10/16/2014 1:14PM

Crist: Top 3-year-olds first in line for Horse of the Year

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Shigeki Kikkawa
A win in the Breeders' Cup Classic would be Shared Belief's third straight Grade 1 victory over older horses.

A day before Wise Dan was declared out of the Breeders’ Cup last Tuesday, he was 6-1 in William Hill’s future-book wagering to win his third straight Horse of the Year title, the third choice behind Shared Belief at 8-5 and California Chrome at 5-2.

His defection has not removed him from consideration, as he is still 4 for 4 this year, with three Grade 1 wins. Now, however, his candidacy would require losses by all four 3-year-olds who will be the top choices in the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 1 – not only Shared Belief and California Chrome but also Bayern and Tonalist.

That makes this an extraordinary Breeders’ Cup, the first in memory where four 3-year-olds could win both the champion 3-year-old male and Horse of the Year Eclipse Awards with a Classic victory. There hasn’t been this much year-end drama among the sophomores since the 2007 Classic, when Curlin and Street Sense squared off for both of those titles.

The Horse of the Year case for Shared Belief or California Chrome would be airtight if they could add a Classic win to their shiny records. A Classic victory would keep Shared Belief undefeated and would be his third straight Grade 1 triumph over older horses, following his Pacific Classic and Awesome Again Stakes scores. California Chrome already has a Santa Anita Derby, Kentucky Derby, and Preakness in his pocket, and it has been 45 years since a Derby-Preakness winner was not the 3-year-old champion, even without any other triumphs.

Both are more accomplished than Tonalist and Bayern, but not by much, and it would be hard to argue against either of those two after a Classic victory.

Tonalist has a Belmont Stakes and a Jockey Club Gold Cup to his credit, and a Classic would give him the strongest r é sum é in the division, three major triumphs in races at 10 or 12 furlongs, and a winning record against each of the other three 3-year-old contenders.

Bayern may seem like the least accomplished of the quartet since he has only stretched his speed nine furlongs so far in winning the Haskell Invitational and the Pennsylvania Derby, with the former being his lone Grade 1 win. His victories, however – not only at Monmouth Park and Parx Racing but also in the Woody Stephens Stakes at Belmont – have been the most explosive in the division. Add a Classic to those huge performances, and he deserves the title.

The Classic will, of course, draw more than four starters – as many as 16 are likely to be pre-entered Monday – but it is hard to see how a victory by anyone else would complete a Horse of the Year campaign. This has not been a vintage year for older dirt males, and the sidelined Palace Malice would deserve and probably receive the older-male Eclipse even if Itsmyluckyday, Majestic Harbor, Moreno, or Zivo were to spring a Classic upset.

If the Classic is won by someone with such shaky credentials for the top Eclipse, thought will turn to the leading females, three of whom will run in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff and are among the 12 shortest prices in the William Hill wagering – Beholder, Close Hatches, and Untapable. It would, however, be hard to construct a compelling case for any of them even after a Distaff victory. They’re all very talented, but with no success against males or sensational records, they fall short of the standards that recently made three straight fillies the Horse of the Year – Rachel Alexandra in 2009, Zenyatta in 2010, and Havre de Grace in 2011.

What if there’s chaos, and Prayer for Relief noses out Big Cazanova in the Classic, with all the star 3-year-olds up the track? California Chrome’s spring achievements might seem like the standout achievement of the year, and some voters would start trying to convince themselves to overlook subsequent defeats in the Belmont Stakes, Pennsylvania Derby, and Classic.

At that point, however, the reigning champion would re-enter the picture, and Wise Dan’s record of 4 for 4, with three Grade 1 wins, might start looking pretty good again.