11/17/2010 4:01PM

Looking Ahead To The 2011 Handicap Division


Blame, Quality Road, and Travers winner Afleet Express have all recently been retired to stud. Rail Trip and Crown of Thorns are scheduled to come back, but physical issues make them shaky propositions. So when it comes to the 2011 handicap division, it looks like it will rely even more on graduating 3-year-olds than it usually does.

There is good news in this regard, for there are several quality 3-year-olds who figure to help populate the older male division next year, led by Lookin At Lucky. Now, we don't yet know for sure that Lookin At Lucky will race next year at 4, but the latest comments from his camp make it seem like there's a good chance he will. And if he does, as divisional champ last year and likely divisional champ again this year (Incredibly, Lookin At Lucky would be the first 2-year-old male champ to repeat at 3 since Spectacular Bid 31 years ago), Lookin At Lucky would begin 2011 as the pro tem leader of the handicap division.

Fly Down, who came this close to winning the Travers and a fine third in the Breeders' Cup Classic, and Paddy O'Prado, who showed by finishing fifth in the Classic that he is a threat on both dirt and turf, should be important older horses next year. So, too, should be Sidney's Candy, who I thought actually ran well when sixth in the Breeders' Cup Mile when he was simply a short horse, and First Dude, who has hit the board in five Grade 1 races, which probably makes him the best horse in America eligible to an entry-level allowance race.

Other coming 4-year-olds who have a license to make serious noise next year are Morning Line, who validated his Pennsylvania Derby decision by falling a head short of winning the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile; Noble's Promise, whose season this year was essentially sacrificed to a sporting attempt to win the Group 1 St. James Palace at Royal Ascot (he finished a creditable fifth), but who returned with a strong score in an undercard stakes on Breeders' Cup Friday; Twirling Candy, the Del Mar Derby winner who will have every opportunity to prove he is as good as his fans say he is; and Friend Or Foe, an above average New York bred who was close to Afleet Express over the summer.

Two coming 4-year-olds who I am especially intrigued by are Apart and Admiral Alex.

I became an Apart fan after watching him win the Prelude Stakes as tons the best, and he followed with victories in the Super Derby and in the Ack Ack Handicap on the Breeders' Cup Friday undercard. Apart's effort in the Ack Ack was one of those that was much better than it looks on paper. Not only did he beat a couple of older opponents, he did so after withstanding a long drive. Apart has become relentless in the stretch, much like Blame was. Then again, comparisons between the two are inevitable. Not only do they share a similar profile in that they really developed late in their 3-year-old campaigns in back to back seasons, they were also stablemates.

As for Admiral Alex, I was one of the many who was wondering what owner-trainer Leon Blusiewicz could have been thinking when he ran his colt in the Travers. After all, Admiral Alex had raced just once before, and his maiden win was distinguished only because it came around two turns on dirt (you don't see many first time starters win going two turns on dirt anymore), and because Admiral Alex got the money as an international good thing (they don't win too often, either). Admiral Alex finished a distant last in the Travers, and followed with another uninspiring effort in the Jamaica, and it looked like that was that.

But then something funny happened with Admiral Alex last time out in the Arts and Letters Stakes: He ran a huge with a capital H. Blusiewicz said his colt would go to the lead in that nine furlong race no matter the cost, and the cost was high. Admiral Alex had to go in 22.56 seconds and 45.66 to own the lead, and yet he kept right on going. Sure, the field was small and not especially tough, but after going that fast early, Admiral Alex still went fast enough late to complete the distance in 1:47.67, win by nearly five lengths, and earn his first triple digit Beyer Figure.

One thing that's interesting - amusing, actually - about Apart and Admiral Alex is the way expectations are being managed for them. A few days after the Ack Ack, Al Stall Jr., trainer of Apart, told DRF's Marty McGee: "You couldn't realistically say that Apart is the same as Blame. For some reason, Blame gave you a feeling all the time that he was the bomb, even when he was still a 'one-other-than.' Apart is different, but we're probably going to give him a shot."

The day after the Arts and Letters, less than two weeks before the Breeders' Cup, Blusiewicz said of Admiral Alex to DRF's Dave Grening: "This ain't a good horse, this is a super horse. If I had the money, I'd run him in the [Breeders' Cup] Classic. I'd dare somebody to beat him."

By reading what their connections said, you would think that Apart should still be stuck in low level allowance conditions and that he's dragging his connections into stakes events kicking and screaming, and that Admiral Alex is the second coming of Seattle Slew. As always, the truth is likely to be somewhere in the middle.