06/20/2010 11:00PM

3-year-old title up for grabs


NEW YORK - By this point in the season, with the Triple Crown behind us, we usually have a pretty good idea who the champion 3-year-old male will be, if we don't already know for sure.

Big Brown in 2008, Afleet Alex in 2005, Smarty Jones in 2004, and Point Given in 2001 were, by mid-June of their respective 3-year-old seasons, total locks for a divisional Eclipse Award. Each was very impressive winning two-thirds of the Triple Crown. Moreover, it was abundantly clear that no one else in their generation was in their league at 3.

Funny Cide, in 2003, did have Empire Maker as a serious challenger. But Funny Cide also captured two-thirds of the Triple Crown, giving him an advantage over his contemporaries that was close to impossible to overcome. The same also was true of War Emblem in 2002.

Last year at this time, we knew the champion 3-year-old male was likely to be either Kentucky Derby upsetter Mine That Bird or the rapidly improving Belmont Stakes winner Summer Bird, who eventually got the title. The scenario was similar in 2007, when it figured to be either Preakness winner Curlin, who was lightly raced at the time and went on to be champion, or Street Sense, the noted Churchill Downs lover and winner of the Kentucky Derby. And in 2006, when we mourned the injury to brilliant Derby winner Barbaro that eventually proved fatal, we saw by this time the emergence of another brilliant colt in Bernardini. Bernardini was impressive winning the Preakness in which Barbaro was stricken, and with Barbaro unable to subsequently answer him back on the track, Bernardini went on to the divisional championship.

This year is different. There should be no debate that the best 3-year-old any of us saw this year was Eskendereya, whose victories in the Wood Memorial and Fountain of Youth set a standard for this division that shows no sign of being approached. But Eskendereya suffered an injury before the Kentucky Derby that forced his retirement. So no matter how good he was, he simply has no claim to a divisional title.

At this point, that leaves us with the winners of the three Triple Crown events - Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver, Preakness victor Lookin At Lucky, and Belmont winner Drosselmeyer - as the leading candidates for the divisional championship. But none of these three has an iron grip on anything. Drosselmeyer, for one, still has much to prove. His Belmont win was his first stakes victory and came in a race that lacked the winners of the first two legs of the Triple Crown.

Super Saver also has something to prove. The Derby was his only stakes win this year, and given his meek performance in the subsequent Preakness, there is reason to believe his win in the Derby was largely due to the sloppy track. At least Lookin At Lucky won the Rebel and had a nightmare trip in the Derby that compromised his finish position in a profound way before he won the Preakness. That, plus a fair degree of default, is why Lookin At Lucky is probably first in line right now when it comes to divisional Eclipse Award consideration. But any of the three winners of this year's Triple Crown events would greatly alter the title picture with another major victory this summer.

Or, we could have a situation like the one we had in 2000 when, in a possible parallel to this year, the winners of that year's Triple Crown races (Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus, Preakness winner Red Bullet, Belmont winner Commendable) proved uninspiring enough that it opened the door for a late developer named Tiznow to not only charge to a divisional Eclipse Award, but also Horse of the Year honors.

At this point in 2000, Tiznow was just a maiden winner, having accomplished that in his third and most recent start. He was still a little more than a week before his stakes debut in the Affirmed Handicap at Hollywood Park, which he narrowly won at 10-1 over five opponents. Tiznow then went on to finish second in the Swaps and Pacific Classic before closing out his season with victories in the Super Derby, Goodwood, and Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs after a memorable battle with Giant's Causeway.

It's anyone's guess if another Tiznow will come out of nowhere in the coming weeks to challenge for supremacy in the 3-year-old male division. But it's worth keeping an eye out. And speaking of that, the second season for 3-year-olds began unofficially in a couple of stakes Saturday, which were won by two interesting new faces. Golden Itiz, a son of Tiznow, made his stakes debut in the Affirmed Handicap at Hollywood Park a winning one (I know, it's a little bit freaky) for his third straight victory. Afleet Express, who looks like an especially nice colt, won the Pegasus Stakes at Monmouth Park in his stakes and two-turn debut, beating Jackson Bend - who was a close third in the Preakness despite traffic trouble in the stretch - back to fifth.

* I know I mentioned this here last week, but people continue to note that the final time of Rachel Alexandra's Fleur de Lis was faster than Blame's Stephen Foster, and they will really make a big deal out of it the next time Rachel runs, even though the much slower pace in the Foster makes direct comparison of the two races near impossible. To recap, both races were run at Churchill Downs on June 12. The Fleur de Lis went in 1:48.78 for the nine furlongs, .59 of a second faster than the Foster. However, the Fleur de Lis's half-mile and six-furlong fractions, a reasonable 47.25 and 1:11.16, were both 1.47 seconds faster than the slow-paced Foster. Look at it this way: the Foster's pace to both the half and three-quarters was 8 1/2 lengths slower than the Fleur de Lis's pace. That's a huge discrepancy. For the record, the difference in final time equals 3 1/2 lengths.