Gary West.

West: Look to the Older Horses to Get the Blood Pumping in 2022

By Gary West/Special to TVG

We’re in a contemplative moment. The championship season concluded with the Gardyloo! Breeders’ Cup, and the Triple Crown season won’t seriously start until Jan. 1 with the Jerome Stakes at Aqueduct and the Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn Park. These intervening weeks are for pondering the sport’s turkeys — such as the California Horse Racing Board, Del Mar, and, of course, the perennial partridge, Churchill Downs Inc.— as well as its gifts — such as a 6-year-old campaign from Letruska, the promise of fixed-odds wagering, and, of course, the one that keeps giving, Saratoga.

It’s also an ideal time to identify some intriguing horses to watch for in 2022. The year will begin, as usual, with expectations bursting with hopefulness about the newly minted 3-year-olds. Sentinels on the lookout for potential Triple Crown players will be everywhere and even more vigilant than usual, largely because the juveniles of 2021, except for a lightning bolt of a filly, didn’t inspire many dreams, roseate or otherwise. And so, the prevailing assumption is that surely somebody will emerge in the first few months of 2022, or a few somebodies perhaps, who can inject some excitement into the procession pointed at Kentucky. But the sentinels will be looking in the wrong place.

The older horses will probably supply the most excitement and the best racing for all of 2022. Kentucky Derby (G1) first-place finisher Medina Spirit and Pennsylvania Derby (G1) winner Hot Road Charlie both showed their talents in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1). Medina Spirit, of course, finished second and Hot Rod Charlie fourth, and they’ll renew their rivalry in 2022. But don’t forget Kentucky Derby runner-up Mandaloun, who’ll have a preparatory race in January before reaching for the Saudi Cup (G1) the following month, and Midnight Bourbon, who finished second in the Preakness (G1) and the Travers (G1) and performed admirably all season even though he was never able to seize the starring role. With a small step forward, Midnight Bourbon is right there with the best of his generation, and he could be ready to take such a step, having posted a pair of bullet workouts in preparation for the Clark (G1) on Nov. 26 at Churchill.

Speaker’s Corner is another who with a small step forward could join the best of his class. For a few moments in 2021 — when he circled the early leaders and won by five lengths at Saratoga, for example, and in late October when he defeated older horses by nearly seven lengths at Belmont — he looked capable of taking on anybody. But he disappointed in the Pennsylvania Derby, suggesting he’s a major talent still looking for consistency.

For a few months last year, Flightline became one of the most talked about horses in the country — usually talked about in hyperbolic tones, with comparisons to Pegasus and Ghostzapper, complemented by Wagner’s “Flight of the Valkyries” playing in the background. The Tapit colt won his debut by an area code in 1:08.75 at Santa Anita, and somehow, he improved on that in his second start, stopping the Del Mar teletimer after three-quarters of a mile at 1:08.05. Winning his two starts by 26 combined lengths, he was considered for the Breeders’ Cup Sprint (G1), where he would make his stakes debut. The consideration didn’t last long, however. He appears to be training sharply at Santa Anita for his return next month in the Malibu (G1).

Yes, this could be one of the strongest groups of older horses the sport has seen in years. And imagine how strong it will be if Mystic Guide, who in early 2021 was considered the most talented horse in the country, makes it all the way back from injury.

But if there were a morning line on the 2022 Horse of the Year, the favorite would have to be Life Is Good. His brilliance lit up Del Mar when he led throughout to take the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1) by nearly six lengths. If not for an ankle chip — well, speculation about what he might have accomplished could soar quite high, and even then, skepticism would only be ballast. Before Medina Spirit became a cause celebre, Life Is Good defeated him twice. Forced by injury to miss the Triple Crown, when he returned in the H. Allen Jerkens (G1) at Saratoga, he nearly defeated the best sprinter in the country, Jackie’s Warrior. How could good could he be? That’s one of the most compelling questions of 2022.

Life Is Good, ridden by Irad Ortiz Jr., wins the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile at Del Mar on Nov. 6, 2021. Bill Denver /Breeders’ Cup/Eclipse Sportswire/CSM

For the moment, Echo Zulu, the undefeated winner of the Juvenile Fillies (G1), looks dominant in her division. You don’t need anybody to point her out as one to watch in 2022; a spotlight will follow her every move. She’ll get some time off, her Hall of Fame trainer, Steve Asmussen, said, before she travels to Fair Grounds in New Orleans to prepare for her 3-year-old campaign. But if nobody or only a few emerge to challenge her, it could be the same for the distaff division as for the males: The older fillies and mares will produce more excitement and better racing.

Before her meltdown at Del Mar, Letruska won five consecutive graded stakes; she almost certainly will be crowned the season’s champion older dirt female. And three of the fillies that finished ahead of her in the Distaff (G1) are poised to challenge her for the divisional leadership.

Malathaat, winner of the 2021 Kentucky Oaks (G1), finished third in the Distaff, beaten about a half-length after getting bumped around, and Clairiere finished a head farther back in fourth, but out near the middle of the track. Multiple Grade 1 winner Shedaresthedevil, who bested Letruska in the Azeri Stakes (G2) and was sixth in the Distaff, is also set to remain in training for 2022 after selling for $5 million at the Fasig-Tipton November Sale. Any of those fillies could have won the Distaff with a better trip. They’re all Grade 1 winners, they’re all millionaires, and they’re all poised to challenge Letruska in 2022. Yes, the older fillies and mares are going to produce some excitement, too, in what’s already looking like a potentially superlative year for racing.

Next up is a look ahead at the 3-year-olds of 2022.

Gary West is a nationally acclaimed turf columnist, racing analyst, author and handicapper who helped pioneer pace figures.