A year ago, the Belmont Stakes provided a clear agenda for the fall racing campaign.
Triple Crown winner American Pharoah was going to take the summer off, then gear up to try to add the Breeders’ Cup Classic and become the first Grand Slam winner in American racing.
The biggest name in his way wasn’t one of his own Triple Crown rivals, but a horse that had nearly matched his accomplishment – California Chrome. The 2014 Derby and Preakness winner had fallen short in the Belmont, but he was still in training as a 4-year-old and a massive showdown seemed on the cards.
That didn’t happen – an injury ended California Chrome’s season – and American Pharoah romped home in the Breeders’ Cup.
This year, though, is going to be a lot more complicated.
No horse came out of the Triple Crown series as a huge favorite going forward. Nyquist was dominant through his Derby win, but burned out against a brutal pace in the Preakness and missed the Belmont with an illness. Assuming the problem was minor, which it was thought to be, he will get a well-deserved vacation before coming back for the Jim Dandy at the end of July or the Travers in late August.
Exaggerator also couldn’t handle the Belmont. He got to the starting gate, and was in perfect position at the beginning of the track’s long, sandy stretch, but he completely ran out of gas. He finished 11th, and there are still serious questions about his talent. He’s lost four times to Nyquist, and although he broke the streak in the Preakness, he needed a perfect situation – both the vicious pace and his favored muddy track. Saturday, with no huge pace to run at on a sunny day, he had nothing to give.
Exaggerator will be on the fall circuit, trying to prove himself, and so will the two horses that dominated the Belmont – Creator and Destin. Creator was given a teammate in the Belmont – Gettysburg was only in the field to ensure a quick enough pace to set things up for his closing running style – so Destin’s performance might have been the more impressive. As a pressing stalker, he will be a threat in any race, while Creator will need a pace duel to have a chance.
The best horse at Belmont Park on Sunday, though, wasn’t a 3-year-old. After spending much of his 3-year-old campaign chasing American Pharoah, 4-year-old Frosted destroyed the Met Mile field, putting up a 123 Beyer Speed Figure on the same card that Creator got a 99.
Frosted never beat American Pharoah, finishing seventh in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, then finished fifth in March’s Dubai World Cup. He was seen as a good older handicap horse, but after his massive performance in the Met Mile, he’s suddenly a major factor for the fall.
And, of course, there’s the horse that won the Dubai World Cup three months ago – California Chrome. He’s back for a final campaign as a 5-year-old, and there’s only one goal – winning the Classic that has eluded him the last two years. He finished third in 2014 behind Bayern and Toast of New York, then missed last year with the injury.
He’s back in training after a break, and expected to run in July’s San Diego Handicap as a warmup for the Pacific Classic in August. After that, barring injuries, he’ll be at his home track of Santa Anita on Nov. 5, waiting to see who shows up.
In horse-racing terms, the five months between the Belmont and the Breeders’ Cup is nearly a lifetime. Thoroughbreds are fragile creatures, and it is hard to predict who will still be in training by November, but Nyquist, Frosted and Exaggerator are all planning to be there, along with Mubtaahij, who finished second to California Chrome in Dubai.
Beholder could also be there. She beat the boys handily in last fall’s Pacific Classic, but was scratched from the Breeders’ Cup Classic after a lung issue. She’s back as a 6-year-old and cruised home in the Vanity Stakes last week. She has plenty of Breeders’ Cup experience, having won the Juvenile Fillies in 2012 and the Distaff in 2013 before missing out the last two years due to illness.
Last fall, American Pharoah finished off the best season in decades against a depleted field in the Classic. This year, there’s a chance that Santa Anita will provide racing fans with a great race instead of a coronation.