The brilliance of American Pharoahâ€™s 2015 Triple Crown was underscored by a follow-up in 2016 that yielded a trio of individual winners, but that does not mean the glamour division in American Thoroughbred racing cannot have a compelling and exciting second half.
Dazzling performances by Gun Runner, the third-place finisher in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (Grade I), and Songbird, the returning unbeaten filly who was knocked out of the Longines Kentucky Oaks (GI) by a brief illness, provided strong signs that the remaining months of 2016 for this yearâ€™s crop of 3-year-olds could be something to savor.
Toss in a sharp workout by Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist â€“ his first serious training drill since the Derby and the first since a fever knocked the reigning 2-year-old champion out of the Belmont Stakes (GI) â€“ and there are plenty of reasons to hope for special things in the months before Novemberâ€™s Breedersâ€™ Cup Championships at Santa Anita.
Letâ€™s start with Gun Runner, whose Derby chance was compromised when he tracked a hotter-than-expected pace. While the stretch run by the victorious Nyquist is the compelling memory of Derby 142, remember that Gun Runner had the lead at the top of the stretch and held on to finish third.
The son of Candy Ride (ARG) was given a post-Derby break by trainer Steve Asmussen, and his strategy looked very sound Saturday night when Gun Runner returned to racing in a dazzling Downs After Dark victory in the $100,000 Matt Winn (GIII) over his home track at Churchill Downs.
Gun Runner cruised to the front under jockey Florent Geroux and whipped five over-matched foes by 5 1/4 lengths as a heavy odds-on favorite.
But the most impressive aspect of the Matt Winn triumph was Gun Runnerâ€™s final time for 1 1/16 miles. He covered the distance in a stakes record 1:41.12 and missed the track record for the distance by just eight one hundredths of a second.
The performance by the Steve Asmussen-trained Gun Runner, which came just seven days after the trainerâ€™s win with Creator in the Belmont Stakes (GI), had his trainer looking forward to the next step in the coltâ€™s 3-year-old season. The current plan calls for Gun Runner to compete in the Grade I Haskell Invitational at New Jerseyâ€™s Monmouth Park on July 31.
â€œHis confidence should be exactly where weâ€™re hoping for going into an extremely competitive Haskell,â€ Asmussen said. â€œI do think that he is of the highest quality, and this is only his seventh lifetime race. He is faster now than he has ever been, and thatâ€™s a great thing.â€
Gun Runnerâ€™s win was his fifth in those seven races, with his only setbacks coming at Churchill Downs in the Derby and last fallâ€™s Kentucky Jockey Club (GII), which was run over a sloppy track.
Many racing fans strongly believed that Songbird was better than Nyquist or any of the 3-year-old males who ran in the Kentucky Derby and Triple Crown, but she was in her Southern California stall on Kentucky Oaks Day when Cathryn Sophia won the race in her absence.
Fox Hill Farmâ€™s reigning champion 2-year-old filly had never faced a serious challenge prior to her trip to the sidelines, and her string of domination continued when she returned to action on Saturday at Santa Anita in an easy romp in the Grade II Summertime Oaks against 3-year-old fillies.
The Jerry Hollendorfer-trained daughter of Medaglia dâ€™Oro remained perfect in eight races when she cruised by 6 1/2 lengths under Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith. She moved to the lead on the turn for home and completed 1 1/16 miles in 1:42.63 in her first outing since a triumph in the Santa Anita Oaks (GI) on April 9.
â€œIt scares me to think of how good she is,â€ said Hollendorfer, a member of racingâ€™s Hall of Fame. â€œShe was very comfortable, with her ears up, looking for something. The opportunity presented itself to be just a little off the pace, and now weâ€™ve shown everyone we can do that.â€
Her most ardent fans are anxious for Songbird to take on the boys in her division, but they will have to wait a bit longer. Fox Hill owner Rick Porter announced Monday that his star filly would ship to New Yorkâ€™s Saratoga to again face 3-year-old fillies in the $300,000 Coaching Club American Oaks (GI) at 1 1/8 miles on July 24. It will be Songbirdâ€™s first run outside of her California base since last fallâ€™s romp in the Breedersâ€™ Cup Juvenile Fillies (GI) at Keeneland.
To this point, it has mattered little as to where and against whom Songbird runs. She has swept her eight races by a combined
42 1/2 lengths.
While Gun Runner and Songbird produced coast-to-coast smiles on the first weekend following the Triple Crown, admirers of the Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist also beamed.
The reason was not a race, but rather a workout by the star of the first crop of hot sire Uncle Mo. Nyquist breezed a half-mile in :48.60 at Santa Anita on Friday, June 17. It was his first serious training move since both the coltâ€™s unbeaten record and Triple Crown hopes were dashed in his third-place run behind West Coast rival Exaggerator in the Preakness (GI).
The management team at Monmouth Park is hoping Nyquist will be in the starting gate for a rematch with Gun Runner in the Haskell. At Churchill Downs Saturday night to accept the engraved Kentucky Derby Winnerâ€™s Trophies for Team Nyquist during the Downs After Dark festivities, Trainer Doug Oâ€™Neill said thereâ€™s a chance the Derby winner would head east for his return to competition.
The Haskell, Saratogaâ€™s Jim Dandy (GII) and the San Diego Handicap (GII) against older horses at Del Mar are races being considered by Oâ€™Neill and Team Nyquist.
In horse racing, perhaps more than any other sport, launching a plan and making it work are two very different and difficult things. But should those plans go well for this group and other 3-year-olds like Belmont runner-up Destin and Mohaymen fourth in the Derby, in the coming months, the second half of 2016 and the road to the Breedersâ€™ Cup could be special. VT