Lion Heart, still in the championship picture.

Lion Heart, still in the championship picture.

Equi-Photo/Bill Denver

Just Who is The Best 3-Year-Old of 2004?

Patrick Biancone, who will saddle Haskell Invitational (gr. I) winner Lion Heart in the $1-million Travers Stakes (gr. I) Aug. 28, and Todd Pletcher, trainer of Jim Dandy (gr. II) winner Purge, have different opinions about the 3-year-old championship picture.

Biancone has not conceded the Eclipse Award to Smarty Jones, whose presence still pervades the 3-year-old scene despite the colt's early retirement. Biancone basically believes the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) and Preakness Stakes (gr. I), both of which were won by Smarty Jones at the expense of Lion Heart, are top spring races, but that was then, and this is now.

"To be very precise, in this country, there are three 3-year-olds who have won two grade I races (in their career)--Smarty Jones, Lion Heart, and Birdstone," Biancone said on a national teleconference Aug. 24. "It's like a three-angular match. Smarty Jones has beaten Lion Heart, and Birdstone has beaten Smarty Jones. Let's see what happens between Birdstone and Lion Heart. I think this will decide roughly who is the best 3-year-old in the country."

As for comparing the Derby and Preakness to other grade I stakes, Biancone said: "A grade I is a grade I. The Belmont (gr. I) is as big a race as the Derby and the Preakness. I think the matchup between Birdstone and Lion Heart (in the Travers) will be very interesting. Let's put it this way: This is the finals, and if Birdstone beats us in the Travers, I would be the first one to vote for him for 3-year-old of the year.

"I read the other day that the Derby is like the contest for '(American) Idol,' and the Travers is more like 'Survivor.' There will be seven good, strong, sound horses in the race, and we'll see who is the best of the summer."

Pletcher, however, takes a totally different view. In his mind, you can't compare horses like that, and he firmly believes the 3-year-old championship already has been decided.

"First of all, I don't try to predict who's going to win Eclipse Awards, but when you start trying to take it away from a horse that was undefeated, with the exception of the Belmont, and smashed horses in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, it would be silly to make those kind of statements in my opinion," Pletcher said.

Pletcher sees the Travers developing pretty much the same as everyone. Lion Heart will be on the lead, with Purge chasing him in second, and it will come down to who basically is the best horse.

But the others in the Travers match up well with the two major prep winners. Nick Zito will saddle three top-class horses in Birdstone, The Cliff's Edge, and Sir Shackleton, while Mark Hennig hopes to get Eddington finally on track, and Paul McGee ships up the improving Swaps Stakes (gr. II) runner-up Suave from Kentucky.