More than halfway through the 2018 Thoroughbred season, the entire picture has changed. Wonder horse Justify is stopped in his tracks. Out of the race. On ‘E’. Done. Gone. Retired. His departure abandons an assortment of rich and prestigious Grade 1 races, ripe and juicy for others to ‘carpe diem.’
Justify, apparent cinch 2018 Top North American 3-year-old Colt and Horse of the Year, exited stage-left, boasting a short but stunning resume. While it would take a Herculean effort for another to usurp either crown, if Justify’s meteoric career has taught us anything, it’s that an awful lot can happen in 112 days!
There are two outlandish ‘What if?’ scenarios worth pondering.
Last Sunday, Good Magic did what he was supposed to in winning the Haskell with aplomb. He’s now clearly atop the active sophomore heap and headed toward Travers—the Mid-Summer Derby–as probable favorite.
If Good Magic were to cash an incredible four-race parlay to end the year–taking the Haskell, Travers, a Grade 1 to be named later and Breeders’ Cup Classic—could he then surpass in-the-clubhouse leader Justify in Eclipse voting for Top 3-year-old Colt and/or Horse of the Year honors?
A Good Magic late-season grand slam is unlikely, but not impossible. After watching the first horse in history win the Triple Crown without racing as a 2-year-old, nothing is off the 2018 table. While he ran well in the Kentucky Derby, Good Magic barely held second that afternoon from fast-closing Audible. A mile and one-quarter may not be the colt’s optimum distance and he’ll need to traverse that route twice–next in the Travers at Saratoga and then in the BC Classic. Also, please recall that Good Magic is the reigning 2-year old champ. Saratoga doesn’t treat royalty well. ‘Graveyard of Champions’ could be its Twitter handle.
While there are a few bright spots, the current 3-year-old division lacks depth. So much so that Wonder Gadot, a filly, is pointed toward Travers and may go off as third choice. Hofburg did what was required to win the Curlin, but little more. From this perch, he still requires a breakout performance. Perhaps that will come in the Travers. Tenfold zig-zagged his way home in the Jim Dandy. He’ll need to focus much more than that to succeed August 25. Belmont Stakes runner-up Gronkowski’s name continues to roll off trainer Chad Brown’s tongue with regularity and that could be a ‘tell.’
As impressive as it would be for Good Magic were to run the table, it probably still wouldn’t be enough for voters to choose him as top 3-year-old. Triple Crown winners are rare. Justify’s only number 13 in history…and ‘history’ is a long, long time. Plus, since Good Magic couldn’t get by Justify on the racetrack—first, by running ‘at him’ in the Kentucky Derby and then by going ‘with him’ in the Preakness–it’s a stretch to think ‘Magic would get the nod over Justify even if he now managed to turn water into wine. And, if ‘Magic fails to win the Eclipse in his own division, how can he possibly take the Horse of the Year title?
So, according to the above unlikely scenario, in January, a 3-year-old colt that has won the Haskell, Travers, a Grade 1 to be named later and the Breeders’ Cup Classic will be blanked at the Eclipse Awards? Wow! Talk about wrong place, wrong time.
The handicap division brags no true frontrunner. Hronis Stable’s Accelerate currently is top dog in Southern California, taking the Santa Anita Handicap and Gold Cup last out at Santa Anita. But, he’s far from unbeatable and hasn’t shipped well in the past. His stable-mate Catalina Cruiser led a light San Diego Handicap field home at Del Mar by nearly seven lengths, but he’s got more to prove. Bob Baffert-trained Collected is a top threat and, when the time is right, the white-haired conditioner probably will find one or two more SoCal-based logs to toss into the fire. On the ‘right coast’ the cupboard seems fairly bare. Saturday’s Whitney at the Spa will produce at least one winner, of that we can be certain, but it’s difficult to imagine that a true divisional leader will emerge from the field of eight.
A second and even more unlikely (but equally interesting) scenario involves the Ontario-bred, 3-year-old filly sensation Wonder Gadot. Consecutively second in Oaklawn’s Fantasy, Churchill’s Kentucky Oaks and Woodbine’s Oaks, she’s currently on a two-race win streak that includes the Queen’s Plate at Woodbine and Prince of Wales at Fort Erie—both against sophomore males! Trainer Mark Casse thinks she deserves a shot at the Travers. What if she wins that race, a Grade 1 to be named later and the Breeders’ Cup Classic? Would it be ‘Ladies First’ in Eclipse Award voting?
Obviously, the odds of Good Magic or Wonder Gadot blitzing the competition now right through the first Saturday in November are extremely long. However, it doesn’t hurt to contemplate what might transpire. In any case, prepare for an exciting conclusion to what already has been an historic racing season.
As we ponder various ‘What if’ scenarios, Justify settles into his new home, poised to forever brag to pals and gals not about ‘What if’ but rather ‘What was.’