3-year-olds fight for title

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- Wherever strange winds blow and inexplicable things happen, people tend to be superstitious. Maybe that's why they don't want to talk about it, lest the talking prevent it.

Trainer Bob Baffert said he wasn't thinking about a championship when he decided to ship Bayern from California to Saratoga for Saturday's Travers Stakes, but rather about the chance of winning such a prestigious race for the colt's owner, Kaleem Shah. And trainer Jimmy Jerkens didn't take the opportunity to do some early campaigning, but rather agreed politely that, yes, Wicked Strong could put himself in the championship discussion with a victory Saturday.

But here's the situation: This weekend, as many as two horses could run up alongside California Chrome in the race to be the season's champion 3-year-old. They could even run right by him. In the championship race, you can only be sure of cashing on California Chrome at this point if you bet him to show.

California Chrome of course, won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, but hasn't raced since finishing fourth (in a dead heat with Wicked Strong) in the Belmont Stakes. Back in May, he stood out in a group that didn't look especially strong. But much has changed. Suddenly a solid collection of talent has emerged.

Since disappointing in the Preakness, Bayern has won two major stakes by a total of 15 lengths. Bayern, as Baffert put it, is "a natural talent." Nobody, the trainer said, can teach a horse to run fast. And Bayern is very fast. He'll at least be the early, and quite possibly the late, Travers leader. Tonalist, of course, won the Belmont and appears to have the perfect running style for the Travers. About Saturday's race, the big colt's trainer, Christophe Clement, expressed confidence, saying, "I'm looking forward to the mile and a quarter. I'm looking forward to the pace scenario. I'm excited. Let's go."

Wicked Strong is another that seems capable of using the stalking style that has so often proved successful in the Travers. Racing in blinkers for the first time in the Jim Dandy Stakes, he raced alongside, a head back, the early leader, Legend, and then took control in the stretch, winning by more than two lengths.

The blinkers, Jerkens said, had Wicked Strong more focused and in the bridle. Just as significant, perhaps, has been Wicked Strong's development, the trainer said. The long-bodied colt has matured physically, having added some weight since the Triple Crown, and has grown up mentally, no longer cocking his head toward the grandstand as if looking for his fans.

Wicked Strong had an easy three-furlong workout Friday morning, a traditional blowout, in 38.69 seconds. The blowout was just a mild exercise to let the colt expand his lungs, Jerkens explained. What's going to be important in the Travers, he said, is saving ground. The trip, in other words, from his point of view, will probably determine the outcome.

And then there's Shared Belief, last year's juvenile champion who missed the first four months of the year, as well as the Triple Crown, because of foot problems. Since then, though, he has shown rivals his heels, winning two outings, including the Los Alamitos Derby by more than four lengths. And who knows how good the unbeaten son of Candy Ride might be? That's one of the sport's ironies: As long as a horse keeps winning, it's difficult to sound the depth of his talent. How much faster could he have run at Los Alamitos? How much faster will he have to run against older horses Sunday in the Pacific Classic?

And so the race for the 3-year-old championship is about to become heated. The Travers winner -- if he comes from the trio of Bayern, Tonalist and Wicked Strong -- will immediately become a championship contender and could even threaten to displace the flashy Californian atop the division. And on Sunday, with a victory at Del Mar, Shared Belief could jump to the head of the class.

Since 1936, 40 horses have won two thirds of the Triple Crown, and 30 of them were named the season's 3-year-old champion. In six cases, however, the horse that won the other Triple Crown race was named champion. In 1969, for example, Majestic Prince won both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, but Arts And Letters, the Belmont winner, took championship honors; and in 1950 Middleground won the Kentucky Derby and Belmont, but it was Hill Prince, the Preakness winner, who became the divisional champion.

And in all those years that somebody claimed two-thirds of the Triple Crown, there have been four horses that won the championship with nary a jewel to his name, without, in other words, winning the Kentucky Derby, Preakness or Belmont: By Jimminy (1944), Buckpasser (1966), Key To the Mint (1972) and Holy Bull (1994). But they all won the Travers.

That's why Saturday's race is so important. A victory could immediately confer championship credentials. The winner joins California Chrome or could even surpass him to be the divisional leader -- if only for a day, or until Shared Belief introduces himself to his elders.

"I was really amazed," said jockey Mike Smith, about the ease with which Shared Belief won the Los Alamitos Derby. The veteran jockey was so impressed, in fact, that he gave up the mount on perennial championship candidate Game On Dude to ride Shared Belief at Del Mar. Shared Belief is the 5-2 favorite in the morning line, with Game On Dude 3-1 and Majestic Harbor 9-2.

Only four 3-year-olds ever have won the Pacific Classic: Best Pal (1991), General Challenge (1999), Came Home (2002) and Dullahan (2012). Oddly enough, in each of those years, another 3-year-old had won two-thirds of the Triple Crown and was named champion.

But none of those 3-year-old that won the Pacific Classic were unbeaten, and none already had a championship in his pocket. It might be bad luck to talk about it, but -- well, that show ticket on California Chrome still looks good.