From now through the first weekend in November is prime time for horseplayers, and it's always especially compelling theater when absolutely nothing has been settled in the 3-year-old division.
The plot thickens considerably this weekend. On July 29, the $600,000 Jim Dandy Presented By NYRA Bets (G2) pits Always Dreaming, winner of the Kentucky Derby Presented By Yum! Brands (G1), against Cloud Computing, who won the Preakness (G1) at 13-1.
On July30, Monmouth Park puts on a stakes-studded 14-race program highlighted by the $1 million Betfair.com Haskell Invitational (G1) in which the unbeaten Timeline could vault to prominence if he can stay perfect against six rivals that include Irish War Cry, the runner-up in the Belmont Stakes Presented By NYRA Bets (G1), and Practical Joke, winner of the Hopeful (G1) and Champagne (G1) stakes last year.
Saturday's card at the Spa includes three other graded stakes: the Amsterdam (G2), the Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap (G1), and the Bowling Green (G2T).
And oh yes, out at Del Mar, Drefong, the reigning sprint champion, makes his 4-year-old debut in the Bing Crosby (G1), which is a "Win And You're In" race for the TwinSpires Breeders' Cup Sprint (G1).
So many races, so little time. Let's take a look and see what we see.
When a horse exits the maiden ranks and follows up with an even better effort to beat winners, it's often the calling card of a very good horse, and Coal Front fits that mold after turning back older allowance runners at Belmont Park.
His main foe is the stakes-seasoned Mo Cash (#3), who won a pace duel in the recent Carry Back (G3) and was edged near the wire by favored multiple stakes winner Three Rules.
The sleeper may be Excitations if he can shrug off a no-show going two turns last out, and a Pat Day Mile (G3) where he disliked the sloppy going; his seven-furlong allowance score at Keeneland three back suggests this is what he wants to do.
A - 2
B - 3
C - 5
A.G. Vanderbilt (Sat, race 8, 5:02 ET): A.P. Indian (#4) won his first six starts last year, including this race, but the 5-2 morning-line choice has to prove to me he's still the same horse. He ran hard from May to November in 2016, and so far at age 7 he has given up clear leads in the stretch twice, and then missed the Belmont Sprint Championship (G2) three weeks ago due to minor issues.
Limousine Liberal (#8), who ran second in the 2015 King's Bishop (G1) in just his third career start, takes a fourth crack at A.P. Indian and may be up to turning the tables in his sharp current form.
The one they both have to catch is El Deal (#3), who has improved—as so many horses miraculously do—in two starts for Jorge Navarro. He put up supersonic fractions of 21.26 and 43.12 seconds wiring the Decathlon last out over Ostrolenka, who came back to win and was a close second in Friday's John Morrissey Stakes.
A - 8
B - 3, 4
Bowling Green (Sar, race 9, 5:40 ET): Ascend (#7) shocked most students of form winning the 10-furlong Woodford Reserve Manhattan (G1T). Although that was his first win past 1 1/16 miles, the benefit of 20-20 hindsight reveals he had twice run the last quarter-mile of one-mile races in approximately 22 seconds, and had run the last five-sixteenths of a mile in 28.40 and 28.60 on three occasions going 1 1/16.
I think Ascend is legit. The problem is that instead of getting his Manhattan odds of 27-1, you're now looking at the 8-5 favorite on the morning line.
Sadler's Joy (#4) got rolling too late when third in the Manhattan, and before that was an unlucky third in the Man o'War (G1T) over a boggy turf course. His races at Gulfstream Park, Aqueduct and Saratoga last year indicate the return to a three-turn format is a plus.
Bigger Picture (#1) won on this layout at the 1 3/8-mile trip last summer, and has since won three graded stakes, capped by the United Nations (G1T) four weeks ago. While he got a fast pace in front of him and a rail-skimming trip, he is versatile enough to be positioned much closer to the lead if the situation warrants.
A - 7
B - 1, 4
Jim Dandy (Sar, race 10, 6:18 ET): Not since Strike the Gold and Hansel ran in the 1991 Travers have the winners of the Kentucky Derby an Preakness squared off at Saratoga.
Running back two weeks after the Derby, Always Dreaming came up empty at 6-5 in the Preakness after being hounded through the first mile by Classic Empire. The latter appeared a certain winner past midstretch, but Cloud Computing, who had been given six weeks between starts, was along in the final strides.
The rest issue is neutral this time. Moreover, Always Dreaming is 2 for 2 at 1 1/8 miles and ran over the track last year.
The intriguing runner is Good Samaritan (#5), who was also pre-entered in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1), before ultimately running third in the Juvenile Turf (G1T) behind Oscar Performance. After giving futile chase to the latter in the Pennine Ridge (G3T) and Belmont Derby (G1T), Good Samaritan finally gets to try the main track. He ought to like it, as sire Harlan's Holiday was a multiple grade 1 winner of $3.6 million on dirt, and he descends from A.P. Indy and Pulpit on the bottom.
A - 1, 2
B - none
C - 5
Bing Crosby (Dmr, race 9, 6:10 PT): Drefong (#2) certainly didn't scare anyone away, as 10 will line up to face him, including a trio trained by Peter Miller: St. Joe Bay (#3), Roy H (#8), and Solid Wager (#9).
Drefong is under the gun from post 2, with St. Joe Bay right alongside in post 3. Both like to mix it up early, and that could set things up nicely for Ransom the Moon (#4) and/or Roy H.
Ransom the Moon was sold after being blanked from six route starts on turf and syntheric tracks in 2016, and has found his calling since made over into a dirt sprinter by Phil D'Amato. He ran prohibitive favorite Danzing Candy ($2.60) to a photo finish in the recent San Carlos (G2), and may be sitting in the garden spot drawn right outside the potential duel.
Roy H started out 1 for 11, but comes off a fast win in the True North (G2) and is in the best form of his life.
A - 4, 8
B - 2, 3
Haskell (Mth, race 12, 5:45 ET): Monmouth and Saratoga are offering a "cross-country" pick four linking the Winstar Matchmaker (G3T) and Haskell on the Jersey Shore with a couple of grass races in upstate New York. The Shuvee (G3) was to be in the sequence, but it was subsequently carded as Saratoga's first race after attracting just three fillies and mares.
Regardless, the pool is hosted by Monmouth, which means the takeout is that track's standard 15% and not the 24% bite that prevails in New York.
Six of the seven in the Haskell ran in the Kentucky Derby. The exception is Timeline (#3), who has started off with four wins in eye-catching manner. The Chad Brown-trained colt got a race over the track when an easy front-end winner of the Pegasus (G3), and this match-up with dual grade 2 winner and Belmont runner-up Irish War Cry (#1) shapes up as a compelling one.
Brown's other entrant, Practical Joke (#4), is no slouch either, and in fact boasts the only two grade 1 victories in the field. Whether he is as good at nine furlongs is the issue, as he is 4 for 4 at distances up to one mile, and 0 for 4 beyond that.
A - 1, 3
B - 4