A snapshot from the album I carry around in my head: in the recently opened American Airlines Center, seated outside the locker room of the Dallas Mavericks, in a lounge area near the executive offices, with an ice pack on a knee and a large bottle of juice on a side table, Steve Nash explained why he loves to play basketball.
That's why Flashback and Eblouissante are the most intriguing racehorses in the country. They haven't accomplished much of anything, but a lively imagination can envision them reaching for greatness.
This was just before Nash joined his first all-star team and long before he won his two MVP awards. At this point, nobody yet thought to include him among the greatest point guards ever to play in the NBA. On this particular day 10 years ago, after practice, Nash explained that discovery and curiosity, more than anything, motivated him. Discovery and curiosity -- they were the foremost reasons he loved to play basketball. He believed he could be very good, he said in a voice lowered to a modest whisper, and so he was both curious and eager to discover just how good he might become. Basketball was the canvas on which he was painting a self-portrait.
At that moment, for me anyway, Steve Nash became the most intriguing player in the NBA, not because of all the interesting nuggets that earlier gold panning had discovered -- that as a youngster he also played hockey and soccer and once won a chess tournament, that he went to Santa Clara largely because no other major college recruited him, that he defied expectations and stereotypes and was both contemplative and quiet by nature, and that he was a Big Brother volunteer -- but because of the vast vein of gold that seemed to beg for discovery. He was intriguing not because of what I knew, but because of what I didn't know. And suddenly, sharing in his curiosity, I, too, wondered just how good this scrawny, mop-headed Canadian might be, this guy who, despite his soft-spoken modesty and his introspection, had the look of a mad scientist on the eve of world domination.
Isn't that what lies at the heart of intrigue; isn't that the essence of the intriguing: the mysterious and fascinating possibility? I think so. And the standard applies most appropriately to horse racing.
Anyway, for me, that's why Flashback and Eblouissante are the most intriguing racehorses in the country. They haven't accomplished much of anything, but a lively imagination can envision them reaching for greatness. I understand just how exceptional Wise Dan and Royal Delta are, or I feel comfortable with the knowledge that they're among the most accomplished and most talented horses in the country, if not the world. But because Flashback and Eblouissante invite the imagination to indulge in mysterious and fascinating possibilities, they're most intriguing.
Strangely enough, from this perspective, My Miss Aurelia also deserves to be included among the most intriguing horses for the upcoming year. She's a strange one to include perhaps simply because she's already so accomplished. A champion 2-year-old of 2011, she could be this season's champion 3-year-old filly. And yet -- and here the imagination soars -- the lightly raced filly could become even better: She could become one of the all-time greats.
My Miss Aurelia lost for the first time in her career when she finished second in the recent Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic. That loss, of course, came on a speed-biased Santa Anita surface where she was forced to chase one of the best of recent years, Royal Delta. Most important, because an injury and its consequences had stolen most of her season, the Ladies' Classic was only My Miss Aurelia's third start of the year. In November, in other words, she took the forward step that most 3-year-old fillies take in the spring. And so when My Miss Aurelia returns to competition Dec. 26, on opening day at Santa Anita, where will the next step take her? That's the intriguing question.
"I'm extremely biased," said her trainer, Steve Asmussen, confirming the Brea Stakes for the filly's next start, "but I think she's a truly special horse. The Breeders' Cup was a very good race for her, especially since she had only two races going into it (victories in the Mandys Gold Stakes at Saratoga and the Cotillion at Parx), and we're very pleased with how she came out of it. So we have great expectations for her and for a sensational 2013."
The questions themselves imply there's a terrific season of racing to anticipate. And yet my questions might not be yours, my imagination might not fly in your direction
Great and rampant expectations suggest the upcoming year could overflow with horses that prod the imagination. Can Saginaw, who won 10 of 13 this year, continue his regular visits to the winner's circle? Will the unbeaten Sign continue the long procession of outstanding fillies to come out of New Orleans? Could Mark Valeski, who has had two bullet workouts to begin preparing for his return, or El Padrino, who's entered Wednesday at Gulfstream Park, recover the form and talent that once included them among the early favorites for the Kentucky Derby? Will the unbeaten Violence, winner of the recent CashCall Futurity, take his win streak all the way to Churchill Downs? Can Groupie Doll and Wise Dan continue their hegemony? Will anybody emerge from the season's last major stakes race for 3-year-olds, the Malibu on Dec. 26 -- perhaps Fed Biz, The Lumber Guy, Politicallycorrect, Drill, Jimmy Creed or Unbridled's Note -- to challenge an outstanding cohort of older horses next year -- Fort Larned, Game On Dude, Mucho Macho Man, Ron the Greek and Flat Out?
The questions themselves imply there's a terrific season of racing to anticipate. And yet my questions might not be yours, my imagination might not fly in your direction, and any list such as this one ultimately will be personal and subjective. But from here, from a very personal perspective, as the sport ties a bow on one season and prepares to open another, here are the most intriguing horses in the country for 2013.
1. Flashback: I've compiled information on hundreds of juveniles and seen hundreds more this year, and in terms of potential he's the most impressive and promising youngster I've come across. A half-brother to the outstanding filly Zazu, the gray colt recently won his debut at Hollywood Park in flashy style for trainer Bob Baffert. That was at seven-eighths of a mile, a tough and demanding distance for a debut, and he looked like he can get only better when he stretches out.
2. Eblouissante: She won her debut by more than four lengths in mid-November in an effort that was quite comparable to the arrival on the scene of her famed half-sister. The great Zenyatta won her first race in 2007 by three lengths and, of course, went on to win 18 more, becoming the 2010 Horse of the Year. Although entered last Saturday, Eblouissante was scratched because of an incident at the receiving barn, where she picked up a minor abrasion, according to her trainer, John Shirreffs. But how high do the expectations for the daughter of Bernardini soar? Well, in French, her name means brilliant.
3. My Miss Aurelia: A champion and a winner of six of seven in her career, she still could have her best performances in front of her. A week ago, in preparation for her return on Dec. 26, she had a "beautiful work" (five-eighths in 59 seconds), according to her trainer, Steve Asmussen.
4. Animal Kingdom: Like My Miss Aurelia, he's very accomplished, but also like her, he has suggested he might be capable of even more. Last year's Kentucky Derby winner returned from a layoff of more than eight months to finish second behind Wise Dan in the Breeders' Cup Mile, and Animal Kingdom had a troubled journey, having to be checked on the backstretch and then waiting in traffic from the second turn until deep stretch to launch his bid. That was only his second start since last year's Belmont Stakes. How good could he be if he stays healthy for an entire season? That's the intriguing question.
He's in Florida preparing for a return Feb. 9 in the Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap. From there, he'll be aimed at the Dubai World Cup in March, according to his trainer, Graham Motion.
5. Shanghai Bobby: An unbeaten 2-year-old who's certain to be named champion has to be included on any list of intriguing horses. Yes, his victory in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile was, well, slow (1:44.58 for the 1 1/16 miles), but he pressed a lively pace (45.55 for the opening half-mile) and at the top of the Santa Anita stretch, after running three-quarters of a mile in 1:10.28, he looked surrounded and beaten. Nevertheless, he won, just as he has always won, five for five, with several stakes winners chasing futilely, and so the tenacious and admirable colt inevitably raises questions about how far his determination can take him, and, yes, just how good can he might be, questions, in other words, about mysterious and fascinating possibilities.
6. Normandy Invasion: With a visually stunning rally, he charged from ninth into a moderate pace to finish second by a nose in the Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct. Making up a deficit of nearly seven lengths, he ran the final three-eighths of a mile in 36.19 seconds, and so even though he didn't win, his Remsen was, from this perspective, the most impressive two-turn performance this year by a 2-year-old, and it made him one of the most intriguing and promising horses to watch for in 2013.
7. Samantha Nicole: Purchased by Stonestreet Farm in November for $700,000, she hasn't had so much as a published workout yet. In fact, she's not even 2 yet. But she soon will be, and then she'll also be one of the most intriguing horses of 2013 simply because she's a full-sister to the great Rachel Alexandra.
8. Beholder: After winning an allowance race by 11 lengths (leading through a half-mile in 44.02 and completing the three-quarters in 1:09), she led throughout to win the Juvenile Fillies. Yes, the surface played to her strength, and she cruised, but she ran nearly a full second (1:43.61) faster than Shanghai Bobby, and the victory left her unbeaten on dirt, unbeaten too at Santa Anita. And in 2013 the Breeders' Cup will return to Santa Anita, which tends to reduce the game to the most basic of questions: Who's fastest?
9. Dayatthespa: Unbeaten this year, she entered the prestigious Matriarch with five consecutive stakes victories, but on the backstretch at Hollywood Park, she appeared to try to jump the inside rail. As it turned out, amazingly enough, she finished fifth, beaten by four lengths, and yet she came out of the race with a gash that required six stitches. So far, there appears to be no tendon damage, but will she be able to return, and if so will she resume her winning ways? Those questions make her one of the most intriguing horses of 2013.
10. Bind: In February of 2011, a jaw-droppingly handsome colt named Bind dazzled in his debut at Fair Grounds. I was there for the Risen Star Stakes, which Mucho Macho Man won. But, make no mistake, Bind was the most impressive 3-year-old to race in New Orleans that day, rallying to win by more than nine lengths in 1:08.80 over a surface that rarely yields such rapid times. In his next two outings, the headstrong colt resisted attempts to rein in his willfulness and, as his trainer, Al Stall Jr., said, Bind beat himself, finishing second. And then, as he prepared for his stakes debut, a fracture to a foreleg ended his campaign before it really ever got going.
The injury and its complications have kept him away from the races since May of last year, 19 months, but he'll be entered for a return Saturday at Fair Grounds. Has he lost his edge after being away so long? Can he regain his form? His desire? Is that awesome talent still there? And in 2013, as a 5-year-old, could Bind possibly realize the potential that once seemed gargantuan?
"We don't know," Stall said. "But he looks unbelievable."
He looks, in other words, as if he could be one of the most intriguing horses of 2013.