Fluid three-year-old title race a good thing for second half of 2019

Profile Picture: Vance Hanson

May 20th, 2019

We all knew well ahead of time there was not going to be a Kentucky Derby (G1)-Preakness (G1) double pulled off this year, and given the events that transpired earlier this month that's not a bad thing. As much as we look forward to the occasional Triple Crown bid and the mainstream attention the sport receives in those circumstances, it's also not a bad thing for a championship race to extend into the second half of the year. That wasn't the case in two of the past four seasons, so the major three-year-old races ahead will presumably have added relevance this time around. So who's the three-year-old male division leader after the first two legs of the Triple Crown? If the polls closed today, the race would likely be decided between Maximum Security and War of Will. A nuanced view of the Kentucky Derby outcome is that Maximum Security was indeed the best horse in the race yet was justifiably disqualified due to bad behavior on the second turn. He also has the victory in the Florida Derby (G1) going for him. War of Will has a trio of graded stakes wins in the Preakness, Risen Star (G2), and Lecomte (G3), and two excusable losses -- in the Louisiana Derby (G2), where he injured himself soon after the start, and the Kentucky Derby, where he was the first to bear the brunt of Maximum Security's misdeeds while arguably short of complete fitness having not had a useful prep in the preceding 11 weeks. What about Kentucky Derby winner Country House? While officially the winner of the most prestigious event in the division, the rest of his record to date does not stand up to closer scrutiny. He finished second to War of Will in the Risen Star, fourth in the Louisiana Derby, and third in the Arkansas Derby (G1). The winner of that Arkansas Derby was Omaha Beach, who perhaps would receive a sprinkling of support if the vote were held now. Also the winner of a Rebel (G2) division, there's probably quite a few (myself included) who feel that, if not for the untimely throat issue that resulted in his scratching from the Kentucky Derby as the morning line favorite, he might have proved better than all of these over a surface he would have relished. Think of the drama that might have potentially been avoided, too. Of these four, only War of Will is a likely participant in the Belmont Stakes (G1). Another victory there would undoubtedly give him a leg up on divisional honors. It's not impossible to stop a horse with two classic wins from winning the divisional championship, but it's been rare in the Eclipse Award era. The last occurrence was 1994, when Holy Bull defeated Tabasco Cat (though some of us sided against Funny Cide and California Chrome in the interim). Before that you have to go back to 1972, when Key to the Mint outpolled Riva Ridge. (It also happened in 1969, 1968, 1966, 1950, 1944, 1942, 1939, and 1936.) Maximum Security's next significant goal is the Haskell Invitational (G1) in July, while Country House and Omaha Beach continue to recover from recent ailments. And don't sleep on another three-year-old popping up or improving late in the year. Recent champions like West Coast, Arrogate, and Will Take Charge were on no one's championship radar at this point in the season. While there are two colts with a slight edge over their competition for the Eclipse Award at this point, the beauty of all this is that the race remains very fluid as we approach the Memorial Day holiday and head into summertime. Not a bad thing at all.   (c) Horsephotos.com/Cecilia Gustavsson