While it is still too early to get a clear picture of who is going where, one thing is for certain: the Betfair.com Haskell Invitational Stakes, Jim Dandy Stakes, and Travers Stakes are going to be extremely competitive and entertaining events, from which a solid 3-year-old leader should finally emerge. From there it's only the Pennsylvania Derby and then on to the older horses, and I doubt any trainer is going to want to have to beat Arrogate, Gun Runner, and Shaman Ghost in the Breeders' Cup Classic to secure the title.
For those content to nail down some of the other 3-year-old stakes without having to face the heavy hitters, there is the Dwyer Stakes, West Virginia Derby, Indiana Derby, Iowa Derby, and Curlin Stakes, the last of which can also unveil a Travers horse.
Here is a scorecard in alphabetical order of who might be going where. what strategy might be employed, and where they stand in the 3-year-old division.
Always Dreaming: I was surprised at first to learn that the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands winner is pointing for the Jim Dandy, as he seems to be the Todd Pletcher Haskell prototype in the mold of Verrazano, Any Given Saturday, and Bluegrass Cat, all brilliant pace horses who dominated the Haskell, while stablemate Tapwrit is more reminiscent of Pletcher's last two Jim Dandy winners Palace Malice and Stay Thirsty. Pletcher may be hoping Battalion Runner and possibly Coal Front can fill that role in the Haskell. I still believe Always Dreaming may have more raw talent than any of the 3-year-olds, and he is able to combine sheer brilliance and stamina to win at any distance. The only question that lingers after the Preakness Stakes is whether it was a classy horse like Classic Empire looking him in the eye for the first time that caused his shocking early retreat, or whether he just had a bad day and the Preakness was an aberration. Could it be that, with speed types like Irish War Cry, Timeline, West Coast, and Battle of Midway, as well as Classic Empire, all likely heading for the Haskell, Pletcher prefers to wait for the Travers before subjecting him to a brutal pace battle? That, of course, is just speculation. It's been 16 years since a horse won both the Haskell and Travers, and you know Pletcher wants to win the Travers for his New York owners. During those 16 years, five horses have pulled off the Jim Dandy-Travers double. The Jim Dandy also will give him a race over the track.
Battle of Midway: Like Cloud Computing, this is a colt who has yet to run anywhere near his best race, as he keeps improving with each start, and he had a perfect prep for the Haskell with his walk in the park victory in the Affirmed Stakes, where he dominated a mediocre field. There is no questioning his toughness, the way he held on tenaciously to finish second, beaten a half-length, in the Santa Anita Derby after having battled head and head on the lead through fast fractions. He then pressed the pace in the Kentucky Derby and hung on gamely to finish third at 40-1. He needed a nice easy confidence builder and he got it in the Affirmed. He should be ready for a huge effort in the Haskell, in which he likely will be tracking the pace. He has shown he can rate kindly and that will serve him well at Monmouth Park. His speed figures need to improve if he's going to actually win one of these big races, but with six starts under him now, he could be ready for a peak performance.
Classic Empire: You can bet Mark Casse and Norman Casse will soon be dreaming about Runaway Groom and the 1982 Travers, when that unheralded Canadian invader came to Saratoga and knocked off Derby winner Gato Del Sol, Preakness winner Aloma's Ruler, and Belmont winner Conquistador Cielo. The only difference is that if we should have a repeat of that this year it will not come as a surprise to anyone, as many still believe that he is the best 3-year-old in the country following an eventful and frustrating Derby campaign and two tough defeats at Churchill Downs and Pimlico. If any horse deserves a break it is last year's 2-year-old champion, who is also heading for the Haskell. If he returns in top form and catches even the slightest break he can beat any 3-year-old around. He probably is the most versatile of them all, with the capabilities of beating you from behind, as he did in the Arkansas Derby, or on or near the pace, as he demonstrated in last year's Sentient Jet Breeders' Cup Juvenile and this year's Preakness, in which he ran a winning race. To run the Derby winner into the ground the way he did in relatively fast fractions and then just get beat on the wire, it may have been his most impressive performance, or at least right up there with the Juvenile.
Cloud Computing: He probably has the most upside of any of these horses, considering what he accomplished in the Preakness off only three career starts and how much he is still eligible to improve. Yes, he had a perfect setup at Pimlico, sitting behind the dueling Classic Empire and Always Dreaming, but he still had to fly home in :18 3/5 and show enough determination to wear down a champion and multiple Grade 1 winner in Classic Empire, who had opened a three-length lead at the eighth pole. That's about as fast as horses come home in the Preakness. You love to see any horse, especially one as inexperienced as he was, close that relentlessly. He is a big, long-striding colt with great scope and a commanding presence about him. His first three races were merely learning blocks and he really stepped up big-time when finally getting a good trip and being allowed to show off his talents. With only four starts, I don't think we've seen anything close to his best. But he'll likely have his hands full with Always Dreaming in the Jim Dandy if the Derby winner bounces back with a vengeance. That should be some showdown, which no doubt helped swell the Haskell field. You need to save something for the Travers, so why knock heads with the Derby and Preakness winner, and possibly the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets winner, before you have to?
Girvin: If you're looking for a sleeper in the Haskell, this is a colt on whom I've always been high, and he ran a bang-up race getting beat a nose right on the wire by Toyota Blue Grass Stakes winner Irap in the Ohio Derby. He is one of the most determined horses I've seen all year and runs hard every step of the way, pinning his ears even on the gallop-out. Coming off professional victories in the Risen Star Stakes and Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby, he probably never should have run in the Kentucky Derby, especially on that track, after suffering a quarter crack and missing valuable training leading up to the race. On top of that, he didn't have the cleanest of trips and could finish no better than 13th in what was basically a throw-out race. But he's obviously back in good form, running his heart out once again in the Ohio Derby. There is no reason why he shouldn't move forward off it, and his style of running, sitting just behind the pace, should set him up well for a strong effort at Monmouth. He just needs to have his move timed better and not hit the front too soon.
Gormley: Will John Shirreffs ship him East for the third time, or look to stay at home and explore other avenues? He certainly didn't embarrass himself in the Belmont Stakes, finishing fourth, albeit a long way behind the winner. He is already a three-time graded stakes winner, including two Grade 1 stakes, with his big win coming in the Santa Anita Derby. The talent is there, but he needs to be more consistent, like many of the horses on this year's Derby trail. For now, we'll just sit back with him and see what Shirreffs decides to do. If he does come East again, he will need to improve significantly and possibly establish a distinct running style. We really don't know how he wants to run, and we certainly have no idea how good he is.
Gunnevera: Once considered a major Derby contender following his explosive victory in the Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes, he may have peaked too soon and has not been able to duplicate that effort. He has had a couple of half-mile breezes and we'll see in what direction trainer Antonio Sano goes with him. We know he has the ability to break a race wide open on the far turn with his rapid-fire turn of foot, as he demonstrated in the Fountain of Youth and Delta Downs Jackpot Stakes, but he hasn't shown it since stretching out in distance, becoming more of a late closer and turning in dull efforts in the Derby and Preakness. But he didn't run badly in either one. Now with a freshening, it will be interesting to see if he can regain that old spark. Remember, he broke his maiden going 5 ½ furlongs and won the 6 ½-furlong Saratoga Special Stakes, so we know he has natural speed. The Haskell doesn't seem to fit his style unless he returns to his old form, as Monmouth can be conducive to big moves on the turn. But Sano has many options with him.
Hence: He's up to five furlongs in his works at Churchill Downs. There are two assumptions you have to make in order to deal with him as a viable contender this summer. You have feel his impressive victory in the Sunland Derby is the real Hence and is an indication of what he's capable of, and you have to totally throw out both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, especially the latter, in which he never ran a lick with no apparent excuse. He was highly regarded by many for the Derby, and what happened to him at Churchill and Pimlico is open for debate. He obviously needs to improve many lengths to even be competitive in these big races, and it wouldn't be surprising to see Steve Asmussen point him for some of the lesser stakes, where there is still good money to be won.
Irap: I'm not sure what the plans are for him, whether he'll go for the big Grade 1s or try to collect the lucrative purses in some of the other Derbys around the country. He obviously showed in his gutsy Ohio Derby score that his Blue Grass shocker was no fluke, despite his awful follow-up performance in the Kentucky Derby, which like for many of the starters, was a total throw-out, as indicated by his comeback victory. He does have an excellent foundation under him, having started in a number of major stakes while still a maiden and performing well in many of them. Although he did win the Ohio Derby, I'd like to see him learn to change leads, which he didn't do at Thistledown. He has shown in the past he still needs work on his lead changes. In short, this is a better horse than people think, and we'll just have to see in what direction they go with him.
Irish War Cry: To be honest, I'm still not 100 percent sure what to make of him or what to expect of him. Although he has thrown in a pair of inexplicable clunkers in the Fountain of Youth Stakes and Kentucky Derby, he has bounced back both times with big efforts, once easily handling Cloud Computing in the Wood Memorial Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets and his excellent second-place finish in the Belmont Stakes. The Haskell is the race his owner and trainer have been waiting for from day one and the race they want to win most of all, considering his owner, Isabelle de Tomaso, is the daughter of Amory Haskell, the founder and builder of the new Monmouth Park, and for whom the Haskell is named. This is their Kentucky Derby. Monmouth Park should be Irish War Cry's kind of track, with his natural speed and ability to win on the lead or stalking the pace. You can bet Graham Motion will not be looking past this race and will have him razor sharp and ready for the race of his life. Now, whether he will have one of his good days and can put in back-to-back big performances is something we won't know until he does it. But the talent is there for sure, and we'll see if the racing gods decide to step in and lend a hand. This one is right up their alley.
Lookin At Lee: Plodders normally don't do well in the Belmont Stakes, so his seventh-place finish was not a total shock. But is second-place finish in the Kentucky Derby and fourth in the Preakness made the Triple Crown a success for this tough, durable colt, especially considering he was the only horse to run in all three Triple Crown races, a feat in itself these days. The big question now is how to get to the Travers the best way. Monmouth is not conducive to his style at all, so one would think he could point for the Jim Dandy as a good setup race to stretch back out to a mile and a quarter in the Travers. The West Virginia Derby also is a good spot for him, especially if he's looking to finally win a big race. It would be quite a tall order to beat Always Dreaming and Cloud Computing in the Jim Dandy. He doesn't win much, but you can never feel comfortable keeping him out of the exotics.
McCraken: If we do get a contentious pace in the Haskell, which looks like a certainty at this point, then who better to come along and pick up the pieces than McCraken, who once was high on everyone's list of Kentucky Derby contenders before having to miss the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby with a minor injury. A classic type horse in every regard, he ran a disappointing third in the Blue Grass Stakes, perhaps coming up a bit short after missing a key race and training, and then got manhandled at the start of the Kentucky Derby, finishing eighth in the slop and exiting the race with puncture wound on his leg. His return in the Matt Winn Stakes at Churchill Downs would determine how much of an impact he would have on the 3-year-old division and he didn't disappoint, winning by 2 ¼ lengths at 2-5. More importantly, he demonstrated once again his smooth acceleration on the far turn, in which he glides by horses, picking them off with little effort. He is another who should relish the timing and distance of the Travers. He just needs to be competitive and finish in the hunt in the Haskell to set him up for the Midsummer Derby.
Patch: This is my main sleeper; the horse who is just waiting to wake up on the right day, and that day could be August 26… if, of course, he can finally get a decent post and a decent trip. We really don't now how good this horse is, considering he had virtually no shot in the Kentucky Derby, going into the race off only three career starts, breaking from post 20, and having a fairly rough trip, and then breaking from the far outside again in the Belmont Stakes and getting hung wide every step of the way, running 73 feet farther than the victorious Tapwrit. We have no idea to what extent, if any, he is hampered by having only one eye, but it sure can't help in certain situations. Not only did he run a huge race to finish third in the Belmont Stakes in spite of everything he had to overcome, while finishing more than four lengths ahead of the fourth horse, he also turned in a big effort to finish second in the Louisiana Derby, beaten only 1 ¼ lengths, in only his third career start, coming off a maiden victory at Gulfstream Park. As mentioned earlier, Todd Pletcher could either give him a confidence builder in the Curlin Stakes or West Virginia Derby or try to land a big one in the Haskell, where the pace is expected to be hot. But it is in the Travers I believe we'll see him at his best. He definitely is one to watch.
Practical Joke: Remember him and how well he ran in the Kentucky Derby? Chad Brown has him scheduled for the one-mile Dwyer Stakes on July 8 and then, like so many others, it's on to the Haskell. The last we saw of him he was running an excellent fifth in the Derby, probably just failing to stay the mile and a quarter, following a big effort in the Blue Grass Stakes, in which he came three-quarters of a length short of catching Irap. We saw what he's capable of around one turn when he captured the Champagne and Hopeful Stakes last year and he should relish a return to the one-turn mile at Belmont Park. He has the ability to win from seven furlongs to 1 1/8 miles; it's just a matter of finding the best spots for him, and if he should come back a tiger in the Dwyer, we know from the Blue Grass and Kentucky Derby that 1 1/8 miles is well within his scope.
Senior Investment: With 10 career starts under him, he has a strong foundation and was climbing up the ladder with his victory in the Stonestreet Lexington Stakes and third-place finish in the Preakness before disappointing in the Belmont Stakes. But I never hold the Belmont against any horse if they have already shown what they're capable of. There is still a lot of money to be made out there for 3-year-olds and we'll wait and see just how ambitious Kenny McPeek is with him. McPeek is never scared off by any horse or horses, so it wouldn't come as a surprise to see him keep the colt in top company and try to make the Travers with him. It was McPeek who pulled off an unlikely dead-heat victory in the 2012 Travers with 33.50-1 Golden Ticket and came within a half-length of upsetting 0.75-1 favorite Medaglia d'Oro with Repent in the 2002 Travers.
Tapwrit: Todd Pletcher has left open the possibility of running both him and Always Dreaming in the Jim Dandy, which would seem a bit unusual, with the $1 million purse of the Haskell the same day. But while the Haskell is suited to Always Dreaming's style of running, the Jim Dandy looks more suited to Tapwrit's, although the abundance of speed in the Haskell could play into Tapwrit's hands. Pletcher does have the luxury of having Patch to fill in the Haskell gap if he so desires, but, as mentioned earlier, he could also run him in the Curlin Stakes or West Virginia Derby more as a confidence builder after his brutal posts and trips in the Derby and Belmont. As for Tapwrit, he was impressive winning the Belmont Stakes over Irish War Cry, with the field strung out far up the track. He certainly didn't catch anyone by surprise, having run a sneaky good race in the Derby after getting wiped out at the start. Like the first two finishers he had a clear rail trip in the stretch over the best part of the track. He and Always Dreaming compliment each other perfectly. But like Always Dreaming and Cloud Computing he did have a perfect setup in the Belmont, saving precious ground most of the way. I'm not sure how many in the Belmont were simply unable to get the mile and a half, as they came home the final half in a pedestrian :50 4/5 following three-quarters in 1:14. But he got the job done at a distance he'll never have to deal with again. He has continued to improve and should be a formidable presence the rest of the year.
Timeline: There are just so many 3-year-olds this year with unlimited potential it is very tough sorting them out. Perhaps the toughest is Timeline, who was brilliant winning the Peter Pan Stakes in the slop and most recently the Betfair.com Pegasus Stakes at Monmouth, a prep for the Haskell, in which he will join stablemate Practical Joke. In the Pegasus, he cruised to an easy 3 ¼-length wire-to-wire victory in a swift 1:41 1/5 for the 1 1/16 miles. Also a stablemate of Cloud Computing, he is now unbeaten in four career starts. He just has to show he can step up against better company, but he does have a win over the track, and Haskell prep winners often come back and run well in the big race. As I've been mentioning, he will have to contend with several brilliant horses in the Haskell, so he won't have an easy time of it on the lead, as he did in the Pegasus. But he is far from speed crazy and could rate if someone else is intent on the lead. In short, we know he has enormous ability, but is he ready to beat these kinds of horses?
West Coast: Okay, it's Bob Baffert and it's the Haskell and Max's Hot Dogs, and we all know what that adds up to. In case you've been on another planet, Baffert has owned the Haskell, winning the race eight times, including five of the last seven years. As long as he or his assistant Jimmy Barnes has a hot dog at Max's on race day he has been virtually invincible. In West Coast, he has yet another late-developing colt with a world of talent. Baffert had actually thought about running him in the Belmont Stakes, despite having only four career starts, none farther than 1 1/16 miles. In his only stakes appearance he was beaten a head in the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland. But Baffert has been high on him since day one. So it was no surprise when he won the Easy Goer Stakes on Belmont Stakes day in resounding fashion, drawing off to a 3 ¾-length victory in a sharp 1:41 2/5. The Haskell would be a logical step up to nine furlongs, and the way he blew his field away at Belmont, coming from sixth, seven lengths off the lead, after having stalked the pace in most of his previous races, suggests he will welcome a stretch out in distance. Needless to say, he has to be considered a major threat wherever he goes. But he has yet to face this kind of competition.
There are others that need to be mentioned, such as Multiplier, J Boys Echo, and Meantime, all of whom also disappointed in the Belmont Stakes. I was high on J Boys Echo in the Derby and Belmont and he ran horribly in both of them. He needs to start from square one again. Also, you can be sure Dallas Stewart will give Hollywood Handsome another try after his debacle in the Belmont Stakes. Also, Wood Memorial runner-up Battalion Runner has been working well for the Dwyer, and he could wind up as the Pletcher prototype for the Haskell. There is also great hope in the barn for Coal Front, coming off an extremely impressive win at Belmont, despite acting up at the gate and forcing John Velazquez to dismount. That is something he obviously needs to correct.
A brief mention should also be made of No Mo Dough, who looked sensational winning the Sir Barton Stakes on Preakness Day, but hasn't worked since.