Exactly one week removed from the conclusion of the 2012 Triple Crown season, Neck 'n Neck gave the first indication he could be this year's version of that horse.
That horse being the late-developing sophomore who seemingly crops up each season, one who wasn't quite ready for the classics but puts it together in time to become a factor — and sometimes victor — in the prime summer events.
In rolling to his 71/4-length victory in the Grade III Matt Winn Stakes at Churchill Downs on June 16, Neck 'n Neck was among the first to potentially earn that label.
Saturday's running of the Grade II, $600,000 Jim Dandy at Saratoga will help determine if the aforementioned designation sticks.
A possible start in the Grade I Travers Stakes next month and heightened status within the now wide-open 3-year-old division will be on the line in the 11⁄8-mile Jim Dandy, which drew a field of eight on Wednesday including Neck 'n Neck out of post position No. 4.
While the racing world was still getting over the fact Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner I'll Have Another was retired one day before the Belmont Stakes because of injury, Neck 'n Neck took a cue from the dual classic winner and used Churchill Downs as a personal showcase when he romped in stalk-and-pounce fashion in the 11⁄16-mile Matt Winn, his third victory in 10 career starts.
Like I'll Have Another, Neck 'n Neck is a son of Flower Alley but unlike the former Triple Crown hopeful, maturity is just now starting to set in for A. Stevens Miles Jr.'s homebred.
The Ian Wilkes-trainee finished off the board in the Sam F. Davis, Fountain of Youth Stakes and Florida Derby earlier this year before righting himself with an allowance win at Churchill — site of all three of his wins — going 11⁄16 miles on May 10.
"We only got beat 4 and 5 lengths in the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby so I felt like we didn't disgrace ourselves," Wilkes said of Neck 'n Neck. "I just had an immature horse. I went back and went to an allowance at Churchill and he won and got some confidence out of that, and then he won impressively in the Matt Winn. Has he improved 4-5 lengths? I'm hoping he has, to be competitive in these types of races."
The Jim Dandy became more up for grabs Wednesday when WinStar Farm president Elliott Walden said Grade I winner Gemologist — who would have been the favorite for the race — would contest Sunday's Grade I Haskell Invitational at Monmouth instead.
"I think the stature of (the Haskell) that's what made us go that way," Walden said of the decision.
With Gemologist out of the mix, the Jim Dandy is ripe with lesser-proven sophomores who could be poised for a second-half surge. Teeth of the Dog scored his first graded stakes win in the Grade II Dwyer Stakes on June 30. Alpha, second to Gemologist in the Grade I Wood Memorial, is making his first start since running 12th in the Kentucky Derby after having a paddock meltdown.
"It was just too much, the length of time that he had to be in the paddock and saddling and waiting when it was 100 degrees out and he just lost it," trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said of Alpha's Derby outing. "It was like looking at a popsicle melting. But he's ready to go now. We hope he can be one of the top colts."
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com.