Over the last 20 months or so, with many sports and entertainments curtailing activities because of the pandemic, horse racing had an extraordinary opportunity to connect more frequently with its followers and to reach out boldly to new and potential fans. For the most part, though, and not surprisingly, the sport bungled its chances. Creeping cretinism precluded progress, as often happens in this sport.
But as the new year begins, it’s worth noting that the window hasn’t closed entirely, and horse racing probably has more potential headliners than it has had in several years. As I pointed out a few months ago, Flightline could be the most talented horse in the country, possibly the most talented to come along since Ghostzapper, and his career has hardly begun. The accolades can dance in a conga line for Life Is Good, too. Those two horses are sufficiently talented to dazzle; they can reach out to sports fans everywhere. They can show a mainstream audience that on horse racing’s stage greatness is possible, and isn’t that what pulls people magnetically to sports, the possibility of seeing greatness made vivid and talent rewarded?
And then, of course, there’s the Triple Crown, which, during the first half of the year, always focuses interest, both casual and intense, on the 3-year-olds that radiate potential and possibility. The division is all about prospects and goals and dreams, some of them nurtured for a lifetime, and a few of them unfurled for all to see in the first half of the year That, too, is what attracts people to sports, the realization of dreams. The connections of the most prominent 3-year-olds can become so preoccupied with a certain blanket of roses that their striving for it sometimes seems like the quest for a celebrated grail. More and more young horses, it seems, begin their careers by setting out on these meandering roads that lead to Kentucky. Never before have I seen so many potential Triple Crown players so lightly raced, horses such as Shaaz and American Icon, who just this past weekend won their debuts. Watching such horses develop should prove to be an attraction for fans and newcomers alike. Yes, this sport has so much to offer — greatness made vivid, dreams, aspirations — all that, and you can bet on it, too! Yes, the window is still open, an opportunity waiting to be grasped, if only the sport can refrain from pointing a shotgun at its foot yet again.
And speaking of creeping cretinism, Churchill Downs, the home of the Kentucky Derby (G1), has banned trainer Bob Baffert — and, in effect, all the horses he trains — for two years. The situation reminds me of a hectoring general manager who many years ago banned the jockeys “now and forever” from his racetrack. That’ll show ‘em.
Baffert trains eight of the top 50 noisemakers on the road to the Triple Crown, and if the list were extended it would include another five or six horses in his barn, such as Winning Map and Montebello. Only Todd Pletcher, with 10 candidates on the list, has more. But among those in Baffert’s group is Corniche, the TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) winner who’s certain to be named the season’s champion youngster, as well as Messier and Shaaz. So Baffert has three of the top 10 in his barn, and unlike Churchill Downs I can’t see how the sport and its fans gain anything from the horses’ exclusion from the game’s premiere primetime moment. I will let the lawyers work it all out. In the meantime, I will continue to include Baffert’s horses on this list.
By the way, Medina Spirit and Authentic, both began their Derby-winning campaigns for Baffert by running in the Sham Stakes (G3). Medina Spirit finished second in last year’s Sham to Life Is Good, and Authentic won it two years ago. Saturday’s renewal of the Sham has attracted a field of only five, with two of the favorites, Newgrange and Rockefeller, coming from the Baffert barn. The most intriguing horse in the field, though, could be Mackinnon. His three victories have all come on turf, but he has trained impressively on the dirt. On Dec. 6 at Santa Anita, for example, he broke a few lengths behind a Connect colt named Don’t Swear Dave (who finished second to Messier in a maiden race), ran four wide in the turn, and blew by his stablemate in the lane, completing five-eighths of a mile in :59.80 and then galloping out strongly beyond the wire. Mackinnon could put himself in the vanguard with a victory Saturday.
In addition to Baffert and Pletcher, trainer Kenny McPeek will begin the season with a strong hand for the Triple Crown. He doesn’t hold a pat hand perhaps, but he has aces, at least a pair, maybe three: Smile Happy, the winner of the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (G2) at Churchill; Rattle N Roll, the winner of the Breeders’ Futurity (G1) at Keeneland; and Tiz the Bomb, the runner-up in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1) at Del Mar. They’re all training in Florida for a return in February or March, but McPeek said he hopes to keep them separated.
For years, McPeek has enjoyed considerable success on the road to the Triple Crown, often with horses that he purchased at auction for what might be considered in these days of extravagance reasonable prices. He purchased Tejano Run, for example, for $20,000 as a yearling in 1993. A year later, Tejano Run won the Breeders’ Futurity, and in 1995 he ran third in the Blue Grass (G1) before finishing second to Thunder Gulch in the Kentucky Derby. McPeek also won the Blue Grass and Florida Derby (G1) with Harlan’s Holiday and the Louisiana Derby (G2) with Repent. And, of course, he pulled off one of the biggest upsets in Triple Crown history with Sarava, who won the 2002 Belmont Stakes (G1) at 70-1, and scored another classic milestone when he won the 2020 Preakness Stakes (G1) with the filly Swiss Skydiver.
So, he wasn’t altogether willing to accept the premise that his Triple Crown hand this year is the strongest he’s ever had. Maybe his hand in 2002 was stronger; Harlan’s Holiday, after all, was the Derby favorite. But, yes, McPeek said, he has a strong hand, with three very good, talented horses who are developing in just the right way and at just the right time.
“He’s just a beast,” McPeek said about Smile Happy, who was bet down to 9-2 in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, where he was making only the second start of his career. He advanced down the backstretch, pulled jockey Corey Lanerie into contention in the second turn while racing five-wide and then drew clear to win by more than three lengths. “He looks like a good horse, he eats like a good horse, he acts like a good horse.” In other words, McPeek seemed to be saying, this is an exceptional racehorse who’s capable of significant accomplishment.
Prior to the race, Smile Happy and Tiz the Bomb — who are “mates,” their trainer said — galloped together, worked together, trained together. Both were entered, but after galloping in the mud one morning, Tiz the Bomb had a minor cut on a hind leg. So McPeek scratched him, going instead with the lightly raced stablemate. But given Tiz the Bomb’s accomplishments, which included two stakes wins, McPeek had a fair assessment of Smile Happy’s talent. And he wasn’t at all surprised, he said, when Smile Happy won so authoritatively, pulling away and galloping out strongly. Still, as good as Smile Happy is and as good as he looked at Churchill, McPeek said Tiz the Bomb could have won that race. Yes, they’re both aces.
Rattle N Roll made a similarly scintillating move while winning the Breeders’ Futurity. Afterwards a quarter crack sent him to the sidelines, but he’ll start breezing in January. “He’s poised for a good 3-year-old year,” McPeek said.
With superstar talent and a contentious cavalcade on the road to Kentucky, horse racing should be poised for a good year, too. The sport needs it.
A look at 50 noisemakers for the road to the Triple Crown
1. Corniche, 3-3-0-0, Bob Baffert, Quality Road: He galloped out strongly after winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and possesses a conspicuously special talent. But how special? That wasn’t a strong field he defeated at Del Mar, and he had a fairly easy trip.
2. Smile Happy, 2-2-0-0, Kenny McPeek, Runhappy: He circled horses to win the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill in one of the most impressive juvenile performances of the year. He’s aimed at a Florida return and should soon return to the worktab.
3. Rattle N Roll, 4-2-0-1, Kenny McPeek, Connect: He made a dramatic four-wide move around the second turn to win the Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland. He’s also in Florida and could return to competition in March. McPeek has a pair of aces to start the Triple Crown season — or possibly three aces.
4. Slow Down Andy, 3-2-1-0, Doug O’Neill, Nyquist: After making a wide move, he showed his inexperience when he hit the front in the Los Alamitos Futurity (G2), but he also flashed considerable potential, winning despite his trip. Last Sunday, he worked five-eighths of a mile in 1:01 at Santa Anita.
5. Messier, 4-2-2-0, Bob Baffert, Empire Maker: He disappointed as the odds-on favorite in the futurity at Los Alamitos. He’s a grand looking, long-striding colt, but so far, he hasn’t quite run to his looks. The handsome colt’s potential appears to be very high.
6. Emmanuel, 1-1-0-0, Todd Pletcher, More Than Ready: He was a handy and lonely winner in his debut at Gulfstream Park, with jockey Luis Saez looking under his arm for company. On Christmas Eve at Palm Beach Downs, with stablemate Dean’s List, Emmanuel worked an easy half-mile in :49.30 and appeared to be going slightly better on the gallop-out. The $350,000 yearling has a bright future and will probably be running in stakes company before he leaves Florida.
7. Commandperformance, 3-0-2-0, Todd Pletcher, Union Rags: He finished fourth in the Juvenile after racing wide around both turns. Still a maiden, the big gray colt looks as if he could improve dramatically in 2022. He was born to race longer distances.
8. Tiz the Bomb, 5-3-1-0, Kenny McPeek, Hit It a Bomb: A multiple stakes winner and Breeders’ Cup runner-up on turf, he scored his maiden victory by more than 14 lengths on the main track. Obviously versatile and talented, he could be one of the most intriguing 3-year-olds of 2022 since he seems equally capable on any surface.
9. Shaaz, 1-1-0-0, Bob Baffert, Uncle Mo: A $1.1 million purchase, he recently won his debut at Santa Anita in a fast clocking despite racing six wide in the turn and showing some inexperience down the lane, where he was very late to switch strides. Prior to his debut, he had worked on even terms with the promising Triple Tap, who finished fourth in the Malibu (G1).
10. Classic Causeway, 3-1-1-1, Brian Lynch, Giant’s Causeway: He advanced four-wide with Smile Happy in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes but couldn’t sustain his move to the wire; still, he rated comfortably and took a step forward, declaring himself a noisemaker on the road to Kentucky.
11. Jack Christopher, 2-2-0-0, Chad Brown, Munnings: The morning-line favorite for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, he was scratched the day before the race and later had surgery so a screw could be placed in his left shin. He could resume training next month. Yes, he’s fast and talented, but when he won the Champagne (G1), he staggered through the final quarter-mile in :26.86. So, he raises many questions, and from here he looks like he could be a miler.
12. Mo Donegal, 3-2-0-1, Todd Pletcher, Uncle Mo: He waited in traffic before swinging to the outside; he waited again, or lost focus, when he got to the lead. But he persevered and finished well to win the Remsen (G2) by a nose over Zandon. On Christmas Eve at Palm Beach Downs, he worked a half-mile with an unraced colt named Congressman in :50.73; Mo Donegal got the advantage over his stablemate on the gallop-out.
13. Mackinnon, 6-3-1-1, Doug O’Neill, American Pharoah: Third after a troubled trip in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, he has been training strongly on the dirt at Santa Anita, where he’ll have a chance Saturday, in the Sham Stakes, to put himself prominently on the road to the Triple Crown.
14. Major General, 2-2-0-0, Todd Pletcher, Constitution: He raced five-to-six wide in the first turn, four-wide in the second, exchanged bumps down the lane and won the Iroquois (G3) with style, if not authority. A $420,000 yearling, he has the potential to become Major indeed. After a short break, he’s training in Florida and should soon return to the worktab.
15. Zandon, 2-1-1-0, Chad Brown, Upstart: A horse for all the Trekkies of the world, he was able to sustain a long drive along the inside and just missed in the Remsen, amid some controversy. But that was a significant step forward for a colt making only his second start. On Monday, at Payson Park in Florida, he breezed a half-mile in :50.20.
16. Giant Game, 3-1-0-1, Dale Romans, Giant’s Causeway: He moved boldly while five-wide in the second turn only to flatten out at Del Mar and finish third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Wednesday, at Gulfstream Park in Florida, the $500,000 yearling worked a half-mile in :47.72 as he prepares to return to competition.
17. Pappacap, 5-2-2-0, Mark Casse, Gun Runner: A little too eager in the first turn of the Juvenile, he nevertheless had the easiest of trips and still couldn’t threaten. He needs to take a big step forward if he’s to make much noise on the road to Kentucky, but that wouldn’t be a surprise: He’s in the barn of a Hall of Fame trainer, and his sire improved steadily throughout his career. Monday in New Orleans, Pappacap breezed a half-mile in :49.80 at Fair Grounds.
18. Epicenter, 3-2-0-0, Steve Asmussen, Not This Time: He improved significantly in his second start and took another small step forward in winning Sunday’s Gun Runner Stakes at Fair Grounds in New Orleans by more than six lengths. It wasn’t a fast race, but he’s moving in the right direction.
19. Hopkins, 1-0-1-0, Bob Baffert, Quality Road: He led until deep stretch, where he begrudgingly yielded to Shaaz in a very fast race at Santa Anita. A $900,000 yearling, he’s clearly a colt with enormous potential.
20. Ben Diesel, 2-1-0-0, Dallas Stewart, Will Take Charge: He ran with determination to finish fourth in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes after pressing the pace and being forced to race wide in the first turn; it was impressive for a colt making only his second start. Monday, he worked five-eighths in 1:01.80 at Oaklawn Park, where he drew post position No. 14 for Saturday’s Smarty Jones Stakes.
21. Rockefeller, 3-2-0-0, Bob Baffert, Medaglia d’Oro: After a perfect trip, he appeared to be fully extended to win the Nashua Stakes (G3) in New York. A $750,000 yearling, he appears to be improving and training strongly. In company with Newgrange, he worked five-eighths Sunday at Santa Anita in :59.60, six days after firing a bullet at the distance. He faces an important test Saturday in the Sham.
22. Newgrange, 1-1-0-0, Bob Baffert, Violence: He made an auspicious debut at Del Mar, stopping the teletimer at 1:10.25 after three-quarters of a mile. He has strung together some solid early morning moves at Santa Anita, working on Sunday in company with Rockefeller. He’ll make his stakes debut in the Sham.
23. High Oak, 3-2-0-0, Bill Mott, Gormley: He rallied strongly while three-wide to win the Saratoga Special, but then regressed in the Hopeful, finishing fourth. He worked a slow three-eighths Tuesday at Payson Park in Florida, his first breeze in more than three months. In the hands of a Hall of Famer, he could step forward significantly as a 3-year-old.
24. Forbidden Kingdom, 3-1-1-1, Richard Mandella, American Pharoah: Bobbling away from the gate, he became rank and then, given his head, scorched the opening half-mile of the Bob Hope (G3) Stakes in :43.23; finally, and quite predictably, he capitulated to Messier. Still, Forbidden Kingdom held on for second. And with a little Mandella magic, he could learn to control his speed. If not, he could develop into a top sprinter. On Monday at Santa Anita, he breezed a half-mile in :49.80.
25. Costa Terra, 3-1-0-1, Steve Asmussen, Gun Runner: He raced wide but rallied from last to finish fifth in the Breeders’ Futurity, suggesting he has a chance to develop into a boisterous noisemaker as he improves and the distances stretch out. He recently worked an easy five-eighths in New Orleans with Stellar Tap and could return to competition in late January.
26. Zatip, 2-1-0-0, Graham Motion, Tapit: By a truly great sire and out of a mare, Zaftig, who won the 2008 Acorn (G1), Zatip has a pedigree that screams potential. In October, he drew clear to win by more than four lengths at Keeneland in a relatively slow, but nevertheless promising, performance. He’s training at Fair Hill in Maryland for his return.
27. Stellar Tap, 3-1-0-0, Steve Asmussen, Tapit: After winning his debut with style at Saratoga, he disappointed in the Iroquois and the Breeders’ Futurity. His Hall of Fame trainer will find the key to unlock this colt’s talent.
28. Pinehurst, 3-2-0-0, Bob Baffert, Twirling Candy: The Del Mar Futurity (G1) winner chased Corniche in the Breeders’ Cup before faltering in the lane. Since then, he has had two workouts at Santa Anita in preparation for a return. Longer distances could be a challenge for him, but he’ll be a player whenever he avoids his stablemate.
29. Varatti, 1-1-0-0, Todd Pletcher, Into Mischief: Flashed talent and potential at Belmont in September while winning his debut by more than four lengths and defeating Mo Donegal. He recently arrived in Florida to begin preparing for his return; Pletcher said this colt always has trained as if he could stretch out.
30. In Dreams, 4-2-1-0, Brad Cox, Frosted: Last week, running the final quarter-mile in :24.16, he romped by six lengths in the mud at Oaklawn Park, completing the three-quarters of a mile in 1:09.61. Did the mud contribute to the performance? Or is the former claimer a potential noisemaker on the road to the Triple Crown?
31. Howling Time, 3-2-0-0, Dale Romans, Not This Time: Won the Street Sense Stakes by rallying from a couple lengths off the early lead, but then faltered in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes when he set the pace. Wednesday at Gulfstream Park, he worked five-eighths of a mile in 1:00.65.
32. Nakatomi, 5-2-1-1, Wesley Ward, Firing Line: He charged through the lane to run down stakes winners My Prankster and Chattalot to win the Bowman Mill Stakes at Keeneland. His sire, of course, ran second to American Pharoah in the Kentucky Derby, and so the pedigree strongly suggests Nakatomi could be more than a sprinter.
33. American Xperiment, 2-1-0-1, Steve Asmussen, Nyquist: After an impressive debut at Saratoga, he finished third in the Del Mar Futurity, racing wide on a day when every winner but one raced near the inner rail. A colt with “a lot of talent,” according to his trainer, he’s in New Orleans, where he worked five-eighths of a mile on Christmas Eve.
34. Finneus, 7-2-3-1, Walter Solis, Stay Thirsty: Second in the both the Del Mar Futurity and the Best Pal Stakes (G2), he looks as if he’s going appreciate the longer distances down the road. He breezed an easy half-mile Monday at the San Luis Rey Training Center in California.
35. Wit, 4-2-1-1, Todd Pletcher, Practical Joke: The $570,000 yearling won the Sanford (G3) but was a distant third in the Champagne. He’ll make some noise on the Triple Crown road, but his effectiveness will probably diminish as the distances stretch out. From here, he looks like a sprinter.
36. Make It Big, 3-3-0-0, Saffie Joseph, Neolithic: He angled out and finished with a rush to win a minor stakes at Gulfstream, and more recently he rallied four-to-five wide in the second turn to win the Springboard Mile at Remington Park in Oklahoma City. It wasn’t a fast race, but he has laid a solid foundation on which he can build a 3-year-old campaign.
37. Key Point, 1-1-0-0, Chad Brown, Into Mischief: In August, despite racing wide and drifting out in the stretch, he won his debut at Saratoga and then galloped out beyond the wire like a monster. He might be a sprinter, and he could be a horse to watch for later in the year, but this is a bundle of talent.
38. Chasing Time, 3-1-1-0, Steve Asmussen, Not This Time: Forced his way through a narrow opening and ran the final three-eighths of a mile in :36.81 in his maiden victory at Churchill, and then he galloped out powerfully beyond the wire. He’s training at Oaklawn Park for his return.
39. Oviatt Class, 5-1-0-2, Keith Desormeaux, Bernardini: Swinging to the outside, he rallied to finish fifth at Del Mar in the Juvenile. Can he improve enough to have an impact on the road to the Triple Crown? Maybe. He’s in the hands of an excellent horseman with a long history of getting the most out of these types. Monday, he worked five-eighths at Santa Anita in 1:01 and will try to make some noise in the Sham.
40. Sir London, 3-1-2-0, Simon Callaghan, Malibu Moon: He flew business class — which is to say he had the most comfortable journey imaginable — when he scored by 10 lengths at Los Alamitos. The good-looking colt has plenty of room to improve.
41. Trafalgar, 3-2-1-0, Al Stall, Jr., Lord Nelson: The perfectly named colt held on at 3-5 to win recently over 1 1/16 miles at Fair Grounds. He responded when challenged and galloped out strongly, suggesting there could be more in the tank. Since then, he has put together what look like some sharp workouts in preparation for a stakes debut Jan. 22 in the Lecomte (G3).
42. Octane, 4-3-2-1, Carlos David, Brethren: A winner of two stakes for Florida-breds, he could be good enough to compete in open company. He has been quiet, though, since September.
43. Double Thunder, 6-3-1-0, Todd Pletcher, Super Saver: Winner of the Bashford Manor (G3) at Churchill, he ran with some of the best of his generation, but then flattened out at Del Mar in the Juvenile. He’s a blue-collar type who’ll probably make some noise and build up a thick bankroll in minor stakes; but he’ll need to improve considerably if he’s to threaten the best of his generation.
44. My Prankster, 4-2-1-0, Todd Pletcher, Into Mischief: A recent winner at Gulfstream Park in 1:09.02 for three-quarters of a mile, he’ll stay with shorter distances, at least for the immediate future. And he looks as if he could become a top sprinter; he’s aimed at the Swale (G3) on Feb. 5.
45. Gunite, 6-2-2-1, Steve Asmussen, Gun Runner: The Hopeful (G1) winner set the pace and burned himself out in the Champagne. So, he’s another whose future will probably be sprinting, but he’ll make some noise in the division.
46. Dean’s List, 1-1-0-0, Todd Pletcher, Speightstown: Another debut winner for Pletcher, the speedster shot through an opening half-mile in :44.36 and drew clear without switching strides in the lane. He’s very talented, but could be better suited for shorter distances. He recently worked in company with highly regarded Emmanuel.
47. Cyberknife, 3-1-2-0, Brad Cox, Gun Runner: A powerful chestnut with abundant talent, he has run erratically in all three of his races, including his recent victory in New Orleans, where he opened up a clear advantage and then drifted in and out down the lane while tiring conspicuously.
48. Kavod, 9-3-1-0, Chris Hartman, Lea: In his first start for Hartman, who claimed the colt for $50,000, Kavod won the Advent Stakes on opening day at Oaklawn Park. He’ll stretch out to a mile in Saturday’s Smarty Jones Stakes.
49. American Icon, 1-1-0-0, Todd Pletcher, Gun Runner: Yet another promising youngster in the Pletcher barn, American Icon was a $400,000 yearling. He won his debut stylishly at Gulfstream Park. It wasn’t a fast race, but he wasn’t fully extended.
50. Kupuna, 2-0-1-1, Bret Calhoun, Hard Spun: After a slow start, he rallied six-wide and ran the final three-eighths of a mile in :36.86 when second in his most recent outing, and then he galloped out well beyond the winner, Surfer Dude. He’s training at Oaklawn Park and shouldn’t be a maiden for long.
Gary West is a nationally acclaimed turf columnist, racing analyst, author and handicapper who helped pioneer pace figures.