The first half of 2014 produced some memorable moments and outstanding performances, not to mention the occasional detour down the Rabbit Hole.
For the first six months of the year, of course, everybody drinks heartily from a concoction of speculation spiked with hope, and if all goes well the entire sport finds itself toasting the possibility that there just might be a glorious coronation of another Triple Crown winner. California Chrome took that possibility all the way to closing time, to mid-stretch in the Belmont Stakes. But the second half of 2014, the Championship Season, should be even better.
One of the reasons for optimism will be on display Saturday in the Los Alamitos Derby, where Shared Belief returns to stakes competition and, at the same time, stretches out to 1 ⅛ miles. The champion juvenile of 2013, he entered the year as something of an intriguing enigma: The depth of his talent was still unknown, but it was obviously profound, perhaps as deep as the Mariana Trench, but who could tell? And because a foot injury deferred his campaign, that hasn't changed: He's still a mystery.
Uncertainty and possibility still swirl around him like moths around a streetlamp. Might he develop into the sort of horse that could take on his elders in the fall? Is he on a path that leads to the Breeders' Cup? Sure, maybe, but nobody knows.
He has won his four races, including two stakes, by a total of nearly 25 lengths, without being threatened or tested. But he hasn't raced on dirt, all his victories having been on synthetic surfaces. And just to add to the intrigue, his action is reminiscent of an overloaded washing machine. So how good is he, and how good could he become? In the Los Alamitos Derby, he could feel some early pressure from Top Fortitude, and when Shared Belief rounds the second turn and straightens for the run down the longest stretch in the country, his jockey, Mike Smith, will have to be aware of the capable Candy Boy, who won the Bob Lewis at Santa Anita with a powerful late move. It should be a test for the unbeaten champion. The Los Alamitos Derby could begin, but only begin, to provide some answers.
The inaugural Stars And Stripes Day at Belmont Park could be another reason to think this second half of the racing season is going to be exceptional. Saturday's Belmont Derby has attracted an outstanding field of 11 that includes eight graded or group stakes winners. This race should say much about the United States' 3-year-old turf horses, as Dance With Fate, Mr. Speaker, Bobby's Kitten, Global View and Gala Award, all graded stakes winners here, attempt to withstand the invasion of four formidable Europeans -- UAE Derby winner Toast of New York, Adelaide, Pornichet and Gailo Chop.
Similarly, the Belmont Oaks could provide a measure of the fillies' comparable talents. Room Service, a winner of three consecutive stakes, including the American Oaks at Santa Anita, will take on Europeans Flying Jib, Goldy Espony, Xcellence and Wonderfully.
Yes, it's going to be an exciting run-up to the Breeders' Cup, which is itself another reason for optimism. This is obviously subjective, and you could very well have better ones, but from here these are the top 10 reasons to think the second half of 2014 is going to be superior to the first.
1. The Breeders' Cup
Last year, having taken all the races that traditionally determine the honor, Princess of Sylmar appeared to have won a championship, but then she ran poorly in the Breeders' Cup Distaff, and the title went elsewhere. While their proliferation has diluted the talent, recent Breeders' Cup races nevertheless have taken on more significance than ever in determining titles. Whether it's because of the myopia of Eclipse voters or changing criteria hardly matters: The races run at Santa Anita on Oct. 31 and Nov. 1 will no doubt determine several championships.
2. Palace Malice and the older horses
Having already won the Met Mile and the New Orleans Handicap, Palace Malice is putting together a special season that could include upcoming engagements in the Whitney, Woodward, Jockey Club Gold Cup and Classic. Will Take Charge, Majestic Harbor, Lea, Mucho Macho Man and Game On Dude could challenge him along the way, as could the maturing 3-year-olds, such as California Chrome, Tonalist, Bayern and maybe even Shared Belief. But this division will produce the best racing in the country for the second half of 2014.
3. Older fillies and mares
This is another division that's deep in talent, with Close Hatches, Princess of Sylmar and two-time champion Beholder.
4. Saratoga and Del Mar
For six weeks, Saratoga offers, quite simply, the best racing in North America. Go to Del Mar for the climate, Saratoga for the racing.
Many of next year's stars will emerge in next few months, some of them announcing their potential loudly and even more making subtle suggestions. Could the first foals of two of the most popular females of recent years be among them? Jess's Dream, who's by Curlin out of Rachel Alexandra, has had three workouts, the latest on June 28. Cozmic One, who's by Bernardini out of Zenyatta, has yet to have a serious workout. By the way, four of the last seven Kentucky Derby winners raced at Saratoga as 2-year-olds, and two raced at Del Mar, including I'll Have Another, who raced at both tracks.
6. Turf racing
The best turf racing of the year begins Saturday at Belmont Park. And on Aug. 16 there's the Arlington International Festival of Racing, featuring five stakes races, including the Beverly D, the Secretariat and the Arlington Million.
7. Wise Dan's return
On May 16, the two-time Horse of the Year had surgery for colic. Having recovered from that, Wise Dan is reportedly very close to putting in his first serious workout in months. He could return to competition in August at Saratoga.
She won the recent Mother Goose Stakes by more than nine lengths, again dancing away from the opposition as if to emphasize that no horse in America is more dominant within a division. And so could she step outside her division to take on males? Saying it could indeed happen, her trainer, Steve Asmussen, identified the Haskell and Travers as possibilities. There are more than a million reasons for boldness.
9. California Chrome
The Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner infused the first half of the year with excitement, and when he returns from a brief vacation he could contribute significantly to the second half by taking on older horses. He's good enough to challenge them and, if he improves a few lengths, beat them.
10. Shared Belief
And so it ends where it began, with last season's champion 2-year-old and with all the questions he raises that are awaiting answers in this second half of 2014.