11/26/2010 3:50PM

Lookin At Lucky, Quality Road go out on different notes

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Less than a month ago, they were the Big Four of the Breeders’ Cup Classic, the most accomplished American horses of 2010. However the Classic turned out, it was nearly a foregone conclusion that Lookin At Lucky was going to be the champion 3-year-old of 2010, Blame or Quality Road would be the champion older male, Zenyatta would be the champion older female, and one of the four would be Horse of the Year.

Blame, Zenyatta, Lookin At Lucky and Quality Road ran 1-2-4-12 in that order, and as it turned out all were making their final starts. All four have been retired in the wake of the Classic. The three colts, each of whom made 13 career starts (Blame and Lookin At Lucky won nine, Quality Road eight), will begin new careers as stallions, each standing for precisely $35,000.

Blame and Zenyatta will be much discussed in the weeks ahead until one of them is named the Horse of the Year Jan. 17. At least for today, though, let’s consider the enigmatic careers of the other two members of the Big Four.

When Lookin At Lucky is officially named the champion 3-year-old of 2010, he will become the first champion 2-year-old male to be similarly honored at 3 since Spectacular Bid in 1978 and 1979. (Open Mind in 1988-89 and Silverbulletday a decade later did so in their filly divisions.) This is an extraordinary achievement for any horse and a milestone after a 32-year hiatus, but alsoone of the few times that Spectacular Bid and Lookin At Lucky will ever be mentioned in the same breath.

Lookin At Lucky was clearly the nation’s best 2-year-old last year, when he won 5 of 6 starts and three Grade 1’s, and the most accomplished this year, when his Preakness and Haskell victories made him the only 3-year-old colt to win two American Grade 1 races of any kind. He was consistent and gritty, but his premature retirement also left a lot of questions unanswered.

One of them regards his distance limitations. Lookin At Lucky lost his two longest starts of the year, the 10-furlong Derby and Classic, and was held out of the three other longer-distance races a champion 3-year-old might usually contest – the Belmont, the Travers and the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

Come to think of it, Spectacular Bid lost the Belmont and the Gold Cup as a 3-year-old, though the Gold Cup was at 12 rather than 10 furlongs in 1979 and the horse who beat him was Affirmed. Of course, Spectacular Bid’s 9-for-9 4-year-old season included 10-furlong victories in the Strub, Santa Anita Handicap, and Woodward. His only four career losses came at 5 1/2 and 6 furlongs as a 2-year-old, and his two 12-furlong defeats at 3. In races from seven furlongs to 1 1/4 miles, he was 23 for 23.

If Lookin At Lucky was a bit of an overachiever as a dual champion, Quality Road was an underachiever in a career that brought him no Eclipse hardware for being the second-best 3-year-old to Summer Bird in 2009 and the second-best older male to Blame in 2010. Four of his five career defeats were in races won by one of those two rivals (the 2009 Travers and Gold Cup and the 2010 Whitney and Classic), and he was 0 for 3 beyond nine furlongs.

Knocked out of the 2009 classics by foot problems that dogged him for most of his career, he perpetually seemed like a colt out of sync with the racing calendar – playing catch-up with insufficient preps last fall, pitching a fit at the gate before the 2009 Classic, then losing his best form at the end of this season. He was a frustration to his handlers and his fans for failing to deliver in his most important tests, but on his best days he showed as much raw brilliance as any horse in training.

His 12 3/4-length romp in the Donn Handicap Feb. 6, where he broke his own Gulfstream Park track record for nine furlongs, was the highest-rated dirt or synthetic performance of the year by numerous analysts of time. His Metropolitan Mile, where he turned back two challenges en route to a mile in 1:33.11, was a gem. Then he lost the Whitney, won a ho-hum Woodward, and might as well have been scratched from the Classic.

Lookin At Lucky and Quality Road were good racehorses, at or near the top of their divisions for two straight years. They retire with identical stud fees and nearly identical records, but with one a dual champion and the other without an Eclipse for all his talent.