Clearly it is only June and the meat of the horse racing season is just beginning. While the casual fan thinks of the Triple Crown as the pinnacle of the year, the seasoned players and fans know we are just beginning. Races like the Haskell, the Whitney, Arlington Million, Travers, Breeders Cup World Championships, and more are still on the docket. By the time the voters are ready it is possible that the Kentucky Derby or Belmont Stakes winners might be overshadowed. Don’t believe me? It has happened before and it will happen again. Just look at Wise Dan over the past two years to see proof of that.
However, it is June and it is hard to predict what might be coming. Will Tonalist continue to mature? Can California Chrome continue his dominance of the three year old division? Will Palace Malice continue to control an impressive handicap division? Below is my current top-5 for 2014 Horse of the Year in descending order.
5. Wise Dan
I know that the seven year old gelding, and 2-time reigning Horse of the Year, has been on the sideline since the May 3rd Woodford Reserve Turf Classic. However, he is back in his barn now and progressing very well from the colic scare. Charles LoPresti is reporting that a date in mid-July is not out of the question for Wise Dan. Turf or dirt is not known.
However, before the scare he did have two impressive G1 victories in the Maker’s 46 Mile and the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic. If he returns healthy he could be a force. Even if the year ended today he makes my top-5 based on his two G1 scores in as many attempts.
4. Close Hatches
A filly cracks in at number four and it is not Beholder or Princess of Sylmar? Here is the logic. There is no denying the records of Princess of Sylmar or Beholder as three year olds. POS dominated the east coast from the Kentucky Oaks until the Distaff. During that same time Beholder dominated the west. But comparably, Close Hatches was no slouch either.
But now it is their four year old campaigns. Close Hatches has dominated her opposition through three graded stakes victories including an impressive win over both Beholder and POS in the Ogden Phipps at Belmont. The year is not over but currently she is the best four year old filly.
A filly ranked number three? Absolutely and frankly it was hard to keep her at three. Since coming into her own during her three year old campaign, Untapable has been nothing short of incredible. She opened her 2014 campaign in the Rachael Alexandria with a dominant victory. She followed that up at the Fair Grounds Oaks where she stepped up in class and once again proved to be the class of the field.
She entered the Kentucky Oaks starting gate as the even money favorite and rewarded all that backed her. She took control in the stretch and was much the best. We will see how that continues as she is entered in this weekend’s Mother Goose at Belmont. She is the clearly the top three year old female in the country but deserves inclusion for Horse of the Year.
2. California Chrome
He is the horse that won’t, the horse that shouldn’t but the horse that did enter the Belmont Stakes with a chance to become the 12th Triple Crown winner in history. He captured national attention due to his meager beginnings, lovable owners and good ole Art Sherman. For the fans and connections of California Chrome it ended with a fourth place finish in the Belmont. Some argue that Victor should have never kept him inside but should have taken him to the front when he had the chance. Regardless of that he is the Kentucky Derby and Belmont winner.
Couple those victories with impressive victories in the Santa Anita Derby, San Felipe Stakes and the California Cup Derby and you have the makings of the 2014 three year old of the year at the time of this writing. If it was not for what Palace Malice has done to date I would have him tops on my list. Instead he is a close second but the summers grind with help flush this out.
1. Palace Malice
Before everyone jumps down my throat with phrases like “but California Chrome won the SA and Kentucky Derby’s along with the Preakness” or “come on, he was a fourth place finish from the Triple Crown” just hear me out. Palace Malice is 4-for-4 in 2014 while racing in a stacked handicap division that includes Will Take Charge, Mucho Macho Man, Wise Dan and Game On Dude just to name a few.
He opened his 2014 campaign in the Gulfstream Park Handicap and battled to a victory off the long layoff. He returned to win the New Orleans Handicap by almost five as the shocking second choice to Normandy Invasion (I will never understand why Normandy Invasion was the betting favorite, even if it was close). Third off the layoff Palace Malice entered the Westchester which only had a field of four (I wonder why). But when you cruise, literally cruise, to a 10 length victory it is always impressive.
Last out he faced all types of challenges and had to fight for running room in the stretch during the G1 Metropolitan Mile but when cleared he bounded to victory over Goldencents. Here is what is scary. I don’t believe a mile is where he excels. The 1 1/4 or 1 1/8 mile races are his bread and butter. Here they come and he might enter the Breeders Cup Classic undefeated in 2014. This might be the year that Wise Dan loses his crown to Palace Malice.