By Gene Kershner
We’re 15 days away from the final jewel of the Triple Crown, and for the first time since 2008, we will have an attempt by I’ll Have Another to sweep thoroughbred racing’s three classic races. The contenders are starting to line up to become the latest spoiler of Triple Crown glory. I’ll Have Another will be the 12th horse since Affirmed captured the Triple Crown in 1978 after beating his rival Alydar for the third straight time.
Let’s take an early look at the contenders and start weighing in on each horse’s chances to knock off the Flower Alley colt on June 9.
Alpha. The Bernardini colt finished in 12th in the Kentucky Derby at 19-1 odds after breaking awkwardly, and never was a factor in the race. He has three firsts and two seconds on New York tracks, including a second place finish in the Grade 1 Champagne last year at Belmont behind Union Rags. Ramon Dominguez will ride for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. From a pedigree standpoint, Alpha has the bloodlines to handle the Test of a Champion. His sire, Bernardini won the Grade 1 Preakness and Jockey Club Gold Cup (at Belmont) and his sire, A.P. Indy won the Belmont Stakes.
Alpha’s female family has just as prestigious qualifications. His broodmare sire Nijinsky II is the most recent horse to win the English Triple Crown: the Two Thousand Guineas at a mile, the Epsom Derby at 12 furlongs, and the St. Leger at 14 furlongs. Alpha’s dam, Munnaya, won only one time in four starts, but it was in a listed stake at 11½ furlongs. Spoiler Possibility: High.
Atigun. He comes out of a win in a Churchill allowance race for trainer Kenny McPeek. In 2002, McPeek’s Sarava upset War Emblem’s chances at a Triple Crown, so he will be trying to knock off another hopeful, 10 years later. Passed a number of rivals late in the Arkansas Derby, but still finished over 11 lengths behind the victorious Bodemeister. Nothing thrilling in his pedigree, his sire Istan won nine of 21 career races, the best being two, Grade 3 wins. His grandsire, Gone West, had some success on the Belmont track, but nothing that would suggest he will handle the 12-furlong Belmont distance without issue. Spoiler Possibility: Lukewarm.
Dullahan. The third place finisher of the Kentucky Derby was flying late and will come in with 5 weeks rest off the Derby effort. Posted a solid 5-furlong workout at Churchill on Preakness day and is the horse most pundits are pegging as the main threat to I’ll Have Another. His route to the Derby was almost identical to that of the great turf horse, Paddy O’Prado, via the Palm Beach Stakes on the turf to the Blue Grass on the poly at Keeneland. His half-brother, Mine That Bird won the Derby and finished third in the Belmont, mainly because jockey Calvin Borel moved him way too soon.
Dullahan is from the fourth crop of Even the Score, son of Unbridled’s Song, who won the Grade 2 Californian Stakes (nine furlongs) and finished third in the Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup (10 furlongs) at 5. Mining My Own, the dam of Dullahan, is an unraced daughter of Smart Strike, who was the dam of Curlin who won the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Classic, the Dubai World Cup (UAE-I), and the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup Stakes, all at 10 furlongs. He also lost by a head to Rags to Riches in the 2006 Belmont Stakes in a classic stretch duel. Spoiler Possibility: High.
Five Sixteen. A long shot contender sired by the Breeders’ Cup champion, Invasor. Rosie Napravnik gets the call to ride, after it appears her original mount Mark Valeski will pass on the race. Highest Beyer speed figure is 31 points less than I’ll Have Another’s Preakness fig. Spoiler Possibility: Non-Existent.
Guyana Star Dweej. In his nine race career, he has never run 9 furlongs, let alone 12 furlongs. His sire, Eddington ran in the Belmont against Smarty Jones and was pushing the pace that day, but faded. It took him eight races to break his maiden. He appears to be overmatched at first glance. Spoiler Possibility: Low.
Optimizer. Certainly has the breeding to run all day, being by distance specialist English Channel. His dam sire is A.P. Indy, winner of the Belmont. He just hasn’t proven that he can get it done in his last two efforts on the Triple Crown trail. Has shown flashes (see Rebel Stakes) of brilliance, but has been mostly inconsistent. He could pop one on everyone, but not sure I’d count on it. Spoiler Possibility: Medium.
Paynter. Wouldn’t it be something if Baffert ended up ruining I’ll Have Another’s Triple Crown hopes after two devastating losses from Bodemeister? This one was uber-sensational on the Preakness undercard running away with an allowance race by street blocks. Mike Smith will get the ride and his third shot at his nemesis. His sire, Awesome Again won at classic distances winning the Travers, Breeders’ Cup Classic, Foster, Whitney and the Hawthorne Gold Cup, so the distance shouldn’t be an issue. His dam, Tizso, is well-bred and is a full sister to Tiznow, who won the Breeders’ Cup Classic (once at Belmont) twice. Spoiler Possibility: High
Rousing Sermon. The Lucky Pulpit colt finished eighth in the Derby after taking back at the start of the race and made up several lengths but never threatened the leaders. Another California horse that looks to be better suited at 9-furlongs. Good chance he’ll be a buzz horse due to his closing style, which isn’t always the way the Belmont is won. He has a relatively new sire, with only two starters out of mares by Deputy Minister-line stallions. Spoiler Possibility: Lukewarm.
Street Life. Both his sire (Street Sense) and dam sire (Grindstone) were Derby winners and his grand sire, Street Cry (IRE) was a $5 million earner and won the Dubai World Cup. He finished third in the Grade 2 Peter Pan, so he does have a trip over the track. The Chad Brown colt could be a factor if he stays close to the pace, and this is a race where anything can happen. Spoiler Possibility: Medium high.
Union Rags. The current buzz horse on the interwebs is Union Rags. He had the nightmare trip in the Derby and recovered to seventh. He gets Johnny Velazquez in the irons, replacing Julien Leparoux and five weeks rest to take aim at the Triple Crown contender. His sire, Dixie Union won the Grade 1 Haskell, and excelled at shorter distances. Will have his word cut out for him at 1 ½ miles. He is an imposing physical specimen that hasn’t lived up to his 2-year-old hype. Will this be the race where he shows his class? Spoiler Possibility: Medium.
Unstoppable U. The Exchange Rate colt has only two lifetime starts to his resume. He won an optional claimer at Belmont and trainer McPeek will be taking a big shot with this one. His sire was more of a miler, but his damsire Point Given did win the Belmont. It is certainly a big step up in class with Junior Alvarado in the irons. Spoiler Possibility: Lukewarm.
Gene Kershner is a Buffalo-based turf writer and handicapper who blogs at equispace.blogspot.com and tweets @EquiSpace.