April 16, 2024

Unconventional candidates emerge as early Horse of the Year contenders

Bricks and Mortar carries the Klaravich and Lawrence silks to victory in the 2019 Pegasus World Cup Invitational Turf (G1) (c) Adam Coglianese Photography

The end of the Triple Crown series on Saturday unofficially brought to a close the first half of the racing season and, unlike the landscape 12 months ago, we have ourselves a race for Horse of the Year.

Accelerate did everything he could in the second half of 2018 to make a legitimate go of it, but last year’s Horse of the Year race was virtually over the moment Justify crossed the wire first in the Belmont Stakes (G1), becoming the sport’s 13th Triple Crown winner. The winning margin in the balloting was 77 percent to 22 percent.

With no Triple Crown winner this time around, much less a firm leader in the three-year-old male division, two unconventional candidates have emerged thus far as leading contenders for the gold Eclipse.

In a mere four starts this term, Bricks and Mortar has bankrolled more than $3.9 million while easily solidifying his claim as the best turf horse in the country. He’s won three seven-figure stakes – the Pegasus World Cup Turf (G1), Old Forester Turf Classic (G1), and Manhattan (G1) – plus the Muniz Memorial (G2) on a stopover in New Orleans.

Rare is it for a grass performer to be this highly ranked in the Horse of the Year race this early in the season. It’s a testament to Bricks and Mortar’s quality, for sure, but also to a dearth of standouts in the sport’s marquee divisions.

In the 48-year history of the Eclipse Awards, only four horses have earned the top title due solely to grass credentials: All Along (1983), John Henry (1984), Kotashaan (1993), and Wise Dan (2012-13). That’s a lot of history to buck, but Bricks and Mortar has created a firm foundation that could make him difficult to depose as the early favorite.

One thing potentially standing in Bricks and Mortar’s way is distance. He’s clearly solid from nine to 10 furlongs, but after the Arlington Million (G1) in August connections will have run out of top opportunities to showcase him further in that range. Presumably they would attempt to stretch him out to 1 1/2 miles for races like the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic (G1) and Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1), but there’s no guarantee he’d be as effective at that distance. Cutting back in trip for the Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1) is another option, of course, but also brings similar uncertainties.

Mitole and jockey Ricardo Santana Jr. capture the Metropolitan Handicap (G1) at Belmont Park on June 8, 2019 (c) EquiSport Photos/Jessie Holmes

Mitole has also placed himself squarely in the Horse of the Year discussion. Unlike fellow speedball World of Trouble, a multi-surface talent who’s also undefeated this year, Mitole saw his candidacy enhanced on Saturday with a victory in the Metropolitan H. (G1) over McKinzie and two-time Dubai World Cup (G1) winner Thunder Snow.

By virtue of winning at one mile, Mitole’s a prime contender in the general older dirt male category in addition to male sprinter, even if he concentrates on sprints for the remainder of the season. He’ll likely race in either or both of Saratoga’s Grade 1 sprints – the Alfred G. Vanderbilt and Forego – but the options are open later on. He earned an automatic entry into the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1) on Saturday, which for the time being is a two-turn race this year, but could conceivably cut back and run in the TwinSpires Breeders’ Cup Sprint (G1) instead.

Mitole has more history to buck than Bricks and Mortar as no pure sprinter or one-turn specialist has ever been named Horse of the Year. Tom Fool (1953), Dr. Fager (1968), Ack Ack (1971), and Forego (1974) all won sprint titles in their Horse of the Year campaigns, but earned the top honor primarily because of their two-turn achievements. Groovy was perhaps the last such specialist to be in a Horse of the Year discussion, but an upset loss to Very Subtle in the 1987 Breeders’ Cup Sprint quashed any longshot hope of that occurring.

Unfortunately, a hypothetical showdown between Bricks and Mortar and Mitole to decide Horse of the Year cannot occur on the racetrack. Barring an unexpected rise of another candidate or two, both will simply have to keep winning and hope the other metaphorically stubs his toe during the second half of the season.