The annual denigration of thoroughbred racing's 3-year-old class has become as much of a Triple Crown tradition recently as the singing of My Old Kentucky Home before the Kentucky Derby. It happened in 2009 after 50--1 long shot Mine That Bird pulled off the miracle in the mud at Churchill Downs, and it returned last year when lightly regarded Super Saver won the Run for the Roses in May, then retired in October after just three more starts, none of them victories.
This spring the outcry from critics has been deafening. Their arguments are impossible to dismiss: The 2011 3-year-old crop is not deep with talent, its races have been slow and its best horses are mostly unaccomplished. This was made clear last Saturday in New York after Ruler On Ice, a 24--1 long shot who had won only once since October (an allowance race, no less), splashed his way to an upset victory in a sloppy Belmont Stakes, as Preakness winner Shackleford and Derby winner Animal Kingdom toiled to fifth- and sixth-place finishes, respectively.
But those who have already passed judgment on this 3-year-old class should be careful. While their critiques may eventually prove true, it's much too soon to label this class a bust. "Give them a chance," says Graham Motion, trainer of Animal Kingdom. "I think Shackleford is a special horse. I think my horse is going to be a special horse down the road."
Motion is far from a neutral observer, but Animal Kingdom, who won the Derby with authority and just missed winning the Preakness, may well emerge as a dominant four-legged figure this year. His schedule will include graded stakes races on the grass (a natural for his turf-heavy pedigree) and the dirt, including the Breeders' Cup Classic. It would be impossible for critics to deny his class if he showed the versatility to win on both surfaces at such a high level. He had no chance in the Belmont after he clipped heels with Mucho Macho Man 50 yards into the race and nearly fell to his knees.
Preakness champ Shackleford, who already has shown a remarkable ability to outrun his speedy pedigree, should be even more formidable when he returns to races of nine furlongs or shorter. The summer will also see the return of several talented horses that missed the Triple Crown because of injury, including scintillating sprinter The Factor, the strapping colt To Honor and Serve and trainer Todd Pletcher's Uncle Mo, the reigning 2-year-old champion. If any of them can return to their previous form, it would add intrigue to a racing season that's been short of it so far.
"I think these are tough horses," says Kelly Breen, the trainer of Ruler On Ice, "and they'll prove it when they get to race in the fall."
Now on Twitter
Follow @SITimLayden for horse racing news, live updates and opinion.
Three to Watch
These summer races may help reveal the quality of this year's 3-year-olds.
Belmont-winning trainer Kelly Breen is based at New Jersey's Monmouth Park, making this 11/8-mile Grade I on July 31 a logical spot for the return of Ruler On Ice—or his stablemate, Pants On Fire, the winner of the Louisiana Derby.
Animal Kingdom's connections, trainer Graham Motion and owner Barry Irwin, might still run their colt in the Travers at Saratoga on Aug. 27. But they're considering this Aug. 13 grass race at Chicago's Arlington Park—or even the Arlington Million, also over grass, on the same day.
King's Bishop Stakes
If all goes perfectly with Uncle Mo's recovery from an inflamed liver, the juvenile champion might make his return in this seven-furlong Grade I at Saratoga on Aug. 27.
BRIGHT SPOT Running with leader Shackleford (right, blue cap), Ruler On Ice (center, orange cap) bounded clear of his muddy rivals, including Animal Kingdom (inset).