For the last few weeks, in a hectic stretch of qualifying races akin to college basketball’s March Madness, the world's top thoroughbreds have battled to join an elite field that will run for the Triple Crown.
First stop on the trail is the Kentucky Derby on May 4. Then it’s on to the Preakness on May 18, and the Belmont Stakes on June 8.
No horse has won all three races since Affirmed in 1978, the longest such drought in history. Last year, I’ll Have Another came close, winning the Derby and Preakness before getting scratched from the Belmont with an injury.
Now speculation has begun about the 2013 crop of 3-year-olds: Do any have what it takes to capture horse racing’s ultimate prize?
The horse that has attracted the most buzz so far is Verrazano, named for the bridge that links Staten Island and Brooklyn. His trainer and owners kept him out of competition until January, an unorthodox strategy that has rarely produced a champion. But the colt has triumphed in all four of his races, including a triumph at the Wood Memorial on April 6 and an earlier win by more than 16 lengths at the Tampa Derby. His keepers say he’s capable of more extraordinary performances.
“The horses that look really special right now that could be superstars tend to be the undefeated horses,” said Steve Haskin, a senior correspondent at The Blood-Horse magazine.
That’s one of the reasons why Verrazano tops many lists. But there’s also something racing enthusiasts call “the Apollo curse,” named after the last horse to win the Derby despite never having raced as a 2-year old. That was in 1882, and Apollo's name has since been invoked as a warning against taking a similar risk.
Haskin pointed out another historical obstacle facing Verrazano. “Only two horses have won the Kentucky Derby with as few as four starts in the last 93 years,” he said. But those two horses, Animal Kingdom in 2011, and Big Brown in 2008, raced recently.
Another favorite is Orb, who as of mid-April was tied with Verrazano in a newly devised points system that will determine the Kentucky Derby lineup. Orb beat another Derby contender, Itsmyluckyday, in the Florida Derby. Behind Orb in the Road to the Kentucky Derby standings is Goldencents, part-owned by Louisville men's basketball coach Rick Pitino and trained by Doug O'Neill, who also handled I'll Have Another.
Also in the mix are Revolutionary, who shares a trainer, Todd Pletcher, with Verrazano, and who won the Louisiana Derby last week.
Pletcher could have as many as five horses running in the Derby. That list also includes Overanalyze, Palace Malice and Charming Kitten.
Other early favorites include Java's War, Oxbow and Vyjack, who was treated for respiratory problems in the weeks before the Derby.
But early is the key word in this discussion. Just because a horse has done well at this point in the season does not guarantee success in the Triple Crown races. And there are always horses who wait until late to establish themselves as serious contenders.
Case in point: I’ll Have Another. At this time a year ago, few casual racing fans had heard of him. He first caused a stir at the Santa Anita Derby a month before the 2012 Kentucky Derby. He ended up a near-legend.
“In many respects this is the most exciting time,” Eric Wing, a spokesman for the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, said. “From Jan. 1 on, it’s a big soap opera, with twists and new developments, ‘This horse looks good,’ and then, ‘Oh not so good,’ and then another horse emerges from nowhere.”
In other words, any one of them could end up a Triple Crown champion.