He may not be the Horse of the Year, but he might the horse that makes 2013 an unforgettable year.
No one could beat Shanghai Bobby last year and if that trend continues into the spring and early summer, Thoroughbred racing just might have its answer to the Detroit Tigers' Miguel Cabrera.
That is, of course, a wild-eyed dream in late January, but in a year that serves as the 35th anniversary of the sport's last Triple Crown winner the 3-year-old debut of the reigning juvenile champ has sparked some early strains of Kentucky Derby fever.
Shanghai Bobby's first step toward Louisville on the first Saturday in May comes this Saturday when he will take on nine rivals in the $400,000 Holy Bull, a race that might answer some of the questions about the division's reigning Eclipse Award winner.
When last seen, Shanghai Bobby was gallantly fending off He's Had Enough in the final yards to capture the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and cap a perfect 5-for-5 2-year-old season. As heroic as the victory came across to a national audience on television, it also raised doubts over the champ's ability to extend his speed over the grueling 10 furlongs of the Kentucky Derby.
At the same mile-and-a-sixteenth distance as the BC Juvenile, the Holy Bull will not put to rest concerns about Shanghai Bobby's distance limitations, yet the presence of a surprisingly tough array of nine rivals should attest to how well he has handled the often tricky transition from two to three. Included in the field are Frac Daddy, who was second in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club, and Dewey Square, who was a fast-closing third in the same mile-and-a-sixteenth race. Also on hand will be Itsmyluckyday, who won the Gulfstream Park Derby by nearly seven lengths, and Bern Identity, who was third behind Shanghai Bobby in the Hopeful and more recently second in the Delta Downs Jackpot.
It's not an overpowering assembling of rivals, but it's surely a tougher field than most champions face in their 3-year-old debut -- and it's reflective of a road to the Kentucky Derby that contains some new curves.
Under the new point system that will determine the field for the Run for the Roses, races like the Holy Bull place a premium on success rather than conditioning.
Shanghai Bobby currently is second in the point standings with 20, four points behind Goldencents. The Holy Bull, part of the "Kentucky Derby Prep Season" bracket, awards 10-4-2-1 points to its top four finishers.
A win in the Holy Bull would give Shanghai Bobby 30 points, which looks great now. But down the road there are eight stakes with a 50-20-10-5 point value and seven with a 100-40-20-10 point value. There's even two final preps worth 20-8-4-2 that could be the difference in one horse heading to Churchill Downs and the other pointing for the Preakness.
Trainer Todd Pletcher has said Shanghai Bobby's only other race before the Kentucky Derby will be the $1 million Florida Derby on March 30, and with the 100-40-20-10 format a win there would make the Run for Roses a done deal.
Yet for now, before the calculator comes out and the points are tabulated, Shanghai Bobby will face the first of what promises to be a series of increasingly tougher tests on the road to racing immortality.
In the past 35 years, no one has been able to handle that challenge, not even greats like Point Given, Smarty Jones, Spectacular Bid and Alysheba.
A year ago, I'll Have Another came close before an injury caught up with him.
Now it's Shanghai Bobby's turn to take on the ghosts of Triple Crowns past and find out if he can become not just a horse for the year, but a horse for the ages.