Commentary: The Hearty Boys
Photo: Lee Thomas
Evan Hammonds
Managing Editor

The Triple Crown races of the spring are in the books, and the summer races at Saratoga and Monmouth have been run. The true test of sophomore runners comes in the fall, when they take on older horses for the first time.

There has been plenty of chatter during the last several months about the strength of this year’s 3-year-old crop. Talk is cheap.

This past weekend’s round of prep races for the Breeders’ Cup World Championships gave us our initial glimpse of just how strong this group might be. From California, to Kentucky, to New York, they have proved to be an extraordinary lot.

At Oak Tree Sept. 29, during its inaugural meeting over the new Cushion Track surface, Tiago, winner of the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) on the old dirt track earlier this spring, dug deep in the stretch to defeat 4-year-old Awesome Gem by a nose in the nine-furlong Goodwood Stakes (gr. I). Giacomo’s half-brother was third behind Rags to Riches and Curlin in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I).

In the Kentucky Cup Classic Stakes (gr. II) in northern Kentucky the same afternoon, it figured to be a two-horse race between Kentucky Derby – Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) winner Street Sense and runner-up Hard Spun. Facing just two overmatched older horses, the pair put on a terrific show down the stretch at Turfway Park with pacesetter Hard Spun holding off his arch-rival by 1 1/4 lengths.

The following day at Belmont Park, Preakness Stakes (gr. I) winner Curlin used his enormously large stride to wear down 4-year-old Lawyer Ron to win the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) by a head. The weekend’s major events were a clean sweep for the foal crop of ’04. And let’s not forget Any Given Saturday’s win Sept. 22 over his elders in the Brooklyn Handicap (gr. II).

All in all, 3-year-olds have proved their point in the Breeders’ Cup Classic in its 23-year history.

In the second running, sophomore Proud Truth was a head winner over the 4-year-old Gate Dancer at Aqueduct in 1985. Fellow members of the foal crop of 1982, Turko­man and Chief’s Crown, ran third and fourth, respectively, on a gray and windswept day in Queens, N.Y.

Sophomores Sunday Silence and Easy Goer ran one-two, respectively, in the gathering darkness at Gulfstream Park in 1989, and the following year at Belmont Park, Unbridled and jockey Pat Day came up the rail in the Classic to top longshot Ibn Bey and crop-mate Thirty Six Red.

A.P. Indy, who was squeezed like a lemon and left for dead at the start of the Jockey Club Gold Cup before rallying strongly for third in early October 1992, won the Classic on Halloween at Gulfstream as the 2-1 favorite.

However, the Classics of 1994 and 2000 proved that stout crops of 3-year-olds can dominate the race. In both instances, 3-year-olds filled out the superfecta.

At Churchill Downs in ’94, sophomore colts were the first four across the line in the 14-horse field. Last after a half-mile, Robert Meyerhoff’s Concern rallied down the stretch to nab that year’s Preakness and Belmont winner Tabasco Cat by a neck on the wire.

A pair of West Coast-based 3-year-olds, Dramatic Gold and Soul of the Matter, finished third and fourth, respectively. That year’s Derby winner, Go for Gin, finished eighth.

In the 2000 Classic, also at Churchill Downs, up-and-comer Tiznow, fresh off a victory in the Goodwood, fought with Gold Cup winner Albert the Great at the head of the lane, then battled with Europe’s legendary 3-year-old “Iron Horse” Giant’s Causeway in a Classic we won’t soon forget. Goodwood runner-up Captain Steve rallied to finish third, a head before Albert the Great.

This year’s crew could prove to be another “fearsome foursome” Oct. 27 in the $5-million Classic at Monmouth Park. Who wants in on my superfecta box?

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