Top juvenile performers don’t always remain ahead of competition

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TwinSpires Staff

February 9th, 2017

By Dick Powell

It would seem like a simple process: run like a champion at age 2 and then after a short rest, come back at 3 bigger and better. But it doesn’t always work out that way.

How could a 2YO be better than UNCLE MO (Indian Charlie) was in 2010? He broke his maiden first time out at Saratoga, came back to win the historic Champagne Stakes (G1) going a one-turn mile and then romped in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) going two turns at Churchill Downs.

It looked like there would be no stopping him but he was never the same as a 3YO. After a poor third in the Wood Memorial Stakes (G1) at Aqueduct a month before the Kentucky Derby (G1), Uncle Mo was taken off the Triple Crown trail and had to re-group.

It looked like he had the King’s Bishop (G1) at Saratoga going seven furlongs but wound up being run down in the last jump by CALEB’S POSSE (Posse). On an extremely wet track, he did win the Kelso Handicap (G2) going a one-turn mile but a pointless try in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) at Churchill ended Uncle Mo’s career.

2YO success does not necessarily equal 3YO success for a number of reasons. The precocious juvenile has a big advantage against his late-maturing rivals, even when the races stretch out. The following season, the late-maturing sophomore improves while the precocious juveniles can be left racing at the same level.

Horses that run too fast too early sometimes are never the same. You want to see activity as a 2YO in order to gain experience and the pounding of racing actually builds bone density. However, racing too fast can set them back and racing too slow can set them back further.

Pedigree can also play a role with many early 2YOs being by sires who produce precocious offspring. When contemporaries catch up, those early performers run out of pedigree and get exposed.

Last year, CLASSIC EMPIRE (Pioneerof the Nile) was a terrific 2YO and won the Eclipse Award after capturing the Juvenile in a fantastic time, earning a gaudy 108 BRIS Speed rating. Too much too soon?

It looked that way last Saturday at Gulfstream Park in the Holy Bull Stakes (G2) going 1 1/16 miles. The champion juvenile looked like a cheap claimer before the race, sweating profusely and appearing to be agitated going to the gate. Still, he was bet down to 1-2 favoritism against a decent field.

Classic Empire raced in between horses on the first turn and Julien Leparoux steered him to the outside down the backstretch to try to get him to relax. IRISH WAR CRY (Curlin) was on the lead cruising along on an uncontested lead through a half-mile in 47.92 seconds and six furlongs in 1:11.87.

Classic Empire tried to apply pressure from the outside on the far turn but had nothing. Delta Jackpot (G3) winner GUNNEVERA (Dialed In) was making a strong move going into the far turn but had to be steadied midway around it. It didn’t stop him in his tracks but the hesitation cost him any chance.

Not that anyone was going to catch Irish War Cry, who kept pouring it on and won by almost four lengths in the good time of 1:42.52. Being by CURLIN (Smart Strike), who just keeps getting better and better as a sire, Irish War Cry had every right to stretch out and he did it with aplomb.

Graham Motion has already won a Kentucky Derby so he knows how to do it and Joel Rosario gave him an aggressive ride, something we haven’t been seeing enough from him at this year’s Gulfstream meet. Rosario won the Derby with ORB (Malibu Moon) so it’s a potent combination of nature and nurture for Irish War Cry.

A couple of days after the race, trainer Mark Casse said that Classic Empire had a puss pocket in his foot and once they drained it, he was walking around so good that the March 4 Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2) is now on the schedule. It might be a race that you can draw a line through but I am withholding judgement.

Bob Baffert was back in the news on Saturday at Santa Anita when his highly-touted REACH THE WORLD (Tapit) went gate to wire in his two-turn debut to break his maiden as much the best. It wasn’t a “jump to your feet” win but very professional and one more step on the way to the major Derby prep races.

Later on, Baffert finished 1-2 in the San Antonio Stakes (G2) when HOPPERTUNITY (Any Given Saturday) rallied past MOR SPIRIT (Eskendereya) in the 1 1/16-mile event. The winner is headed for Dubai and could be joined by the runner-up.

The aforementioned Uncle Mo may not have had the 3YO season that was expected of him but he is one of the best young sires ever. In the Robert B Lewis Stakes (G3), ROYAL MO (Uncle Mo) went gate to wire to win by more than three lengths in a slowish time on a slowish track. Still, trained by the ever-patient John Shirreffs, you have to assume that the lemon hasn’t been squeezed too much.