A dearth of proven star power among the older horses and a 3-year-old division lacking clarity makes that question difficult to answer. But as we prepare to enter the second half of the 2019 racing season, here’s how I rank some of the top contenders for the 1 1/4-mile Classic.
Last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic third-place finisher remains in great form, as evidenced by the way he trounced some of the best North American older horses in the Dubai World Cup (G1) two months ago. Thunder Snow’s connections plan to race him extensively in the U.S. this summer, with the June 8 Metropolitan Handicap (G1) a possible starting point. One thing is certain; Thunder Snow relishes running 1 1/4 miles, which isn’t something every horse can boast.
He’s 2-for-2 since being transferred to the care of trainer John Sadler. He upset Battle of Midway in the San Antonio Stakes (G2) and edged McKinzie by a nose in the Santa Anita Handicap (G1). The latter race was 1 1/4 miles and Gift Box rattled off one :24-and-change quarter after another over a slow and tiring track, so stamina isn’t a question mark for this improving 6-year-old.
He ran just as well as Gift Box in the Santa Anita Handicap and came back to crush a quality field in the 1 1/16-mile Alysheba Stakes (G2) at Churchill Downs, where he unleashed a powerful burst of speed in the homestretch (he ran the final five-sixteenths of a mile in a sensational :29 1/5) to win by 4 3/4 lengths with a 109 Beyer. But so far McKinzie’s brilliance has been most evident in shorter races, and despite his noble effort in the Santa Anita Handicap, I wonder if he might be more comfortable running a furlong or two shorter.
Although he’s been forced to skip the Triple Crown races because of an entrapped epiglottis, Omaha Beach remains one of the most promising colts in the 3-year-old division. He certainly dismissed Kentucky Derby (G1) favorite Improbable and the eventual Kentucky Derby winner Country House easily enough in the Arkansas Derby (G1). If he comes back as good as he left off, Omaha Beach should be a big factor throughout the summer and fall.
A grade 1 winner on both dirt and turf, Catholic Boy kicked off his season with a hard-fought win in the Dixie Stakes (G2) over the grass course at Pimlico, which should serve as a perfect prep for the 1 1/4-mile Suburban Stakes (G2) July 6 at Belmont Park. Since Catholic Boy has already won two grade 1 races going 1 1/4 miles, the distance shouldn’t be an issue.
His Kentucky Derby disqualification aside, no horse has ever beaten Maximum Security to the finish line, and he’s already fired off three triple-digit Beyer speed figures this year. He reportedly came out of the Derby a little worse for wear and is skipping the remainder of the Triple Crown, but the July 20 Haskell Invitational (G1) at Monmouth Park has been named as his next major target. A victory there would reiterate his position as the leader of the 3-year-old division.
War of Will
He bounced back from his troubled trips in the Louisiana Derby (G2) and Kentucky Derby to score by 1 1/4 lengths in the Preakness Stakes (G1), where he relaxed beautifully inside and behind horses before rallying smartly up the rail to prevail. The 99 Beyer he received might be a little on the light side, but he’s got plenty of time to strengthen his speed figure credentials as he matures during the summer.
He doesn’t win very often, and hasn’t won at the graded stakes level since March of 2017, but Gunnevera has made a habit of picking up the pieces in grade 1 races. He can also hold his own against top company going 1 1/4 miles, as he demonstrated when running second in the 2018 Breeders’ Cup Classic. Gunnevera was last seen rallying to finish third behind Thunder Snow in the Dubai World Cup and figures to be ready to roll again sometime in August, with an eye on a fall campaign and a return to the Breeders’ Cup.
Last year’s champion 2-year-old was compromised at the start of the Kentucky Derby
and subsequently endured an impossibly wide trip on his way to crossing the wire sixth, beaten 3 3/4 lengths. According to data from Trakus, Game Winner ran more than a dozen lengths farther than Maximum Security, so if this mid-pack grinder can ever work out a clean, ground-saving trip, he might yet return to the top of his division.
This stoutly bred son of Curlin took a nice step forward in the Peter Pan Stakes (G2) at Belmont, where he clocked 1 1/8 miles in 1:46.71 to earn a 101 Beyer. He managed to finish the final three furlongs in :36.55 after tracking an opening half-mile in :46 flat, an eye-catching achievement, so if you’re looking for an up-and-coming colt who could make a lot of noise during the second half of the season, Global Campaign is one to watch.