It’s been a well documented disaster season for the three year old male division in terms of the number of star horses lost to injury and retirement. Among others, we’ve lost Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner I’ll Have Another, Arkansas Derby and triple crown double runner-up Bodemeister and Belmont Stakes winner Union Rags. The only true contenders remaining were Alpha and Dullahan.
On Saturday at Saratoga, the GoDolphin owned and Kiaran McLaughlin trained Alpha was attempting to win his third career graded stakes race in the $1,000,000 Travers Stakes (G1). The field was certainly watered down with lesser talent. Just three horses had won a stakes race, with only two in graded company. Neck ‘n Neck won the Grade 3 Matt Winn Stakes at Churchill Downs, Street Life had won the Curlin and Broad Brush Stakes and the only Grade 1 winner in the field Liaison hasn’t won since capturing the CashCall Futurity at Hollywood Park as a two year old last December. A span of 8 races. Not exactly the type of field expected for a Grade 1 event such as this.
Nonetheless, the 46,000+ fans that were in attendance and viewers from around the World were treated to an exciting race, thrilling finish and a first for the race since 1874. Speightscity held the lead at the far turn, but was fading. Jockey David Cohen sent 33/1 longshot Golden Ticket along the rail while Ramon Dominguez took Alpha 3-wide. Golden Ticket held the lead as they turned for home and it looked as if he would take home the win. Alpha however, had a different plan. He dug in, fought his way back and with a last second surge he made it a tight photo finish. After a few minutes of deliberating, it was too tough to declare one horse the victor and for the first time since 1874 the Travers Stakes had a dead heat for the win. Alpha had won his third career graded stakes race to go along with the Withers Stakes (G3) and Jim Dandy Stakes (G2). Not exactly what was expected of this race, but with a division that needed some good news and excitement, this was a welcomed result.
On Sunday at Del Mar, it was the lone three year old Dullahan taking on a tough field including Game on Dude and Richard’s Kid in the $1,000,000 Pacific Classic (G1). The Bob Baffert trained Game on Dude is arguably the best older male long distance runner in the country. Richard’s Kid, who was also a Bob Baffert trainee until a week before the race (sold) is a two-time winner of the race and has returned to form after an unsuccessful year and a half stint in Dubai. Game on Dude made a trip to Dubai and it wasn’t what the connections were expecting or hoped for either. He ran 12th in the Dubai World Cup Sponsored by Emirates Airline (G1) on March 31. He returned to Southern California and ran in the California Stakes (G2) on June 2. He won that race and then again a month later in the Hollywood Gold Cup Handicap (G1). He defeated Richard’s Kid. After that defeat, Richard’s Kid went on to win the 1 1/2 miles Cougar II Handicap (G2). Both horses going into the Pacific Classic on a winning note. The three year old Dullahan has had a roller coaster career in just 11 starts. His only two wins have come on the all weather synthetic surface. Oddly enough, both were in Grade 1 races. He won the Dixiana Breeders Futurity at Keeneland last year to break his maiden and this year he won the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes. In between and after those races he has produced mixed results on dirt and turf. After a strong finish in the Derby where he finished 3rd, many felt he was on track to do something special on dirt as well. Trainer Dale Romans decided to bypass the Preakness for the Belmont Stakes. He ran a disappointing and effortless 7th. His follow up was another lackluster 5th in the Haskell Invitational (G1) at Monmouth Park. So was it time to hit the synthetic again? The answer was YES.
Dullahan would race in Southern California for the first time and face older males for the first time as well. It was a jam packed field with several horses winning multiple graded stakes over their careers. The seven year old Rail Trip was coming into the race off a win in the San Diego Handicap (G2). It was his fourth career graded win. Ron McAnally brought turf runner Suggestive Boy (ARG) into the fray with four Grade 1 wins under his belt from Argentina. The lone filly in the field Amani (CHI) brought a strong resume of races from Chile where she won 11 of 12 races including nine grade 1 and 2 races. Her one start in the US was a 3rd place result in the Clement L. Hirsch Handicap (G1) where she bobbled out of the gate, went 3-wide the entire race and still only lost by 1 1/2 lengths.
76/1 longshot Riveting Reason went to the lead, Suggestive Boy sat just behind him and Game on Dude lingered between 3rd and 4th. Dullahan and Richard’s Kid sat well off in 8th and 9th respectively. Jockey Chantal Sutherland let Game on Dude move on the backstretch and took over the lead with 1/2 mile to go. As they hit the far turn, Game on Dude continued to lead, while the other front runners began to fade. You could see movement from the back end with Rail Trip, Dullahan and Richard’s Kid passing horses as they approached the turn for home. As they straightened out down the stretch Sutherland had Game on Dude two lengths ahead, but Dullahan was catching him with each stride from the middle of the lane. Richard’s Kid was coming up the inside but you could tell he was not going to catch the top two. With 1/16 of a mile to go, Sutherland lost the handle of the left side of the reigns. Not sure if that made the difference or not as Dullahan and rider Joel Rosario were coming hard. Dullahan would eventually prevail by 1/2 length. Game on Dude settled for 2nd with Richard’s Kid 2 3/4 lengths further behind and Rail Trip completed the board in 4th. The final time of 1:59.54 broke the track record for 1 1/4 miles at Del Mar.
I have a couple of points to make about the Dullahan win. One, he is far superior on synthetic than he is on dirt. That is obvious. So why did it take trainer Dale Romans so long to figure this out? Was it the lure and spotlight of the triple crown that did him and his horse yet again? Last year, he did the same thing with Shackleford. Yes, Shackleford won the Preakness Stakes, but on pure heart. He couldn’t duplicate the feat in the next few races. If Shackleford would have raced at or near one mile for the entire year, he could have won 3 or more graded races instead of the one. This year, Dullahan has won two Grade 1 races, both on synthetic. So what next? Does Romans find synthetic races for his star colt or does he try the dirt again?
Keep in mind, the Breeders’ Cup Championships are at Santa Anita with a dirt surface. He qualifies for the Breeders’ Cup Classic with the Pacific win. Will the $5,000,000 purse be too much to do what is right for this colt? or Do they try turf races again to make a successful try in the Breeders’ Cup races? He ran 2nd to Howe Great in the Palm Stakes (G3) at Gulfstream Park to kick off his three year old season. He also ran 3rd in the With Anticipation Stakes (G3) at Saratoga last summer. He certainly has options. The one option is to NOT attempt dirt ever again. EVER! Aside from the BC Classic, the lure might also be there with the $1,000,000 Pennsylvania Derby on September 22. I hope they do what is best for the horse as they did by running in the Pacific Classic and not the Travers.
My final thoughts coming out of this past weekend is who is the top three year old and whoever it is, can they win the Eclipse Award for the division?
Alpha has put together a nice season, but the dead heat in the Travers against a weak field didn’t help his chances. He would need to win another big Grade 1 to put himself into serious consideration. In my opinion, Dullahan is now the top active three year old as he defeated a strong crop of older males. I still don’t think he wins the award at this point. He needs to win at least one more Grade 1 race against tough competition whether three year olds or older. I know owner Jerry Crawford feels Dullahan should win now, but all you have to do is go back to last year.
Animal Kingdom won the Eclipse Award for top three year old male despite the fact his only big Grade 1 win was the Kentucky Derby. He ran 2nd in the Preakness, 6th in the Belmont and he didn’t race again. It shows how much stock and credit the Derby receives. This year, I’ll Have Another won both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, so that makes the task for any other three year old that much tougher to win Horse of the Year honors.