March 2, 2024

Race for champion juvenile male to stretch into December

Independence Hall wins the Nashua Stakes
Independence Hall romps in the Nashua (Coglianese Photos/Chelsea Durand)

Unless you were one of the clever or lucky bettors to cash big in last week’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) at Santa Anita, chances are you found this year’s edition of the country’s signature two-year-old event an aesthetic letdown.

With odds-on favorite Dennis’ Moment stumbling at the start and trailing throughout, and local pro tem leader Eight Rings regressing badly off his win in the American Pharoah (G1), the Juvenile descended into pari-mutuel chaos.

Storm the Court, a distant third in the American Pharoah (G1), led wire-to-wire at odds of 45-1 and won by a head over Anneau d’Or, a 28-1 chance coming off a turf debut win at Golden Gate Fields. Third was 39-1 shot Wrecking Crew, who had previously placed in the Best Pal (G2) and Del Mar Futurity (G1).

Not only was the result chaotic, but it threw the entire division race on its head. Ordinarily, Storm the Court would have a chance of backing into an Eclipse Award just on the strength of that Breeders’ Cup win like many horses before him in the past three decades. He still could, but it seems doubtful many voters would enthusiastically support him unless he backed that win up in, say, next month’s Los Alamitos Futurity (G2).

The Futurity is one of a less than a handful of remaining graded stakes for juveniles this year that could determine championship honors, and interestingly all are Grade 2 events. The others are the Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs on November 30 and the Remsen at Aqueduct one week later.

As a long-time non-believer in the infallibility of the graded stakes system, I’d have no qualms with any horse voted champion without a “Grade 1” victory. Sometimes the eye test is more important, and so far none of the Juvenile participants have consistently passed it.

From an historical perspective, only five two-year-old male champions since the Breeders’ Cup’s inception in 1984 did not compete in the Juvenile. Forty Niner (1987), Maria’s Mon (1995), and American Pharoah (2014) skipped the Juvenile by choice or were sidelined by injury, but all had either done enough beforehand or were flattered by the results of the Juvenile.

The circumstances this year more closely resemble those in 2004 and 2013. After the European-based Wilko upset the 2004 Juvenile at Lone Star Park, the gelding Declan’s Moon added workmanlike wins in the Hollywood Prevue (G3) and Hollywood Futurity (G1) to an earlier score in the Del Mar Futurity (G2) to claim the championship.

In 2013, after New Year’s Day captured only the Juvenile after breaking his maiden, a majority of voters (except this one) proved prescient enough to back another gelding, Shared Belief, who romped in both the Prevue and Futurity at Hollywood, which were then contested on a synthetic surface.

By far one of the bigger beneficiaries of this year’s Juvenile chaos was Maxfield, the impressive Breeders’ Futurity (G1) winner who would have been no worse than third choice in the Breeders’ Cup if he had not been withdrawn earlier in the week due to a minor injury. By not racing at all, his reputation took no hit. Whether he tries to race again this season remains to be seen.

Two other colts commonly mentioned in this discussion are both sons of Constitution. The connections of Tiz the Law, perhaps smartly, purposely bypassed the Breeders’ Cup with their four-length Champagne (G1) winner. The Barclay Tagg-trained New York-bred could enhance his championship candidacy with a victory in the Kentucky Jockey Club.

Independence Hall was indisputably the most impressive juvenile seen throughout the November 1-3 weekend, though he was nowhere near Santa Anita. On the day after the Breeders’ Cup’s conclusion, Independence Hall made his second start in the one-mile Nashua (G3) at Aqueduct and annihilated his opposition by more than 12 lengths in a time of 1:34.66, easily a stakes record. A return engagement in the Remsen could be on his agenda.

This juvenile championship race will be one of those unconventional ones that will remain undecided well into December. That’s certainly not a bad thing as it makes those upcoming events much more interesting. And getting things right sometimes requires collecting information beyond the first weekend in November.