Why the older dirt male division seems no closer to getting back on track

Profile Picture: Vance Hanson

February 3rd, 2016

A year ago this week the racing world was eagerly anticipating a potentially epic showdown between reigning Horse of the Year California Chrome and the once-beaten 2013 juvenile champion Shared Belief in the San Antonio (G2) at Santa Anita. That same day, the best older horses in training on the East Coast competed in the Donn H. (G1).

With Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) winner Bayern, Belmont S. (G1) and Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) hero Tonalist, and the increasingly brilliant Honor Code waiting in the wings, the season promised, at least temporarily, to be a renaissance for a division that had taken major, unprecedented lumps for much of the previous decade.

As we all know, things didn't work out that way. Shared Belief won the San Antonio and later the Santa Anita H. (G1) before exiting the Charles Town Classic (G2) with a season-ending injury (he later died after an attack of colic). California Chrome was whisked away to Dubai for the World Cup (G1), where he finished second, and then saw his own campaign come to a premature end after a fanciful attempt to compete at Royal Ascot.

As for the others, Bayern never regained his best form while Honor Code and Tonalist had uneven campaigns, running below expectations just as often as turning in superb efforts. The addition of Liam's Map to the top ranks in mid-season helped, but his stakes outings consisted of just three races, none of which was the Breeders' Cup Classic (G1).

Even in a year rightfully dominated by the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years, bad luck and other factors resulted in what some feel was a missed opportunity for the division to regain its position near the center of the racing universe.

With American Pharoah claiming 2015 Horse of the Year honors, no older dirt horse has won the honor the past seven seasons, an unprecedented amount of time since polls began in the mid 1930s. Since Curlin took the gold Eclipse for his 2008 campaign, only Blame, in 2010, has put up any type of season worthy of a similar honor, and he was defeated in the vote by older mare Zenyatta.

The division has declined so rapidly that a majority of Eclipse Award voters had no qualms with voting for grass horses (i.e. Gio Ponti, Acclamation, Wise Dan, and Main Sequence) as champion older male despite historic precedent to the contrary, until this past year when explicit instructions forbade them to do so.

Though it pains me to take a cynical and jaundiced view, the 2016 season doesn't appear at first glance as if it will be one to remember either with respect to this division. So thoroughly dominant was American Pharoah last year that none of the returning crop had much opportunity to lay down a solid foundation for future stardom. Who knows how well Frosted and Keen Ice, who generally needs all of 1 1/4 miles, will be after they return from Dubai? Will Firing Line and Texas Red fulfill their early promise? Can Dortmund, who will miss this weekend's San Antonio, stay healthy? We can only speculate.

California Chrome is still around, yes, and looked good winning the San Pasqual (G2) while obviously not 100 percent fit. But again, his impact on the domestic scene will not be felt for many more months after he's returned from Dubai, with or without a World Cup trophy in hand. Among others older than four, Effinex and Noble Bird are still around, too. However, it would be a surprise if either happened to rise to the top at Santa Anita, where this year's Breeders' Cup Classic will be held.

At this point in time, the division's weaknesses seem plenty. That could change, of course, but right now I'd expect it's deficiencies to be exploited by either another star three-year-old (although one not necessarily as good as American Pharoah) or, more likely, by the brilliant mare Beholder. The latter's six-year-old campaign will probably be similar to the one she had last year and, barring illness or injury that has cost her at inopportune times in recent years, she's an early favorite for this year's Classic and Horse of the Year honors.

There's little doubt Beholder would be rightly favored to beat the division's current cream right now.

(Keen Ice photo: Lauren King/Adam Coglianese Photography)