3-year-olds set to surge?

Will Alpha step to the front in the division? AP Photo

The race for the Eclipse Award could be over, the bejeweled winners of the Triple Crown races have been retired, and so spokespersons from the Cockamamie Institute of Mad Hatters have rushed forward to describe this season's 3-year-olds in terms suggestive of something wilting beneath a sneeze guard.

But from here, these 3-year-olds still look solid. Only a division that's neck-deep in talent could produce races so intriguing as Saturday's Jim Dandy at Saratoga and Sunday's Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park.

In the spring, when Bodemeister hit Arkansas like a williwaw and Gemologist rolled through New York like a motorcade, this group of 3-year-olds, nearly everyone agreed, had the right stuff. They displayed talent, shouted potential and sent expectations climbing. This was going to be a humdinger of a Triple Crown series. And it was, or it nearly was.

But despite an anticlimactic conclusion to the Triple Crown and even with the retirements of Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner I'll Have Another and Belmont Stakes winner Union Rags, this season's 3-year-olds still look strong, and there remains the possibility they could be outstanding. Yes, even without the jewel-winners in the game, that possibility's still out there, like a live Daily Double ticket, because these 3-year-olds are still growing, learning, developing, still moving in a positive way in the general direction of superlativeness.

This isn't about the Eclipse Award for outstanding 3-year-old. I'll Have Another has almost certainly won that already. In the last 20 years, only a trio of champions won the Eclipse as the best 3-year-old without having won a Triple Crown race: Tiznow (2000), Skip Away (1996) and Holy Bull (1994). And only one horse (Tabasco Cat) that won two-thirds of the Triple Crown wasn't named champion. And so, as Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert said, somebody would have to do something "really big" to take the championship away from I'll Have Another; somebody, in other words, would have to do something comparable to Holy Bull's winning the Met Mile, Haskell, Travers and Woodward. And that's not going to happen.

No, at this point, for these 3-year-olds, the question is whether any of them can develop into superlative racehorses capable of competing at the very highest level. That's what would make this an outstanding group, and some of them indeed could take that next step, or maybe even a leap, forward before the Breeders' Cup in November.

But who will they be that advance? And could Paynter, Gemologist, Dullahan, Nonios, Alpha, Liaison, Atigun or Neck 'n Neck step forward this weekend?

"I think Paynter is a really exceptional horse," said his trainer, Bob Baffert. Tuesday, Baffert sent Paynter traveling from California to New Jersey, where the lightly raced son of Awesome Again could be the Haskell favorite.

Baffert thought so highly of Paynter that he ran the colt in the Santa Anita Derby in only the second start of his career. And despite his inexperience and his having never raced in a stakes or even around two turns, Paynter finished fourth, less than four lengths behind I'll Have Another. And after a jaw-dropping performance on Preakness day at Pimlico, he finished second in the Belmont.

Monday, at Del Mar, he worked three-quarters of a mile in company with Liaison. Paynter, Baffert explained, broke away from the pole about three or four lengths behind Liaison, and they finished together: officially Paynter, 1:11.80; Liaison, 1:12.40. Liaison worked so well that Baffert was encouraged to put him on the plane, too. Liaison, who rallied behind a dawdling pace to finish third in the recent Swaps Stakes, will race in the Jim Dandy.

Gemologist, whose only loss came in the Kentucky Derby, returns this weekend. A grand looking colt, he's another who could jump up to that superlative bar. He scorched five-eighths of a mile (58.67 seconds) Sunday at Saratoga in a workout his trainer, Todd Pletcher, described as his best ever. Before bruising a foot in the Kentucky Derby, he won the Wood Memorial by a neck over Alpha.

And Alpha is intriguing. He has run only two poor races in his career, both at Churchill Downs, in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile (finishing 11th) and this year's Derby (12th). Other than that, the winner of the Withers never has finished worse than second. A light-bodied sort of colt, he looked like just the sort of horse who could take some big steps forward this summer and fall, possibly starting with the Jim Dandy.

Dullahan, who finished third in the Derby, could "run big" on the right kind of track, said his trainer, Dale Romans. And Monmouth, Romans said, could be the just right kind of track. Neck 'n Neck, a romping winner of the recent Matt Winn Stakes, has matured significantly and so has earned his shot in the Jim Dandy, which will serve as a prep for the Travers, said his trainer, Ian Wilkes. And so it goes for all these 3-year-olds of quality: They're advancing on a fulfillment of their talent.

The final test for a class of sophomores comes when they take on older horses, of course. It's still a little early for that, but there's one 3-year-old in training who already has performed at a level that argues he's capable of running with the very best. Bodemeister, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness runner-up who was forced to skip the Haskell because of a fever, missed a week of training but returned to the track Monday for a routine gallop, Baffert said. He could return to competition next month.

In terms of proven ability, Paynter isn't far behind Bodemeister. Gemologist, Liaison, Alpha, Neck 'n Neck, Nonios and Dullahan are within reach, too, as is Hansen, who could run next week in West Virginia. And don't forget Creative Cause, Algorithms, Secret Circle and Blueskiesnrainbows. Some of the fillies -- most notably Questing, Grace Hall, Potesta and Eden's Moon -- are close to a level that would suggest they're capable of competing with the best older fillies and mares. Silver Max, who hasn't lost this year on grass and will make his next start in the Secretariat at Arlington Park, is already aimed at the Breeders' Cup.

Yes, it's like being alive in the Daily Double. Here comes the payoff.