With the opening of Del Mar and Saratoga, the second half of the racing season is underway and the chase for Horse of the Year will be in full swing over the next six weeks.
Palace Malice, who displayed his remarkable versatility defeating a deep field in the June 7 Met Mile, can tighten his grip upon the pole position when he returns to action in the August 2 Whitney Handicap. The Todd Pletcher-trained colt has risen to the top via a four-for-four mark this year, and will look to close out the year with four more wins (Whitney-Woodward-Jockey Club Gold Cup-Breeders' Cup Classic), but a number of storylines remain possible if he falters.
His main older rival on the East Coast, Will Take Charge, can't be dismissed -- he captured last year's Travers at Saratoga and closed 2013 with three wins in his final four starts, the lone setback being a nose second in the Breeders' Cup Classic. The D. Wayne Lukas-trained colt can close the Horse of the Year gap with a Whitney upset.
Three-year-olds also remain highly relevant, with the November 1 Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita likely serving as the deciding element.
Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome showed a preference for Santa Anita earlier this year, capping a sensational three-race winning streak with a 5 1/4-length triumph in the Santa Anita Derby, and he'll attempt to come back strong this fall.
Shared Belief is now hot on the dual classic winner's heels, marching forward with a head of steam following a superb 4 1/4-length win in the July 5 Los Alamitos Derby, and he'll enter the Horse of the Year picture with a victory over elders in the August 24 Pacific Classic. The two-year-old champ is unbeaten in five career starts.
Tonalist is not out of the equation, earning big BRIS Speed numbers (107 and 108) for victories in his first two stakes attempts, the May 10 Peter Pan and June 7 Belmont Stakes. Saturday's Jim Dandy is next and the August 23 Travers will be important to his credentials.
The filly Untapable rates as an interesting wildcard. Her first test against males comes in Sunday's Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park and she's bred for longer distances on her female side (out of a Prized mare). Anything's possible with an impressive performance Sunday.
Wise Dan is also lying in wait. The turf miler has taken advantage of a jumbled landscape the past two seasons, earning back-to-back Horse of the Year titles, and appears fully recovered from a recent health scare, readying for his next start at Saratoga. With a third consecutive Breeders' Cup Mile victory this fall, Wise Dan figures to be perfectly positioned once again should the dirt horses knock each other out.
Here are some more thoughts on Horse of the Year hopefuls:
Palace Malice: Sixth in the 2013 Breeders' Cup Classic, Palace Malice has become much more formidable at age four and looks tough to beat going forward. He handles longer distances, capturing last year's 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes, and the Curlin colt netted a 113 BRIS Speed rating for his victory in the 1 1/8-mile New Orleans earlier this season, the top number among Horse of the Year contenders. Palace Malice may not have to ship to Santa Anita if he reels off wins in the Whitney, Woodward and Jockey Club Gold Cup, potentially guaranteeing himself the title in the process, but Dogwood Stable's Cot Campbell is the ultimate sportsman.
Will Take Charge: He ran well when opening the year with seconds in the Donn and Santa Anita Handicap but began to tail off in the spring, zigzagging through the stretch of a narrow win in the Oaklawn Handicap before tossing in a clunker with a sixth in the Alysheba. Will Take Charge showed signs of rebounding in the June 14 Stephen Foster, rallying for second, and remains intriguing given that he peaked at this time last year en route to three-year-old championship honors and likes the track at Santa Anita. He will need to run faster in upcoming starts, especially since trainer D. Wayne Lukas probably has the same races on his radar as Palace Malice, but count out at this last-season specialist your own risk.
Shared Belief: Plenty hinges on his appearance in the Pacific Classic and I won't be surprised to see him overwhelm the competition. Shared Belief drew off stylishly through the stretch while making his dirt debut in the 1 1/8-mile Los Alamitos Derby, earning a career-best 105 Speed rating, and left every indication that there's more to tap. He's an exciting prospect -- let's hope the lightly-raced gelding remains healthy -- and his affinity for synthetics should help as he continues to stretch out in the 1 1/4-mile Pacific Classic. Ten furlongs on Santa Anita's dirt track represents a different proposition, with Shared Belief sustaining a foot injury while training at Santa Anita during the winter, but we'll see if that matters. There's a lot to like about his future.
Tonalist: He still has much to prove, winning the Peter Pan in the slop and out-finishing tiring rivals in the stretch of the 1 1/2-mile Belmont, but Tonalist's ceiling could run very high. He'll need to keep improving to defeat older horses this fall, maximizing his potential over the next few months, and there's a chance he'll need more time before offering his best form down the road like a Palace Malice. Let's see how Tonalist performs in his upcoming tests at Saratoga first.
Untapable: She's run roughshod over her own division, winning all four starts this season by a combined 31 lengths, and will be favored over male rivals in the Haskell. The possibility exists that she's the best three-year-old of any gender in training and it's interesting to note that her career-best Speed rating (108) came in her lone appearance at 1 1/8 miles (Kentucky Oaks) -- there's no reason to fear added ground with Untapable. With a Haskell victory, she could make things interesting this fall.
Wise Dan: He's won 12 straight turf races and his North American competition needs a subpar performance or they don't stand any chance of beating him prior to the Breeders' Cup. The international contingent could be deeper in this year's Mile but if Wise Dan is able to maintain his form, nobody will be surprised to see the seven-year-old gelding win out in 2014. He needed some help to be named Horse of the Year the last two seasons (Game On Dude had to lose the Classic) and more than one horse this year could grab the hardware with a Classic victory, but it would be foolish to count out Wise Dan.
California Chrome: Connections are keeping an eye on Shared Belief -- they want to avoid losing to that rival at all costs -- and it will difficult to take California Chrome seriously for the Breeders' Cup Classic if he makes his lone prep in a new one-mile stakes at Los Alamitos in September. Other options are still on the table and California Chrome could come back better than ever this fall, but it was a serious grind earlier this year and California Chrome's best races this season could be behind him.
Game On Dude: He's won only one of four starts this year, leading to speculation that he's lost a step at age six, but the gelding's Santa Anita Handicap score was impressive (10 furlongs in 1:58; 108 Speed rating). The key for him is being able to relax up front, a luxury he didn't experience in the last two runnings of the Breeders' Cup Classic, and chances are slim that he'll be lone speed in this year's Classic. Game On Dude can still move back into the Horse of the Year discussion with a successful title defense in the Pacific Classic.