01/06/2012 11:49AM

New 4-year-olds Elicit Optimism

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Tizway, Drosselmeyer, Blind Luck, and Stacelita, among others, may have ridden off into the proverbial sunset, but one of the great things about this game it how it renews itself. Every January, there is a group of new 4-year-olds eager to take the place of retired older horses.

There are quite a few recent 3-year-old graduates who are capable of making noise this year. Let’s talk about five I find a bit more intriguing than most.

Animal Kingdom – The natural inclination is to think that the reigning Kentucky Derby winner and Preakness runner up would be a prominent member of the handicap division at 4. That might well prove to be the case with Animal Kingdom. But it is interesting to note that before he was officially ruled out for the remainder of 2011, there was talk last summer of Animal Kingdom targeting major turf races. Animal Kingdom’s first major goal of 2012 is the Dubai World Cup, run on a synthetic surface, and it has already been reported that his prep for that event, if it doesn’t happen in Dubai, might be on the turf in Florida. Animal Kingdom is versatile enough to acquit himself well on any surface. But it wouldn’t be a surprise if he focuses as much if not more on turf racing this year as he does on dirt racing.

Nehro – It should be remembered that Animal Kingdom was not the only one to come out of last year’s Belmont Stakes with a season-ending injury. About a week after finishing fourth in the Belmont, Nehro had ankle chips removed. Nehro suddenly emerged relatively late on the road to the Triple Crown last year, finishing a surprising second in the Louisiana Derby, beaten a neck, an excellent second in the Arkansas Derby, also beaten a neck, and then second in the Kentucky Derby, all while still eligible to an entry level allowance race. Nehro still has all his allowance conditions, but he could be a big mover in the handicap division.

Zazu – Last year’s 3-year-old filly division was strong and deep. But up until Royal Delta won the Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic, the only member of this group to have meaningful success against older mares was Zazu. Zazu, who had already proven she was right with the leaders of her division with a gaining third in the Kentucky Oaks and a victory over Kentucky Oaks winner Plum Pretty in the Hollywood Oaks, met older opponents in her last two starts of 2011. She was a narrowly beaten second in the Clement L. Hirsch at Del Mar, and could have easily won with a smoother trip, and then won the Lady’s Secret. Zazu was denied a third straight start against her elders when shoulder inflammation kept her out of the Breeders’ Cup. But one big thing she has going for her in 2012 is, unlike many other new 4-year-olds, she has already proven herself outside of her age division.

Mr. Commons – It might be unwise to become too invested in U.S. turf horses because we all know that even an average European stakes horse can come over here and make our best look silly. Until then, however, Mr. Commons could prove to be one of our best grass milers. Mr. Commons showed real potential last year when he jumped in with older horses early and finished a close second in both the Del Mar and Oak Tree Miles despite less than perfect trips each time. Even his fifth in an otherwise uninspiring Breeders’ Cup Mile was good considering the trip he had. But Mr. Commons broke through with the kind of dominating victory he hadn’t delivered since his maiden score in the Sir Beaufort opening day at Santa Anita, and looks to be on his way now.

Winter Memories – The reservations expressed above about our grass horses apply here as well. That said, Winter Memories is a filly I truly can’t wait to see this year. Winter Memories was a bit of a polarizing figure last year. Even before her season-ending dud in the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup, some folks were down on her because her connections were disinclined to run her in the Breeders’ Cup, citing that she was only 3 and noting their desire to have a strong 4-year-old campaign with her. But on her day, specifically her winning performances in the Garden City and Lake George, Winter Memories made the hair on the back of your neck stand up. Not many horses can do that.