If one image sums up the scrambled state of this year's three-year-old division, it's Animal Kingdom's clipping heels in the opening strides of Saturday's Belmont Stakes, eliminating his chances before the real running even started. The same tired theme has repeated itself all season: a talented colt, on the verge of solidifying his status as the leader of the classic generation, was tripped up -- only this time, it happened literally and not just figuratively.
The Triple Crown trail of 2011 will go down as one of the most frustrating in memory, culminating in different winners of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont (Animal Kingdom, Shackleford and Ruler on Ice, respectively).
If either Animal Kingdom or Shackleford had won the Belmont, he would have been in pole position for the title of champion three-year-old. With the unheralded Ruler on Ice springing a 24-1 surprise, the championship is not only unclaimed; it is threatening to become inscrutable.
Animal Kingdom deserves to be considered the leader because he performed the best over the series, but his grip is tenuous. A flawless dirt debut was followed by rookie mistakes at the Preakness. Belmont should've been his ideal race, but an early bump derailed that. Perhaps we should marvel at the sixth-place finish given the circumstances.
But pro-tem leadership only goes so far. Animal Kingdom's only prior stakes win came in the Spiral on Turfway Park's Polytrack, so he doesn't have a considerable body of work to fall back on. The Team Valor International homebred has to beef up his resume to win the Eclipse Award as champion three-year-old colt.
To that end, Team Valor impresario Barry Irwin is considering a change of plans. Rather than reverting to turf over the summer, Animal Kingdom might contest the August 27 Travers at Saratoga. A victory in the prestigious "Midsummer Derby" would definitely advance his cause.
A strong performance there would likely clinch the divisional title, as it did for Unbridled, '90 Derby champ whose only other big victory after the race was the Classic. (Though Unbridled didn't win Horse of the Year.)
The Horse of the Year title will largely depend upon what transpires among the older horses, a division that is currently in flux as well. It's far too soon to project what that picture will look like, with much more to be decided in the interim.
Shackleford's in a tougher spot to try for divisional leadership because of his distance limitations. Likely at his best at up to 1 1/8 miles, he was running on empty at the end of the 1 3/16-mile Preakness. The 1 1/8-mile Haskell Invitational should play right to his strengths. On the other hand, the major prizes down the line -- the Travers, October 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup versus older horses at Belmont Park and the Breeders' Cup Classic -- are all contested at 1 1/4 miles.
Like Animal Kingdom, Shackleford doesn't have a compelling portfolio. The Preakness was his first stakes win, and his only other stakes placing was his near-miss second in the Florida Derby, where he was nailed by Dialed In at the wire. Shackleford is an admirable campaigner who will be fun to watch as he tries to stretch his speed, but a championship appears beyond his reach.
Belmont upsetter Ruler on Ice is in a different category. It's unwise to dismiss him as a perfect-trip winner of a subpar Belmont in the slop. Ruler on Ice fits the mold of a late developer who is just beginning to figure out the game. Trainer Kelly Breen has spoken openly about how quirky the gelding is, how much time it's taken to get a handle on him, and how Ruler on Ice was affected by a low red blood cell count until a couple of weeks ago. The addition of blinkers for the Belmont also helped.
Ruler on Ice brought a meager rsum into the Belmont, as the third-place finisher in the Sunland Derby and runner-up as the favorite in the Federico Tesio, but he had been under consideration for the first two jewels of the Triple Crown. Entered in the Kentucky Derby, he was excluded from the maximum 20-horse field because of insufficient graded earnings. Ruler on Ice was flirting with Preakness until Breen decided to back off and wait for the Belmont. Was the Belmont a breakthrough race for a horse on the upswing, or just a fluke in a maddening year? Only time will tell and he's got a lot more to prove, but Ruler on Ice showed tactical speed, stamina, and relentless willingness, and those qualities can't be discounted.
Aside from being the fitting conclusion to a Triple Crown trail full of surprises, the result of the Belmont reflected the upheavals of 2011 in another way: the top four finishers are stablemates of, or in the same ownership as, much more highly-regarded prospects who have since fallen by the wayside.
- Breen's top sophomore and Rule on Ice stablemate, Sweet Ducky, was sold to Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov following his runner-up effort in the Holy Bull to Dialed In. Pants on Fire then jumped up to post an upset in the Louisiana Derby, but bled in the Run for the Roses and wound up ninth. He could still be the barn's representative in the Haskell at Breen's home track of Monmouth.
- Uncle Mo, Stay Thirsty's stablemate and the nearly-unanimous champion juvenile who topped the rankings at the start of the year, looked like a monster last campaign. Yet his hopes were dashed when he was upset in the Wood Memorial. First diagnosed with a gastrointestinal infection, he was later found to have cholangiohepatitis. Plans call for the champion to return to training, but there's no guarantee that he will be physically up to it.
- Belmont third-placer Brilliant Speed is owned by Charlotte Weber's Live Oak Plantation. When the Triple Crown trail began, Weber had a serious candidate in To Honor and Serve. Unfortunately, To Honor and Serve didn't run up to his ability this winter at Gulfstream Park and was sidelined by a suspensory injury. So Brilliant Speed, then a turf runner, ran respectably in the Derby, but considerably better in the Belmont, where he loomed boldly in midstretch before flattening out.
- Belmont fourth Nehro, who was previously runner-up in the Kentucky, Arkansas and Louisiana Derbies, is owned by Ahmed Zayat. Long before Nehro even got around to breaking his maiden in February, Zayat expected to have a major player for the Triple Crown in Jaycito. But Jaycito was plagued by foot problems, never made it to any of the classics, and is only now taking the first steps on the comeback trail.
Animal Kingdom is himself an example of this trend. Before the Derby, he was in the shadow of his stablemate Toby's Corner, the upset winner of the Wood Memorial. Toby's Corner was widely considered to be Graham Motion's leading Derby contender, until he sustained a setback that ruled him out of the race.
Other notable names on the "injured reserve" list are such top-caliber types as Premier Pegasus, who crushed the San Felipe by a stakes-record 7 3/4 lengths, and The Factor, a smashing winner of the Rebel. Archarcharch, the hero of the Arkansas Derby, suffered a career-ending injury in the Kentucky Derby; we'll never know how good he might have turned out to be with maturity.
Of course, the championship could even go to a horse who didn't win any of the classics.
There is recent precedent for a horse ultimately reigning as champion who came along too late to even run in the Triple Crown -- Tiznow. Unraced until April of his three-year-old season, he didn't break his maiden until May 31, 2000, but ended the campaign with consecutive victories in the Super Derby, Goodwood and Breeders' Cup Classic. The latter score over European sensation Giant's Causeway, with Derby hero Fusaichi Pegasus a well-beaten sixth, also netted Tiznow Horse of the Year honors.
Bob Baffert, the trainer of The Factor and Jaycito, might have an up-and-comer in the shape of Coil. Bred to run all day, the son of Horse of the Year Point Given has shown more speed than one would expect from his pedigree. Coil just captured his stakes debut in the Affirmed at Hollywood Park on Belmont Day, the same race that thrust Tiznow into the spotlight. He's got a long way to go, but Coil is one to watch over the summer.
While many observers have condemned our current crop as a bad bunch, I believe it's more a case of the budding stars either being the victim of nightmarish bad luck like Animal Kingdom, or on the sidelines at the moment, or just starting to come around.
One phase of the season has ended with the Triple Crown, but the second half has not yet begun. The merits of these three-year-olds won't be fully revealed until then, when we can look back with better perspective. For now, there's still plenty to be decided on the track.