06/14/2013 2:28PM

Steven Crist: No 2013 3-year-old has had championship season

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Justin N. Lane
Oxbow (left), Palace Malice (right), and Orb all have a shot at this year's 3-year-old Eclipse Award.

The nice thing about a year when a different horse wins each leg of the Triple Crown is that anything can happen now, instead of having the 3-year-old championship pretty much settled before summer even begins.

Orb, Oxbow, and Palace Malice made this the 17th time in the last 40 years that the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont produced different winners. In those 16 previous instances, the 3-year-old title went one of four ways with nearly identical frequency.

Three times, the Derby winner won the Eclipse Award (Spend a Buck in 1985, Unbridled in 1990, and Animal Kingdom in 2011); five times the Preakness winner was the champion (Snow Chief in 1986, Prairie Bayou in 1993, Bernardini in 2006, Curlin in 2007, and Lookin At Lucky in 2010); and four times it was the Belmont winner (Temperence Hill in 1980, Conquistador Cielo in 1982, A.P. Indy in 1992, and Summer Bird in 2009).

Four other times, the 3-year-old champion was a later bloomer who did not win one of the classics: Wajima in 1975, who missed the classics but then won four Grade 1’s including the Travers and Marlboro Cup; Slew o’ Gold in 1983, who was fourth in the Derby and second in the Belmont but won the Woodward and Jockey Club Gold Cup; Skip Away in 1996, beaten in all three classics but a subsequent winner of the Haskell and Gold Cup; and Tiznow in 2000, who didn’t make his stakes debut until July but finished his campaign winning the Super Derby, Goodwood, and Breeders’ Cup Classic.

So if you’re keeping score, that’s three titles for Derby winners, five for Preakness winners, and four apiece for Belmont winners and none-of-the-aboves. (Those 16 years also included three cases where a filly won a classic and was voted champion 3-year-old filly at year’s end – Genuine Risk (1980 Derby), Rachel Alexandra (2009 Preakness), and Rags to Riches (2007 Belmont).

If you had to give out the award today, Oxbow would probably deserve it off a Preakness win and a Belmont second and two out of three decisions over Orb; at least that was apparently the thinking of the 32 out of 47 voters who put Oxbow atop the division in the NTRA’s final weekly 3-year-old poll last Monday. Fortunately, there is no award for the first 23 weeks of the year and we’ll get to see how it plays out in the Haskell, Travers, and the fall races against older horses.

The other uncertainty midway through a year when the Crown gets carved up this way is how good a group it is. It is way too early to judge the crop, and everyone is still eligible to improve with age and racing, but it is equally premature to overrate these races on the basis of their entertainment value, as a headline writer at The New York Times did last week when opining “No Triple Crown, but Three Worthy Champions.”

Part of the problem with this pronouncement is the ongoing misuse of the word “Champion,” which in American Thoroughbred racing has only one correct meaning: the winner of an Eclipse Award as the best of his division. Orb, Oxbow, and Palace Malice are not champions, though one of them might be by season’s end. (If you want to blame someone for the devaluation of this word, look no further than the Breeders’ Cup, which insists on calling the winner of each of its races a champion, as in “Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf Champion.”)

The Times article under that headline likened this year’s trio of winners to the extraordinary class of 2007, when Street Sense, Curlin, and Rags to Riches shared the classics. All of them were indeed worthy champions – Street Sense was the 2006 champion 2-year-old, Rags to Riches the 2007 champion 3-year-old filly, and Curlin the champion 3-year-old (and Horse of the Year) that same year. Similarities to this year’s trio are, at this point, difficult to see.

In the 2007 Derby, Street Sense beat Hard Spun and Curlin and earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 110, which has not been matched since in the Derby. In the Preakness, Curlin caught him at the wire and the two earned Beyers of 111. In the Belmont, Rags to Riches held off Curlin in a race that earned a 107 with a final quarter in less than 24 seconds. This year, Orb’s Derby got a 104, Oxbow’s Preaknesss a 106, and Palace Malice’s Belmont, which came home in more than 27 seconds, got a 98.

This year’s classic winners have a ways to go to approach the quality of the class of 2007 – but with a title still to be claimed and plenty of decisive racing ahead, it’s going to be fun to see if they can.