California Chrome, Tepin among plethora of stars in first half of 2016

California Chrome, ridden by Victor Espinoza, raced at the Meydan Racecourse in Dubai, United Arab Emirates on Feb. 25, 2016.
California Chrome, ridden by Victor Espinoza, raced at the Meydan Racecourse in Dubai, United Arab Emirates on Feb. 25, 2016. AP

Forgive the Thoroughbred racing fanbase if it emerged from the first half of 2016 utterly spoiled.

Before the calendar could flip to summer, followers of the sport were treated to an overflow of talent from all ends of the spectrum, be it the sustained brilliance from established stars like California Chrome, Tepin and Beholder to the ongoing progression of both reigning juvenile champions and their determined challengers.

While debates are already heating up as to what Eclipse Award balloting could look like if everyone holds together, the good news is there is still a ways to go before any dust settles. Below is a look at who is currently out front in some of the higher profile divisions and who, if anyone, could be in position to shake up the status quo.

3-year-old male

Current leader: Nyquist. The reigning juvenile male champion and Kentucky Derby winner still sits atop his class following a parity-ridden Triple Crown season. Exaggerator handed the son of Uncle Mo his first career defeat in the Preakness Stakes, but Nyquist maintains a 4-1 advantage in head-to-head meetings and Exaggerator has yet to show the brilliance he flaunted in the Preakness and Santa Anita Derby while racing over a fast track. Creator’s Belmont Stakes triumph was a wonderful turnaround from his 13th-place finish in the Kentucky Derby, but he will need to a big second half if he is going to contend for year-end hardware.

Other challengers: Gun Runner has been among the most consistent performers of the class, winning five of seven career starts while not finishing worse than fourth. The son of Candy Ride aired his foes out in the Grade III Matt Winn Stakes on June 18, his first outing since running third in the Kentucky Derby, and is being pointed to the Grade I Haskell Invitational. Mohaymen, who won his first five career starts, has been cooling his heels since his fourth-place finish in the first leg of the Triple Crown with the Grade II Jim Dandy and Grade I Travers his summer targets.

Races to watch: The usual suspects in the Grade II Jim Dandy (Saratoga) on July 30, Grade I Haskell Invitational (Monmouth) July 31, and Grade I Travers Stakes (Saratoga) Aug. 27. Trainer Doug O’Neill is still mulling whether to keep Nyquist on the West Coast leading up to the Breeders’ Cup Classic and, if he goes that route, the colt could face older horses in the Grade II San Diego Handicap (Del Mar) on July 23.

3-year-old filly

Current leader: Songbird. Something drastic is going to have to happen for Rick Porter’s reigning champion juvenile filly to get knocked off her throne. Still unbeaten and unchallenged in eight career starts, the daughter of Medaglia d’Oro is likely headed to the Grade I Coaching Club American Oaks at Saratoga on July 24 with the Grade I Alabama on Aug. 20 also in the plans. Someone is going to have to try and eyeball her if they want to take her down, and that may not happen until she faces older fillies. And, for the last time, her connections insist she is NOT running against males this year.

Other challengers: Again, this is Songbird’s division to lose. However, after having her winter hampered by some minor setbacks and being stuck in quarantine at Payson Park Training Center due to an equine herpes virus outbreak, Carina Mia has gotten to flex her talents, winning the Grade II Eight Belles by 6 lengths May 6 and toppling Kentucky Oaks winner Cathryn Sophia in the Grade I Acorn on June 11. Catch a Glimpse, the 2015 Canadian Horse of the Year, has dominated her division’s turf ranks and most recently beat males in the Grade III Penn Mile on June 4 with the Grade I Belmont Oaks on July 9 tabbed for her next start.

Races to watch: Saturday’s Grade I Mother Goose at Belmont Park features Grade I winner Rachel’s Valentina and the promising Lightstream from the barn of Brian Lynch. The Grade III Delaware Oaks (Delaware Park) on July 9, Grade I Coaching Club American Oaks (Saratoga) on July 24, and Grade I Alabama (Saratoga) on Aug. 20.

Older Dirt Male

Current leader: California Chrome. It has been a treat to watch the 2014 Horse of the Year come back into top form in his 5-year-old season. He became North America’s richest racehorse of all time with his win in the $10 million Dubai World Cup on March 26, and he opened 2016 with a win over the likes of Hoppertunity and Hard Aces in the Grade II San Pasqual. He’s set to make his first start since Dubai in the Grade II San Diego Handicap (Del Mar) on July 23 with the Grade I Pacific Classic (Del Mar) on Aug. 20 also likely.

Other challengers: Melatonin has come into his own this year, winning the Grade I Santa Anita Handicap and taking the Grade I Gold Cup at Santa Anita on June 25. The 5-year-old Kodiak Kowboy gelding has won his last three outings on the Santa Anita Park main track, which is hosting the Breeders’ Cup World Championship this November. Frosted was defeated by California Chrome in the Dubai World Cup but put forth one of the most impressive outings in any division this year when he won the Grade I Met Mile by 14 1/4 lengths on June 11.

Races to watch: Grade II Suburban Handicap (Belmont Park) July 9, Grade II San Diego Handicap (Del Mar) July 23, Grade I Whitney (Saratoga) Aug. 6, Grade I Pacific Classic (Del Mar) Aug. 20, Grade I Woodward (Saratoga) Sept. 3.

Older Dirt Female

Current leader: Beholder. The three-time Eclipse Award winner is now 6 years old and appears as strong as ever in what is a sure-fire Hall of Fame career. After opening her campaign with a glorified workout in the Grade III Adoration Stakes on May 8, the daughter of Henny Hughes defeated Stellar Wind, the 2015 champion 3-year-old filly, by 1 1/2 lengths in the Grade I Vanity Stakes on June 4. You have to go back to the 2014 Grade I Ogden Phipps to find Beholder’s last defeat and that day, she suffered a gash in her left hind. She won’t have to ship out of her California base this year leading into the Breeders’ Cup, and there could be a showdown for the ages on tap if both she and California Chrome end up in the Grade I Pacific Classic on Aug. 20, a race Beholder won last year by 8 1/4 lengths.

Other challengers: No one outside of Beholder has been able to get a sustained foothold in this division. Curalina was dazzling when she won the Grade I La Troienne by 7 1/2 lengths in her seasonal bow May 6 but then finished a disappointing fourth to Cavorting in the Grade I Ogden Phipps June 11. Sheer Drama threw down a spectacular effort to defeat defending Breeders’ Cup Distaff winner Stopchargingmaria in the Grade I Madison on April 9 but was third in the La Troienne and fifth in the Ogden Phipps. Cavorting has plenty of raw ability but there are questions about how far she can stretch out.

Races to watch: Grade I Delaware Handicap (Delaware Park) July 16, Grade I Clement L. Hirsch (Del Mar) July 30, Grade III Shuvee Handicap (Saratoga) July 31, Grade I Personal Ensign (Saratoga) Aug. 27.

Turf female

Current leader: Tepin. The defending champion turf female and Breeders’ Cup Mile heroine made history when she became the first U.S.-based horse to win the Group I Queen Anne Stakes at Royal Ascot on June 14. She has toppled males both domestically and internationally and has proven effective beyond 8 furlongs this year, winning at distances of 1 1/16 miles and 1 1/8 miles. Unless the likes of multiple Group I winner Solow ventures over for the Breeders’ Cup this year, it’s hard to see anything but extreme heat — which Tepin does not like — taking the Mark Casse-trainee down. Look for the Grade I Woodbine Mile on Sept. 17 as her next major target.

Other challengers: Bill Mott-trainee Celestine captured the Grade I Just a Game at Belmont Park on June 11 in stakes-record time, her first top-level win. Miss Temple City defeated males in the Grade I Maker’s 46 Mile at Keeneland on April 15 and finished fourth in the Group II Duke of Cambridge Stakes at Royal Ascot. Were this any other year, fellow Casse-trainee Catch a Glimpse would in the running for the divisional lead, but sharing a barn with Tepin may be her biggest obstacle to an Eclipse Award.

Races to watch: Grade I Belmont Oaks (Belmont Park) on June 9, Grade II Yellow Ribbon (Del Mar) on July 16, Grade I Diana (Saratoga) on July 23, Grade I Del Mar Oaks (Del Mar) on Aug. 20, Grade II Ballston Spa (Saratoga) on Aug. 27.

Turf male

Current leader: Flintshire. In his first start for trainer Chad Brown and third career U.S. outing, the multiple Grade/Group I winner scored a stylish 1 3/4- length win in the Grade I Manhattan at Belmont Park on June 11. The son of Dansili has global class, winning the 2014 Hong Kong Vase and running second in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in both 2014 and 2015. With no clear North American turf standout, Flintshire should clean up stateside this season.

Other challengers: Multiple graded stakes winner Ironicus was second to Flintshire in the Manhattan. Big Blue Kitten is the defending champion turf male but has been off the board in two starts in 2016. Such is also the case of defending Arlington Million winner The Pizza Man.

Races to watch: The Grade I United Nations Handicap features a field of ten going to post Sunday at Monmouth Park including Grade I winner Wake Forest. Grade I Fourstardave Handicap (Saratoga) on Aug. 13, Grade II Del Mar Handicap (Del Mar) on Aug. 20, Grade I Sword Dancer (Saratoga) on Aug. 27, Grade II Bernard Baruch (Saratoga) on Sept. 5.

Alicia Wincze Hughes: 859-231-1676, @horseracinghl