In winning the premier events for 2-year-old colts on each coast in the U.S. over the weekend, Corniche (by Quality Road) and Jack Christopher (Munnings) made themselves more likely candidates for further glory in the championship event at the Breeders’ Cup.
In the American Pharoah at Santa Anita, Corniche brought his unbeaten record to two, and in the Champagne at Belmont Park, Jack Christopher did the same.
Each was making his stakes debut after an impressive first-out victory. In the case of Corniche, he had won his first start at Del Mar on Sept. 4 by 4 1/4 lengths, racing 5 1/2 furlongs in 1:03.01. Jack Christopher had won at first asking at Saratoga on Aug. 28 by 8 3/4 lengths, racing 6 furlongs in 1:09.85.
That each was an obviously talented young athlete who had been training well in the morning was further proven by each being the favorite in his first start.
Likewise, each has taken the step up in distance, and Corniche won the mile and a sixteenth American Pharoah and Jack Christopher the mile Champagne. Of the two other Grade 1-winning juvenile colts, Gunite (Gun Runner), the winner of the Hopeful, was fourth in the Champagne, and Pinehurst (Twirling Candy), the winner of the Del Mar Futurity, is training up to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.
Of those four, and a handful of others, the winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile would almost certainly be elected divisional championship. And just so, a statistical and inherently variable proposition is made to appear linear and sequential.
The development of horses is not random. A nickel claimer from Finger Lakes doesn’t show up and win the Champagne, for instance. But neither is it lacking in variability or chance. From the 1,500 most progressive premium yearling colts a year ago, we are not actually down to “just four.”
This quartet, right now, appear to be the most ready and capable of upper echelon of colts. Some of their cadre aren’t yet fully fit, or fully hardened, or mentally seasoned – for example – to tackle Grade 1 company, yet.
Some of those will get to the Grade 1 ranks. For some, it will be later this year; others will rise to the higher level at three, and a few will be persevered with and become Grade 1 performers at four and five. Much of it, so much of it, depends on what their trainers and owners think of them and how the colts respond to those perceptions.
And, even among the colts who are knocking the barn down and burning up the track right now, the difference between days or weeks, the subtleties of trips and works or feet and digestion, contribute to the final results on the racetrack at the premium level, in particular.
Looking back at the last 10 winners of the American Pharoah, for example, two won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Game Winner (2018) and Nyquist (2015) were the two, and eight did not; that did not mean they weren’t exceptionally good horses, maybe even the best of horses.
The colt for whom the race is named, for instance, won the race when it was called the FrontRunner in 2014 but was unable to race in the Juvenile due to a foot problem. American Pharoah came back the next year to become a legend. In his stead at the 2014 Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita, FrontRunner third Texas Red (Afleet Alex) had a tremendous day and won the event.
Looking at the Champagne with the same point of view, only one winner in the last decade, Shanghai Bobby (Harlan’s Holiday) in 2012, went on to win the Juvenile; so winning one of the great preps is not a simple, straight-line, sequential process to arriving at a winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and probable divisional champion.
At this level, each race is effectively a coin toss, using a handful of coins, and only the very best of the very best can overcome the odds time after time to win and win again and again. That is why we run races; to test the participants and effectively gauge their comparative abilities.
But, as we race horses fewer and fewer times, we have a less-accurate gauge of their abilities, as well as their toughness, durability, versatility, and enthusiasm for sport. This situation is contrary to the best interests of the sport, the fans, the bettors, the racetracks, the breeders, the owners, and the breed itself.