11/11/2013 8:51AM

The 3-Year-Old Championship


From January to June, the marquee division in racing in this country is the 3-year-old male division. For better or worse, the run up to the Kentucky Derby, the Derby itself, and then the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, dwarf anything else that happens between the rails in this game during the first half of the year.

Even after the Triple Crown, the 3-year-old male division remains a primary discussion point. The Travers and the Haskell, the signature races at two of our biggest summer race meets, are for 3-year-olds. And beyond that, there is always talk on how the 3-year-olds will stack up against their elders in the Breeders' Cup Classic division.

This is why for fans of the sport (and I'm here to tell you that you can be both a racing fan, and a hardened horseplayer), the 3-year-old male championship is a pretty big deal. And as it has been for a good part of the season, this year's 3-year-old male championship is a pretty tough puzzle.

Well, maybe not so for a significant segment of the racing public, who seem to think that by virtue of his second in the Breeders' Cup Classic, beaten just a nose, Will Take Charge secured this divisional Eclipse Award. I can't argue strongly for or against Will Take Charge's merits in terms of a divisional championship. I think, given their respective records, it is impossible to be passionate about the title candidacies of any of the potential 3-year-old male Eclipse Award finalists. But I can say this: If Will Take Charge does win the vote for champion 3-year-old male of 2013, he might be the shakiest such champion not only in the history of the Eclipse Awards dating back to 1971, but ever.

If Will Take Charge gets the title, he will have done so with only one Grade 1 victory on the year, in the Travers (he also won the Grade 2 Pennsylvania Derby, the Grade 2 Rebel, and the listed Smarty Jones). He will have but one Grade 1 win despite the fact there are a plethora of Grade 1 opportunities for 3-year-olds both within the division, and against older horses. It really does seem that if Will Take Charge becomes divisional champion, it will be because of his near miss in the Grade 1 Classic (he was also second in the Grade 2 Jim Dandy). And one thing I could argue strongly about is whether this or any other horse should get an Eclipse Award on the basis of a loss, no matter how good or close that loss was.

At this point, no one is talking about Preakness winner Oxbow and Belmont Stakes winner Palace Malice in terms of being strong title contenders, and that is understandable. Oxbow never raced after a dismal fourth in the Haskell, and eventually was retired. And Palace Malice squandered his very live Eclipse Award hopes with two uninspiring performances to conclude his campaign.

However, it can be argued that Palace Malice, for one, has a resume that is at least comparable to Will Take Charge's. Palace Malice won the Grade 1 Belmont (say what you will about the Belmont, it is a Triple Crown race), and the Jim Dandy. I'm not going to get into the head-to-head records between these two (for the record, it was 3 to 2 in favor of Will Take Charge) because there were a few unrepresentative performances involved on each side. But it could be said that when Palace Malice's seconds in the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup and Grade 1 Blue Grass are taken together, they probably carry weight similar to Will Take Charge's second in the Classic.

Heck, it can be argued that Orb has not merely comparable, but stronger credentials than Will Take Charge for a divisional championship. It's immaterial whether Orb disappointed after his win in the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby (although he did manage thirds in the Belmont and Travers), or whether his Derby was pace and wet track-aided. The fact is, Orb won the biggest race there is for this division, in addition to the Grade 1 Florida Derby (and the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth), giving him twice as many Grade 1 wins as Will Take Charge, Palace Malice, and Oxbow. And Orb could have drawn a more distinct line of demarcation between him and Will Take Charge had he won the Grade 1 Cigar Mile on Nov. 30, which he was pointing to. But Orb was just retired.

Goldencents, however, is coming for the Cigar Mile in an inspired attempt at the 3-year-old championship. And it just might work. Goldencents did win the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby (in addition to the Grade 3 Sham) early this year, and his victory (as bias-aided as it was) in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile gives him something none of the other divisional title contenders have, a Grade 1 victory over older horses. If Goldencents wins the Cigar Mile (and Ill tell you right now that he will be a popular bet against because his Breeders' Cup win was assisted by the speed bias), that would give him two Grade 1 wins over older horses, in addition to seconds in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Sprint Championship, the Grade 1 Bing Crosby, and the Grade 2 Pat OBrien, all also against older opponents.

In his current permutation as a sprinter/miler, Goldencents does not have a profile that one associates with the traditional 3-year-old champion. But in a year in which a colt with just one Grade 1 win seems first in line at the moment to receive this honor, these are clearly not traditional times.