A year ago, this was the time when things got real in a hurry for those in Main Sequence's circle.
It was when trainer Graham Motion had his eyes opened wide in recognition of the talent he had in his care. And it was the first step in what would be a championship campaign that ignited a dramatic, though one-sided, rivalry.
Monmouth Park's Grade I United Nations Stakes was the race last season that unleashed the now reigning king of North American turf races. With two Eclipse Awards to his credit, Main Sequence is set for a return to the 13⁄8-mile race Sunday.
Before Main Sequence was named the top turf male and champion older male, he was a European-based underachiever. He was trying to find some form in the wake of a 10-race skid in England and a severe illness he contracted after coming to the States in the winter of 2013.
In his first North American start — and first outing for Motion — the Flaxman Holdings homebred knocked the American turf division on its ear when he won the 2014 United Nations by a neck over West Point Thoroughbreds' Twilight Eclipse. That began a five-race winning streak that included four Grade I triumphs.
Though his string of victories was halted when he ran seventh in the $6 million Dubai Sheema Classic on March 28, Main Sequence will head to the Jersey Shore this weekend as a poster boy for celebrating life in the United States. The 6-year-old gelded son of Aldebaran has yet to lose in North America, including his season-capping victory in the 2014 Breeders' Cup Turf at Santa Anita Park last November.
"It's kind of odd, because you're coming back to (the United Nations Stakes) in completely different terms than he went to it last time," said Motion, who took over Main Sequence's conditioning after he was trained in England by David Lanigan. "Last time it was the experiment to find out how good he was and where we stood. Now we're going back as the defending champion, so it's a little different feeling.
"I certainly didn't feel any pressure last time, and I certainly do this time."
A gentleman of a horse temperament-wise, Main Sequence has his quirks in training — most notably not getting out of the starting gate in clean order — but possesses a brilliant turn of foot able to make up for any in-race issues.
His late kick looked as wicked as ever when he won his seasonal debut in the Grade II Mac Diarmida Stakes at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 21. The Dubai Sheema Classic, however, saw everything go awry as Main Sequence missed the break, rushed up too close to the pace under jockey Rajiv Maragh and faded in the 11/2-mile race.
"The Dubai thing was frustrating because I thought it was his chance to sort of wipe out all his naysayers," Motion said. "He really didn't get an opportunity to do so, and it really wasn't through any fault of his own.
"We laid too close to the pace and I think probably Rajiv and I spent too much time analyzing it, kind of overthought it instead of letting him run his own race. But the trip to Dubai really didn't take much out of him. I could have run him several weeks ago, but I thought I would be patient and wait for this spot."
One who benefited from Main Sequence's Dubai venture is the venerable Twilight Eclipse, who is also slated for another go in the United Nations.
The bay gelding has lost five straight outings at the hands of Main Sequence, finishing second three times. But he broke through for his first top-level triumph when he took the Grade I Man o' War Stakes at Belmont Park on May 9.
The softer turf at Belmont on June 6 contributed to Twilight Eclipse running seventh in the Grade I Manhattan Stakes. Assuming rain doesn't impact his chances this weekend, the West Point crew would love if Motion — who also trains for them — would have his top charge show Twilight Eclipse some mercy.
"I've even begged and said, 'How about a dead heat? Would you be that upset with a dead heat?' But Graham Motion is a cruel individual," joked Jeff Lifson, executive vice president of West Point Thoroughbreds. "We're going to need to have our 'A' game and Main Sequence maybe have his A-minus game.
"(Twilight Eclipse) needs to start chugging at the three-eighths pole and ... get some distance between him, make sure Main Sequence has a lot to do with that burst in order to reach him."