The traffic's thick under the radar. This time of year, the crowd lurks behind the scenes or on the sidelines and keeps its talents off the record, and so the future stars often reside incognito.
Last year for example, at precisely this moment on the calendar, Animal Kingdom, Shackleford and Ruler On Ice had not even participated in a stakes; each had won a maiden race, and that was it, the depth of their accomplishments, the full extent of their résumés: one victory against rivals that had never won or done anything of note. But, of course, Animal Kingdom, Shackleford and Ruler On Ice would go on to divvy up the sport's famous jewels.
Meanwhile, the trio of 2-year-olds that had inspired the most glittery dreams -- Uncle Mo, Boys At Tosconova and To Honor And Serve -- didn't even participate in the Triple Crown series. Dazzling in their precociousness, they stood out from the crowd as juveniles, but as 3-year-olds they missed the defining moment. For them, the jewels remained in the Triple Crown vitrine.
And since that's the fashion, it invites an obvious question: Who are those under-the-radar horses this year that will soon burst onto the scene?
That's the trend, the tendency, the style; that's modernity's little trick, its legerdemain; that's the way of the racing world. These days, horses generally and 2-year-olds particularly race less frequently, and so the future stars often remain under the radar, or behind the scenes or sipping Bahama Mamas on a beach incognito.
Animal Kingdom, Big Brown, Giacomo, Grindstone and Charsimatic, for example, all won but a single race as juveniles; Fusaichi Pegasus and Monarchos were winless as 2-year-olds; yet they all went on to win the Kentucky Derby. And two of them, Big Brown and Charismatic, won two-thirds of the Triple Crown.
And since that's the fashion, it invites an obvious question: Who are those under-the-radar horses this year that will soon burst onto the scene, perhaps even during this extended holiday weekend? Well, the next few hundred words or so will possibly include the names of some horses you've never heard of, but don't rush to consign them to the dustbin of your memory just yet: They could also be the names of some horses that will impact next year's Triple Crown. Empire Way, El Padrino, Gemologist, Algorithms, Hierro, Wharton, Unbridled's Note, Stephanoatsee, Liaison, Consortium, Coalition, Casual Trick, Gold Megillah, Ever So Lucky, Indian Evening, Il Villano, Calmer Than You, How Do I Win, Cyber Secret, Exfactor, Sweet Luca, Rousing Sermon -- those, just to begin, are among possibilities under the radar, where the traffic's especially thick this time of year.
"There are a lot of good young horses out there, and some of them haven't even started yet," said Mike Harrington, who trains a colt that's very much on the radar and another that could pop onto the screen Thursday in the Prevue Stakes at Hollywood Park in Inglewood, Calif. Also a veterinarian, Harrington sent out Creative Cause, who had won the Norfolk Stakes at Santa Anita, to a third-place finish in the recent Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and the veteran trainer will saddle Empire Way in the Prevue.
Empire Way has raced only once, winning his debut less than two weeks ago, on Nov. 13. And so Thursday he'll be returning to competition uncommonly soon. Then again, Harrington, pointed out, the colt's debut was little more than "a paid workout." Last early in the field of five, Empire Way swung to the outside at the top of the Hollywood stretch and with long strides quickly engulfed the competition. Receiving only mild encouragement, nothing more than a cue really, from jockey Joel Rosario, Empire Way ran the final quarter-mile in about 24 very flat seconds to win by a half-length and complete the 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:17.93.
"The race was really slow," Harrington pointed out, and indeed it was. The only other race that day at the distance was run in 1:15.79, "but what was impressive was the way he did it."
Success for these young horses depends not just on talent but also on development. Hansen, who won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and Union Rags, who should have won it if not for a wide trip, are the season's most accomplished 2-year-olds largely because they, along with Creative Cause and Juvenile Sprint winner Secret Circle, are the most developed, the most precocious. They're all conspicuously pulsing on popularity's radar screen, but how much better will they become? Certainly they'll improve, but how much? And six months from now will they still have an advantage, or will horses such as Empire Way have caught up with them?
But they're everywhere, these lightly raced and potentially dynamic young horses who seem poised to make a bid for prominence.
A son of Belmont Stakes winner Empire Maker, Empire Way is a natural two-turn horse, not a sprinter, and physically he isn't close to what he'll become, Harrington said. For a glimpse of what that potentially could be, there's his full sister, Royal Delta. Last year, she raced only once, winning her debut. And this year she developed into an Amazonian monster of a racehorse, proving herself to be the country's best 3-year-old filly by winning the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic by more than two lengths.
The first major goal for Empire Way, Harrington said, is the $750,000 CashCall Futurity on Dec. 17 at Hollywood. At 1 1/16 miles, the CashCall will be more suited to his talents than the seven-furlong Prevue. And so Thursday's race, win or lose, will be, more than anything, a step in a young horse's progress. But it could be a significant step that puts him on the radar screen.
And Saturday's Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct in New York almost certainly will confer prominence on some young horse that had been relatively obscure, a horse such as Stephanoatsee, perhaps, Schackleford's little brother who rallied strongly to win a one-mile maiden race last month at Laurel Park. Or maybe El Padrino will emerge as a prominent new player. At 1 1/8 miles, the Remsen is the longest major stakes for 2-year-olds in the country, and from the start El Padrinio indicated a preference for longer races, according to his trainer, Todd Pletcher.
"We're pretty high on him and always have been," Pletcher said about the son of Pulpit. "In his debut, he got outrun early, which we kind of expected, but we always thought he would improve with more distance." And he did. At Saratoga in his debut, at seven furlongs, El Padrino rallied from far back to finish second. At Belmont Park in his next outing, at a mile, he won by nearly 13 lengths.
Also Saturday, at Churchill Downs, in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, Pletcher will send out Gemologist, who, like El Padrino, always has been highly regarded. Unbeaten in two starts, Gemologist will attempt to follow the path of another horse owned by WinStar Farm: Super Saver, who won the 2009 Jockey Club Stakes and the next year, of course, the Kentucky Derby.
More than a few exciting prospects could emerge from this Pletcher barn over the next few weeks and months, including a colt named Algorithms. By Bernardini, winner of the 2006 Preakness and Travers, Algorithms flashed his potential when he won his debut back in June by more than five lengths, but then he disappeared. A minor injury took him to the sidelines. But he's aimed for a return, Pletcher said, during the upcoming season at Gulfstream Park.
But they're everywhere, these lightly raced and potentially dynamic young horses who seem poised to make a bid for prominence. Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert has a barn rife with prospects, such as Liaison and So Brilliant, in addition to Secret Circle. Trainer Steve Asmussen won the recent Delta Jackpot with Sabercat and the recent Clever Trevor Stakes with Officer Prado. But some of Asmussen's most promising juveniles remain in traffic, under the radar, such as Unbridled's Note and Wharton and, most notably, Hierro, all recent maiden winners at Churchill Downs who could emerge in California.
"They have tremendous talent," Asmussen said about the youngsters, "and they have the pedigree to suggest they'll go farther."
Asmussen said he expects some of these under-the-radar 2-year-olds in his barn to develop into stakes horses, perhaps even prominent Triple Crown prospects. But based on recent history, that's what everyone should expect from some of these young horses. Once they begin to develop, the talented ones don't remain in incognito.