So which horse will be America’s champion 3-year-old male now?

Will Take Charge, pictured winning at Saratoga in 2013, was the last horse to win the Eclipse Award for champion 3-year-old male despite not having won a Triple Crown race. Photo:

Last Saturday’s Pennsylvania Derby was supposed to be a return battle between the Kentucky Derby 1-2-3, Nyquist, Exaggerator and Gun Runner, but it turned into a massive anti-climax. Gun Runner was the only one of the three to run any sort of race as the barely considered Connect proved too good for all of them, further confusing the picture for one of the most prestigious Eclipse Awards.

The last time three different horses won the U.S. Triple Crown races, none of them won the award for champion 3-year-old male. That honor went to Will Take Charge, a horse that finished eighth in the Kentucky Derby, seventh in the Preakness, and 10th in the Belmont Stakes.

But he got good — really good — in the second half of the year, and the horses that won those races — Orb, Oxbow, and Palace Malice — didn’t fulfill the promise they’d shown in the Triple Crown. Orb didn’t win another race after the Derby, nor did Oxbow after the Preakness. Palace Malice won one of four starts, the G2 Jim Dandy.

After the Belmont, Will Take Charge won the Travers (G1), the Pennsylvania Derby (G2), and the Clark (G1). He lost the Breeders’ Cup Classic by a nose.

It’s possible that a second-half horse will become this year’s Will Take Charge; 3-year-olds will have that chance in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park on October 8; in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita on November 5; in the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs on November 25; and in the Cigar Mile at Aqueduct on November 26.

All are G1 races; all are for 3-year-olds and up. So is the Awesome Again at Santa Anita on Saturday, but no 3-year-old Eclipse contenders are likely to run in it. Travers winner Arrogate is a possibility, and a win in it might well put him in the conversation about championship honors.

Compelling case

But Will Take Charge is the exception: in each of the other four recent years in which the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont were won by different horses, one of those horses was named 3-year-old champion male, due at times more to their rivals’ lack of accomplishment than their own achievements.

Curlin was an easy choice in 2007: winner of the Preakness, third in the Derby, second in the Belmont, he won the Jockey Club Gold Cup and the Breeders’ Cup Classic to close out his 3-year-old season. He also didn’t have to worry about Eclipse competition from that year’s Belmont winner, the horse that beat him and who won four G1 races that year to his three, because Rags To Riches was the first filly to win the race in 102 years.

In 2009, Summer Bird offered a similarly compelling case. Following his Belmont win — only his second win of the year — he won the Travers and the Jockey Club Gold Cup, ending the year with three G1 wins, one in an American classic. The Kentucky Derby was Mine That Bird’s only win that year, and Preakness winner Rachel Alexandra was obviously ineligible.

2010 offers a good case for champion by default. Super Saver’s only win of the year came in the Kentucky Derby. Drosselmeyer won an allowance and the Belmont, and didn’t race after June. By comparison, Lookin At Lucky was a standout, with wins in the Preakness, the Haskell, and two other graded stakes, but on its own, it’s a weak champion’s résumé.

But a short 3-year-old, stakes-light campaign is not an automatic disqualifier, as Animal Kingdom proved in 2011. The winner of the Kentucky Derby never ran after the Belmont and brought only one other win, that in a G3, to the discussion of champion 3-year-old. Shackleford’s only graded stakes win that year came in the Preakness, and the same was true for Ruler On Ice and the Belmont. Shackleford joined Animal Kingdom as a finalist, as did Caleb’s Posse, on the Derby trail early in the year, then pointed to races at shorter distances. He won the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile and the King’s Bishop, both G1s, along with a G2 and a G3, and he mounted a challenge to Animal Kingdom, garnering 111 votes to the Derby winner’s 114. Animal Kingdom’s Eclipse Award speaks to the primacy of the Kentucky Derby to the voters — and perhaps to the popularity of his trainer.

This year, we can rule out the Belmont winner (Creator). He’s got two G1 wins — the same as Nyquist — but three of his last four races were terrible and he’s done for the year.  Nyquist, too, has only the two G1 wins, but one of them was the Kentucky Derby, and that will carry weight with voters. His Preakness third was respectable; his Haskell and his Pennsylvania Derby, not so much. If he can pull off a win in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, the Eclipse Award is his.

Exaggerator presents a compelling case: three G1s, one more than Nyquist, a horse he’s beaten (and been beaten by) twice. But three serious clunkers, in the Belmont, Travers, and Pennsylvania Derby, and no wins on a dry track, will work against him.

Arrogate’s won four of five races this year, but only one graded stakes. True, it was the Travers, and true, it was a monster, but still, it’s one win. He’ll need a win in the Classic to become a contender.

A year ago, the conversation about 3-year-old male champion was finished when American Pharoah won the Belmont. This year, that discussion will continue at least through the Breeders’ Cup, and perhaps into late November. Here’s hoping that this year’s champion is a horse that voters select with enthusiasm, and not by default.

Pennsylvania Derby poll result

Last week TRC asked readers which horse they thought would win the Pennsylvania Derby at Parx Racing on Saturday. On the surface the race seemed like a straight battle between Nyquist, Exaggerator and Gun Runner, but the voting shows a lot of shrewd people weren’t convinced:

Nyquist (finished 6th) 33%
Other 32%
Gun Runner (2nd) 19%
Exaggerator (7th) 16%

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