remained in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. The sense here is that he had some energy in reserve despite the narrow victory margin. He’s back--and he’s back with a vengeance.
Street Sense is the most popular three-year-old in the country owing to his throwback quality as a racehorse, likeable connections and, oh yes, as a winner of the Kentucky Derby and Travers, the fourth leg of the Triple Crown no matter what Asmussen thinks about that.
You can’t even beat Street Sense when you take him out of his one-run, turn-inhaling game. Your best chance is to hope he strikes the front a few strides from the finish, and your horse is close enough for that to matter. And, of course, you’ll need to hand him his first 10-furlong defeat.
Even with all this, it will be extremely difficult for this superb sophomore class to duplicate the feat of their contemporaries of 2000. And that’s because Pletcher has the best four-year-old in the country to accompany his surface loving three-year-old into the Monmouth starting gate.
Lawyer Ron was a record setting winner of the Whitney and subsequently a completely dominant winner of the Woodward. The only thing he lost in the Jockey Club Gold Cup was a photograph and a horse race.
The defeat was attributed to Lawyer Ron reverting to a head strong style that compromised his classics run last year, a possible regression off his enervating Saratoga performances and, to a lesser extent, the mile and a quarter route. Holes are easily poked in two of these three scenarios.
Consecutive lifetime-best efforts are extremely valid reasons for a regression. But he did gallop out well at the end of the JCGC, its Classic distance seemingly not a serious compromising factor. But the pace was. And not for Lawyer Ron’s inability to rate kindly.
How was he expected to relax off an opening gambit of :24.28 around a half-turn in that wide, open expanse that is Belmont Park’s backstretch run? Given those dynamics he rated fairly well. What’s a little disconcerting, however, was Pletcher’s and Johnny Velazquez’s reaction to this scenario.
This week Pletcher said that after discussing the situation with his rider, they might be better off allowing the colt his head right from the start. Unless he was blowing smoke, it upsets the form when Pletcher voluntarily discusses pre-race strategy. He just doesn’t do it. Why now?
Maybe it’s because he thinks, as many do, that Lawyer Ron would relax better around two real turns. And with Hard Spun signed on, how soft does he think the early fractions will be? There’s just no reason for Team Pletcher to overact to the Gold Cup defeat.
It just may be that Lawyer Ron is the horse to beat in this mega high class Classic struggle, perhaps its best renewal ever. But one thing is clear: Lawyer Ron’s odds-on to break up the three-year-old superfecta and deny the extraordinary group a berth in Classic history.