The kids, the ones most everyone had doubts about at some point this season, are threatening a takeover.
With the older male division decimated by its leaders either being sent to the sidelines (Lea, Moonshine Mullin, Palace Malice) or flat-out retirement (Game On Dude, Mucho Macho Man, Will Take Charge), the balance of power in advance of November's $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic is ripe for this year's sophomore class to snatch.
The upcoming "Super Saturday" lineups at Belmont and Santa Anita Park — blockbuster cards that feature 10 Grade I races combined between the two tracks — will be a litmus test of just how much the 3-year-old males are to be feared. While Belmont Stakes hero Tonalist and the Travers Stakes 1-2 duo of V.E. Day and Wicked Strong are among the top contenders in the field of 12 entered for the Grade I, $1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont, reigning juvenile champion Shared Belief is favored to earn his second win over elders in the Grade I, $300,000 Awesome Again Stakes at Santa Anita.
After missing the entire Triple Crown season because of foot issues, Shared Belief has reaffirmed his brilliance since his return in late May.
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Unbeaten in six career starts, the gelded son of Candy Ride is threatening to overtake dual classic winner California Chrome as the front-runner for year-end honors, especially in the wake of his 23/4-length victory over older horses in the Grade I Pacific Classic coupled with California Chrome's recent sixth-place run in the Grade II Pennsylvania Derby.
Of the four Grade I winners entered for the Jockey Club Gold Cup, Eric Guillot-trainee Moreno is the only older horse in that group having captured the Grade I Whitney Handicap on Aug. 2.
Still, it is Wood Memorial winner Wicked Strong who was installed as the 3-to-1 morning-line choice in the 11/4-mile Gold Cup. Were it not for his late-developing stablemate, the son of Hard Spun would already be a multiple Grade I winner himself as he was caught in the final strides of the 11/4-mile Travers by V.E. Day to lose by a nose.
"You know, we've had some late-developing 3-year-olds come into their own, and the older horses had run hard earlier in the year and are just kind of falling by the wayside," trainer Jimmy Jerkens, who conditions both V.E. Day and Wicked Strong, said during a teleconference this week. "It's just the way it happens some years, and ... it looks like the 3-year-olds even against the older horses look like they might have a little bit of the upper hand.
"Racing, it's tough and grueling on horses, and it just seems it just happened (this year) to take its toll on the older ones."
With this year's Breeders' Cup being held at Santa Anita Park for a third straight year, a win over the surface in the Awesome Again will practically guarantee Shared Belief favoritism heading into the Classic.
The Jerry Hollendorfer trainee has never started over the Santa Anita oval and will be making only his second start over a dirt surface. His only other effort on dirt, however, was an effortless, 41/4-length triumph in the Grade II Los Alamitos Derby on July 5.
"You'd have to say Shared Belief (is the top 3-year-old male)," Jerkens said. " I mean even though he hasn't left California, you win like he does and you've beat all the horses — I mean even though he's stayed there — you'd certainly have to give him the nod."
"Certainly I respect Shared Belief. He's the horse to beat," added trainer George Papaprodromou, who will saddle Imperative, third in the Pacific Classic, in the 11⁄8-mile Awesome Again. "We'll make one run and stay a little closer this time and see what happens."
The undercard of the Jockey Club Gold Cup features four other Grade I races and the Grade II Kelso, headed by Woodward Stakes winner Itsmyluckyday.