To say there is a vacancy atop Thoroughbred racing's 3-year-old male division would be telling a half-truth. There is a leader, an undisputed one at that. But his days of being able to exercise his authority ended last month.
Even in retirement, the shadow of dual classic winner I'll Have Another hangs heavy over the 2012 sophomore crop as the sheen of his four wins, three Grade I triumphs and victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes won't be dulled by his absence from the track.
While they no longer have the chance to prove they can best I'll Have Another head-to-head, this weekend gives some of the better 3-year-olds a first opportunity to show that, given the right circumstance, they could stand on equal footing with their absentee ruler.
It would take a feat of historic proportions to wrest the divisional championship from I'll Have Another when Eclipse Awards are doled out in January. The last time a horse won two legs of the Triple Crown and didn't get the 3-year-old championship was Tabasco Cat in 1994 as he had the misfortune of later running against, and being defeated by, eventual Horse of the Year Holy Bull.
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Even if earning that year-end hardware is a long shot, there are still plenty of prestigious, career-making races on the table — starting with Saturday's Grade II Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga and Sunday's Grade I Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park.
"We're not worried about championships, we're just worried about trying to win this race," said trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, who will saddle Grade III winner Alpha in the eight-horse Jim Dandy field. "Someone would probably have to win Jim Dandy or Haskell, Travers, and Breeders' Cup (Classic) to win the 3-year-old championship, whoever that may be, but we're not really worried about that. We just want to show up and be live."
Belmont Stakes winner Union Rags was also recently retired because of injury, leaving the sport without any of its Triple Crown heroes in the second half of the year. Considering this 3-year-old class was heralded earlier in the season for its depth, the next several months will test that theory.
Some of that will bear out this weekend as both Alpha and his Grade I Wood Memorial conqueror Gemologist — who is entered in the Haskell — will be make their first starts since finishing 12th and 16th, respectively, in the Kentucky Derby.
Gemologist's run that day was especially disappointing as he was unbeaten in five career starts leading up.
A hoof bruise discovered days later helped explain the lackluster effort, and his connections are hoping the colt's Haskell outing cements their belief that his lone loss was an aberration.
"I think he looks about as good as a horse can look at the moment," trainer Todd Pletcher said of Gemologist. "Hopefully, he'll run well and we'll have a fresh horse for the Travers four weeks from now."
With his Grade I-winning stablemate Bodemeister recovering from a fever that caused him to skip the Haskell, Zayat Stables' Paynter has some thinking he could be the next breakout horse.
The morning-line favorite for the Haskell came within a neck of winning the Belmont Stakes in what was just his fifth career start.
"Nobody's going to forget about (I'll Have Another and Union Rags). They've accomplished too much in the first half of the year," said Dale Romans, trainer of Grade I winner and Haskell entrant Dullahan. "But I think there's some good horses left out there, like Dullahan, like Paynter. I'm a huge Paynter fan. I think he's one of our best 3-year-olds of the crop. We've still got a lot of exciting 3-year-olds to run."