It seemed so simple just three months ago. The Eclipse Award for Champion 3-year-old Male was virtually a done deal. Justify had just become the 13th horse to win the U.S. Triple Crown. He was an outstanding racehorse. There could not conceivably be another winner.
Suddenly, however, the picture is not so clear, and, strange as it may seem, maybe racing may be better served if the award went to another horse entirely.
Trained by Bob Baffert, the son of Scat Daddy had a brilliantly managed 3-year-old season - his only racing season - with a perfect 6 for 6 record. But, shortly after winning the Belmont, the horse developed a filling in one of his legs and he was retired to stud duty.
Sadly, his racing career lasted less than four months, starting with a maiden over seven furlongs at Santa Anita on February 18 and ending with that Belmont victory on June 9.
If you go back to last fall, when the 2018 3-year-olds were in most cases just getting their careers going, the early consensus was this was going to be a strong crop.
One of the brightest and earliest stars was Bolt d’Oro, originally trained Mick Ruis but now with Steve Asmussen. He won two Graded stakes at two and finished a third to Good Magic when favorite in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Del Mar in November. At three, Bolt d’Oro won the G2 San Felipe and finished second to Justify in the Santa Anita Derby. But he finished up the track in the Kentucky Derby and was well off the board in the Metropolitan Mile against older horses.
As is often the case, trainer Todd Pletcher had a strong contingent of 3-year-olds in the prep races for the Kentucky Derby. Audible won the Holly Bull and the Florida Derby before running third at Churchill Downs. Pletcher had three other horses with success in the run-up to the Derby:
- Vino Rosso, who won the Wood Memorial impressively and subsequently finished ninth in the Derby. He has not won since
- Noble Indy, who took the Louisiana Derby and subsequently finished 17th in the Derby. He has been unplaced in two subsequent races.
- Magnum Moon, who was undefeated in four races leading up to the Derby, including the G1 Arkansas Derby, but had serious traffic problems in the Derby and was retired after the race.
The most highly regarded horse at the end of the 2-year-old season was Good Magic, trained by Chad Brown and winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. This season, he won the G2 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland before running strong races in the Derby, finishing second to Justify, and the Preakness, where he was fourth to Justify, beaten less than a length. Good Magic then went on to win the G1 Haskell international at Monmouth Park, which made him the heavy favorite for the Travers last Saturday. There, though, he ran ninth of 11, soundly beaten by Catholic Boy.
It appears that the consensus among bettors is that this 3-year-old crop, which showed so much early promise, has played out to be disappointing.
In the Kentucky Derby, Justify ran a strong race in the pouring rain over a very sloppy racetrack to beat Good Magic and Audible 2½ and 4 lengths.
In the Preakness, the track was again very sloppy, but the finish was quite different. The D. Wayne Lukas-trained Bravazo, who went off at 15/1, closed seven lengths from fifth at the top of the stretch to be beaten a half a length on the wire. The 25/1 chance Tenfold, trained by Steve Asmussen, was just beaten a neck by Bravazo in third. Good Magic at 7/2 was a neck behind Tenfold in fourth. Justify may have dodged a Triple Crown bullet or two to win the second leg of the Triple Crown.
It appeared as though things might be a little easier for Justify, the 4/5 the post-time favorite, in the Belmont. Remarkably, one of the leading contenders was a Chad Brown horse, named for the New England Patriot all-star tight end, Gronkowski, who had run exclusively on synthetic surfaces in the UK and had never raced on a dirt track and had never raced beyond a mile.
In the end, Justify went to the front and never looked back. That said, Gronkowski closed from over 15 lengths back with a moderate pace up front to finish second, beaten less than two lengths, a similar distance ahead of the 5/1 second favorite Hofburg, trained by Bill Mott.
Make no mistake, Bob Baffert and Justify did everything they had to do to win the Triple Crown. However, in my view, a Triple Crown win, as rare as they are, does not mean an Eclipse award comes along automatically as part of the package.
I became further convinced of that when watching Catholic Boy, trained by Jonathan Thomas, win the Travers by four lengths at Saratoga on Saturday (see video below).
This performance was arguably as impressive as any by Justify during the Triple Crown.
Catholic Boy’s body of work is unique, and impressive. His overall record is six wins in ten starts. Four of those wins have come on the turf, with three Graded stakes wins (the G3 With Anticipation, the G3 Penine Ridge and the G1 Belmont Derby), and two on dirt, both Graded stakes (the G2 Remsen and the G1 Travers). In fact, his performances against horses who ran against Justify compares favorably - horses including Bravazo, Vino Rosso, Tenfold, Gronkowski and Good Magic. Take a look for yourself.
A key point is that there is still a lot of important racing ahead of us this year - and that must mean something when we’re looking to dish out Eclipse awards.
Catholic Boy, of course, will need to continue to perform at a high level for Eclipse consideration. Good Magic could also be in the mix if he can regroup from his Travers loss and rebound with a major G1 victory this fall.
A four-month racing career can certainly win a Triple Crown, but a longer, more productive career may be better for the industry as a whole, and perhaps more deserving when it comes to handing out Eclipse awards.