Three-Year-Old Male Eclipse Award: What Now?
Three-Year-Old Male Eclipse Award: What Now? by Jordan Sigmon– Yes, it’s still early in the year, but after the 2016 Preakness Stakes, the 3YO male division needs to be sorted out a bit when it comes to the subject of Eclipse Award candidates. Exaggerator and Nyquist are the clear leaders, but the jury is still out on who will be the best come the end of the year. Then, there are several others that could make a case for themselves as the year goes on, such as Unified, Justin Squared, Gun Runner, and Mohaymen. Exaggerator’s stablemate Swipe could also make a strong case for himself once he gets back to the races.
Let’s look at Nyquist first. With a record of eight wins for nine starts, the Kentucky Derby winner is likely the top choice at this point. He’s run four times this year with three wins and a third in his most recent start. His three wins have come at three different tracks, in three different states, and at distances ranging from seven furlongs to 1¼ miles. The versatility he has displayed to be able to sprint as well as route successfully is not often seen these days. It’s possible that his loss in the Preakness was solely due to the opening quarter, though his ability to sustain speed in previous races and the amount he slowed down in the following two quarters of the Preakness suggests otherwise. The most likely conclusion is that after running a hard race in the Derby, he was just a tired horse and used what he had left in the tank much too early into the race. A run for redemption will have to wait as the colt will miss the Belmont Stakes with an elevated white blood cell count. Another possibility is that he peaked in the Derby, and now the others are getting better and either drawing even with him or getting better than him. That’s the possibility that I’m going with at this point. Maybe I’m wrong, but if I’m right, a second Eclipse Award may not be in the books for Nyquist.
On the other hand, Exaggerator looks like a horse that just keeps getting better and better with each race. Five for eleven lifetime with three seconds, a third, a fourth, and a fifth, the son of Curlin is as consistent and gutty as they come. It took him five tries to finally beat Nyquist, but when he finally did, he did so rather emphatically. You have to wonder if this is a colt who will only continue to improve, possibly even to the point where he towers over the rest of this three-year-old crop. He is versatile, he can run on any track condition, he can sprint, he can route – so far it seems like there is nothing that he cannot do. What sticks out about him is that all five of his wins have come at different tracks: two on a fast track, one on a muddy sealed track, and two on a sloppy track. All of these wins came at different distances, ranging from 5½ furlongs to 1-3/16 miles. If you are a numbers person, his Brisnet, Equibase, and Beyer speed figures are more consistent than those of any other horse in the crop. And, if you are one to follow speculations, check out his past performances. Though they do emulate his sire a little bit, there is another very talented, very famous horse that they look near identical to, that horse being Afleet Alex. Both had six starts as a 2YO, though Afleet Alex was a bit more brilliant. Both had brilliant 3YO debuts and puzzling second starts of the year. Both ran away from the field in their final Derby prep. Exaggerator was one better than Afleet Alex managed in the Derby, but they were defeated by very similar margins. Finally, both won the Preakness in their eleventh starts by very similar margins. Now, this could all just be a coincidence, but we all remember how good Afleet Alex was in the Belmont, so if this is not a coincidence, it is quite possible we are in for a special performance from Exaggerator there and for the rest of the year. At this point, he looks to me like the strongest candidate to finish up the year strongly and secure the Eclipse Award.
Unified is a newcomer to the 3YO picture. Brilliant as can be in three career starts, the potential for this colt seems unlimited. He probably does not want to go classic distances, but he is shaping up to be a good King’s Bishop and possibly Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile or Sprint horse. It will be interesting to see what Jimmy Jerkens does with him after his win in the Peter Pan. The Belmont seems like too much distance for him, so the obvious choice would be the Woody Stephens on the undercard, though it would be a nice little throwback to see him take on elders in the Met Mile. You have to question the quality of horses he’s been facing, even though he’s been beating them relatively easily. All that being said, it’s possible that this horse is just a freak and the best is yet to come from him. The Candy Rides typically only get better with age, so I expect he’ll make a strong case for 3YO Champion, but he may be overlooked due to the fact that he will likely be in sprints and mile races.
Justin Squared is in a very similar situation as Unified. Wickedly fast in three career starts, nothing has come close to even touching him so far. In all three races, he’s had one tactic: go to the lead and never look back. He emulates his sire Zensational, who was equally as fast and took three consecutive GI races in his 3YO season. Though he has yet to beat GI quality fields, the competition he’s been facing is no slouch. In his debut, he defeated multiple stakes winner Iron Rob, stakes-placed Lucky Bryan, and the late Arabian Leopard, who was only stakes-placed at the time but looked like a horse that was on his way to becoming a graded stakes winner in the future. In his 2016 debut, he defeated stakes winner Mrazek as well as American Pride and Seventh Sense, who have both been solid allowance horses on the Southern California circuit. Horses that have been running behind Justin Squared have also been coming back to run well, so one can only imagine that bigger and better things await him in the future.
Gun Runner, the third-place finisher from the Derby, has been managed throughout his 2YO and early 3YO campaign exceptionally by Steve Asmussen. The Candy Ride colt has four wins, a third, and a fourth from six career starts. Powerful open-length wins in a Maiden Special Weight at Churchill and an Allowance at Keeneland propelled him into graded stakes company. Returning to the site of his debut win, Gun Runner was fourth in the GII Kentucky Jockey Club, a race where he likely gained a lot of experience. In his 2016 debut, the GII Risen Star, he faced the 1st and 3rd place finishers from the Kentucky Jockey Club and was again sent off as the third choice. This time, however, it was his time to shine as he held off a furious late rally from 41-1 Forevamo to prevail by half a length. Many people were questioning how much further he would go after this races as it looked like he was laboring late, and he was heavily aided by the inside speed bias at Fairgrounds that day. Even with the graded stakes win under his belt, he still wasn’t the favorite in the GII Louisiana Derby. That title belonged to third-place Risen Star finisher Mo Tom, who had a horrendous trip and closed like a freight train to be beaten only 1½ lengths. Gun Runner proved to be far superior, winning by 4½ lengths, 6 lengths ahead of Mo Tom who could only manage 4th with another terrible trip. Going into the Derby, Gun Runner was by far one of the best looking horses when it came to how he was handling the surface. There were still some skeptics about his ability to handle the distance, and he was sent off as the third choice behind eventual winner and favorite Nyquist and Preakness winner Exaggerator. Given a masterful ride by Florent Geroux, Gun Runner looked every bit of the winner at the top of the stretch only to be passed by Nyquist and Exaggerator, though he did hang on for third by a desperate head. Asmussen elected to keep Gun Runner out of the remainder of the Triple Crown races and is pointing his talented runner to the Grade III Matt Winn as a prep race for the GI Haskell. It’s quite possible that he may turn out to be more of an 8-9 furlong horse, but with the way he’s been handled, he looks to have a very successful year ahead of him.
Mohaymen was the talk of the town going into the GI Florida Derby with many pegging him as the next Triple Crown winner as early as January. He was 5-5, he’d defeated every horse he’d faced with devastating ease, and as far as the eye could see, he was near invincible. But, another undefeated colt awaited him in the Florida Derby, that colt being none other than Nyquist. Nyquist was the undefeated Champion 2YO, yet Mohaymen was still sent off as the ⅘ favorite since nobody thought he could be beaten. It was not to be, however, as Mohaymen came home a disappointing fourth as Nyquist extended his unbeaten streak to seven. Was it the off track? Did Junior Alvarado move too early? Or, was he simply just not good enough? No one can quite say the exact reason for his poor showing that day, so most just hoped he had just had an off day and forgot about the race. Even the immortal Man o’War lost a race once. Sent off as the fourth choice in the Derby, Mohaymen was much further back early than he would normally be, something that often happens in a 20-horse field. He still ran a very strong race and only missed third by a head, displaying a tactic we had not yet seen from him, the ability to close. Mohaymen got some time off after the Derby and recently returned to Kiaran McLaughlin’s barn in New York to prepare for a summer campaign at Saratoga. His main targets at this point are the GII Jim Dandy, and the GI Travers. In the latter, it’s likely that he will face Preakness winner and Belmont favorite Exaggerator, as well as several other top colts. Mohaymen clearly has a lot of fight in him, and it’s hard to imagine him not having a successful year, but at this point, he’s a notch below the best.
At this point, the door is wide open for somebody to take the 3YO Male honors. Along with the six horses I mentioned above, there are several others that could pop up and make a case for themselves. Swipe has been on the sidelines most of the year and has every right to come back as one of the best. Bob Baffert has spoken very highly of Sir Barton winner American Freedom since his debut win. Sharp Azteca was sensational in the Pat Day Mile on Derby day and could very well be coming into his own. Not to forget about the turf horses, one of those could pop up as a dominant force, though so far, that division has yet to have a standout. Nyquist and Exaggerator are the clear leaders of the division right now, but as we know all too well, anything can happen in horse racing.
For more information on the Eclipse Awards, visit NTRA.com.