12/16/2011 3:31PM

Crist: Tough call between Animal Kingdom, Caleb's Posse

Tom Keyser
By winning his fourth graded stakes of the season in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile, Caleb's Posse has become a serious candidate for champion 3-year-old.

The balloting for racing’s divisional champions of 2011 does not close until 3 p.m. on Jan. 3, but it looks from here as if the engravers can safely start inscribing seven of the 10 trophies that will be handed out in Beverly Hills on Jan. 16. The other three look like races that could go down to the wire.

Six of the seven that appear to be in the bag will be virtually unanimous choices. My Miss Aurelia (2-year-old filly), Royal Delta (3-year-old filly), Havre de Grace (older filly), Cape Blanco (turf male), Stacelita (turf female), and Amazombie (male sprinter) simply have little credible competition for their titles.

I also think Hansen should and will prevail in the balloting for champion 2-year-old male after beating the more-accomplished Union Rags in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. I have no quarrel with those who think Union Rags had a more taxing trip or might turn out to be the better horse down the road, but you don’t award championships off tough trips. Union Rags had the length of the Churchill Downs stretch to get by Hansen and couldn’t do it. Some have cited the selection of Juvenile runner-up Easy Goer over Juvenile winner Is It True in 1988 as precedent for backing Union Rags, but that really was not an analogous situation: Easy Goer had beaten Is It True twice and by larger margins, in a maiden race and the Champagne.

That leaves three categories where reasonable people can and will disagree: champion 3-year-old male, which boils down to a choice between Animal Kingdom and Caleb’s Posse; female sprinter, a three-way tussle among Hilda’s Passion, Musical Romance, and Sassy Image; and older male, where Game On Dude and Tizway are the likeliest winners in a wide-open scramble where Acclamation, Drosselmeyer, and Flat Out will also get some support.

The one sure thing about the 3-year-old title is that this year’s winner will be a highly unconventional one: either a horse who did not win a race after the first Saturday in May or a miler who did not contest any of the races that usually crown the division’s champion. That’s what happens in a year where every single Grade 1 race restricted to 3-year-old males had a different winner, and the three classics were won by three horses who have yet to win again.

The case for Animal Kingdom is that his Kentucky Derby victory and Preakness second made him the top performer in the Triple Crown, and that the 3-year-old title should go to a distance horse rather than a sprinter or miler. I would agree with that latter impulse if everything else were equal, but it’s not. Animal Kingdom’s Derby was his only Grade 1 victory in an abbreviated campaign, he failed in the Preakness and Belmont, finished behind Shackleford in two of their three meetings, and never faced older horses.

Caleb’s Posse was a one-turn specialist but made 10 starts from January through November, won four graded stakes, including two Grade 1’s, and beat older horses in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile. While To Honor and Serve subsequently beat his elders in the Cigar Mile, Caleb’s Posse remains the only 3-year-old male to have won two Grade 1 races, beating Uncle Mo in the King’s Bishop and Shackleford in the Dirt Mile.

The filly-sprinter division may end up being more lopsided than I think, as voters always seem to lean heavily on the Breeders’ Cup results in these situations and Musical Romance’s victory in the Filly and Mare Sprint is freshest in their minds. She had an admirably durable 14-start campaign in a year when early-season leaders Hilda’s Passion and Sassy Image were sidelined by the fall. My problem with her is that she lost nine of those 14 starts, and was clearly second best the one time she faced Sassy Image, who outfinished her while conceding seven pounds in the Princess Rooney. The Filly and Mare Sprint was Musical Romance’s lone Grade 1 triumph, while Sassy Image won two, the Princess Rooney and the Humana Distaff.

The older-male award may be the most vexing of all. Game On Dude was a fine second in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, gamely holding second after cutting out the pace and turning back Uncle Mo before succumbing to Drosselmeyer, but his 3-for-8 record is shaky. Still, his seconds in the Classic and the Hollywood Gold Cup, added to his victories in the Santa Anita Handicap and Goodwood, may give him an accomplishment edge over Tizway, the Met Mile and Whitney winner.

So at the moment I’m leaning towards Caleb’s Posse over Animal Kingdom, Sassy Image over Musical Romance and Game On Dude over Tizway – but am reserving the right to lean the other way between now and Jan. 3.