08/01/2011 12:29PM

The Battle For Champion 3-Year-Old Male

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If I had to vote for champion 3-year-old male today, the day after the Haskell, I would vote for Animal Kingdom. The Kentucky Derby Animal Kingdom won is still the most important race that was available to 3-year-olds so far this year. He won the Derby decisively, followed with a sharp, close second in the Preakness, and made a big run in the Belmont Stakes after being brutalized a couple of strides out of the gate that drew the admiration of everyone. In the meantime, none of Animal Kingdom’s rivals for a divisional title has as of yet put together any sort of run.

But if I am still voting for Animal Kingdom for champion 3-year-old come December, then we’re in trouble, and I say that with no disrespect whatsoever toward the Derby winner. However, if Animal Kingdom, who suffered a season-ending injury in his Belmont mugging, is still the leading contender for the 3-year-old title at the end of the year, that would mean that none of his contemporaries was able to compile even a couple of important victories by the time we’re done with the remaining big events for this division such as the Travers and Pennsylvania Derby, and the critical fall races open to older horses. And that wouldn’t be very good, especially given the profound weakness of the handicap division.

After watching Coil best Shackleford in the Haskell, and Stay Thirsty run away with the Jim Dandy the day before, it’s hard envisioning that one of these three won’t win at least one more important race this year. Coil, in particular, seems perfectly positioned for a big second half-of-the-season run, because he was much more impressive winning the Haskell than his neck margin would suggest.

For one, Coil overcame a trip that was completely alien to him, having to rally from well off the pace, much farther back than he had ever been before. And I also buy into the suggestion that Coil idled once he struck the front in the stretch. It looked like Coil was going to blow by Shackleford and win by open lengths, but he geared down noticeably once he took over, certainly making the finish of the Haskell look a lot tighter than it really was. But even if Shackleford was no match for Coil in the Haskell, his earlier victory in the Preakness is still an important chip in the Eclipse Award discussion. And Stay Thirsty’s impressive score in the Jim Dandy marked a significant breakthrough on his part, and it came on the same Saratoga track over which they’ll run the Travers, which, it goes without saying, could well play a major role in determining the 3-year-old male champion.

Yet despite all the important racing last week – the Haskell, the Jim Dandy, Euroears’s brilliant U.S. return in the Bing Crosby, and Zagora’s emphatic score in the Diana – it was Winter Memories’s victory in the Lake George that wowed me the most. I was off a couple of days and didn’t have the chance to weigh in on Winter Memories until now, and yes, I know she’s only a 3-year-old turf filly and wasn’t beating very much. But . . . my, oh my. To get stopped cold turning for home, and to still inhale her field with a brilliant turn of foot to win laughing . . . Winter Memories is some sort of freak.