12/10/2015 1:18PM

Crist: Class of 2014 looking better all the time


Once maligned as subpar and ordinary, the 3-year-olds of 2014 have turned out to be a better and deeper group than anyone expected.

Last year, they dominated the showdowns with older horses, winning the Pacific Classic, Jockey Club Gold Cup, Awesome Again, and Breeders’ Cup Classic, fielding three deserving Eclipse finalists in California Chrome, Bayern, and Shared Belief. This year, an entirely different trio from the same crop will compete for the older-male Eclipse after ruling the division while combining to win the Met Mile, Whitney, Woodward, Jockey Club Gold Cup, Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, and Cigar Mile.

Honor Code is likely to triumph over Liam’s Map and Tonalist for the title, just as he did on the track. Any of the three would have been a worthy champion in many a recent season, when good older dirt males were in distressingly short supply – so much so that grass horses were awarded the Champion Older Male title three years in a row, and the category was renamed Best Older Dirt Male to keep that from happening again.

This year’s trio, however, is a strong one and no grass horse would have been a finalist if the old rules still applied. Honor Code’s Met and Whitney were brilliant, Liam’s Map’s Dirt Mile was heroic, and Tonalist was the ultimate versatile professional. All three of them ran Beyer Speed Figures of 110 or higher at least twice this year.

The three will be bound together going forward as well. When the older-male Eclipse is announced in Florida on Jan. 16, these three likely finalists will be under the same roof in the stallion barn at Lane’s End Farm in Lexington, Ky, where they are entering stud simultaneously after being retired there in recent weeks. It is an extraordinary bet on three sire prospects from the same class, but there’s good reason to be excited about the possibilities.

Honor Code’s pedigree is as good as it gets: He is a beautifully bred colt from the final crop of A.P. Indy, the most influential sire of his generation, from the Storm Cat mare Serena’s Cat, whose maternal granddams were the champion fillies Terlingua and Serena’s Song. A.P. Indy has been a sensational sire and grandsire of sires, a group that includes Pulpit, Tapit, Malibu Moon, and Bernardini.

“Tapit is the most important stallion in America and Tonalist is his best son,” said Bill Farish of Lane’s End, which also bred and raced A.P. Indy, in the retirement announcement earlier this week. “Tonalist is his only Grade 1-winning son at a mile and a quarter, from a tremendous female family. He’s exactly the kind of stallion we want to stand.”

Pedigree aside, Tonalist is one of the few horses in recent racing history to win Grade 1 races at a mile (Cigar), a mile and a quarter (two Jockey Club Gold Cups), and a mile and a half (2014 Belmont Stakes.)

It’s going to be a lot of fun to see what happens when the first sons and daughters of Honor Code, Tonalist, and Liam’s Map (by Unbridled’s Song) hit the racetrack as 2-year-olds of 2019 – even more so because they will be in the same foal crop as the first runners by another new sire you may have heard of, American Pharoah.

This year’s Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner is also beginning his stud career in Lexington in 2016, at Coolmore’s Ashford Stud. Despite being more modestly bred than Honor Code or Tonalist, the Pioneerof the Nile colt’s historic achievements on the racetrack in 2015 have launched his stud fee into the stratosphere at an alleged $200,000. That’s five times the $40,000 fee for which Honor Code and Tonalist are standing, and eight times Liam’s Map’s initial stud fee of $25,000.

Those differences seem preposterous at first glance, but you never know. In 1979, another Triple Crown-winning front-runner with a middling pedigree went to stud amid widespread skepticism that a son of Bold Reasoning and a Poker mare would become an important sire. His name was Seattle Slew, and he begat A.P. Indy, who begat Pulpit, who begat Tapit, who begat Tonalist. Watching these dynasties unfold over the decades is one of the true joys of Thoroughbred racing.