The best racing action is still to come
Another year has passed, and another year has gone by without a Triple Crown.
But do not despair. There is more to horse racing than just the Triple Crown. As the dust settles from the Belmont Stakes, the excitement is just beginning in the Sport of Kings.
In bucolic Saratoga Springs, the next generation of Triple Crown hopefuls is learning the ropes as they prepare for their two-year-old debuts. On the West Coast, some of the nation's top older horses are revving up for the Pacific Classic, a marquee race held where the surf meets the turf at Del Mar.
And those three-year-olds who thrilled us throughout the Triple Crown season? They will reappear at Saratoga in the Travers Stakes to decide once and for all who the best of the best really is.
Read on and find out why this is going to be an exciting summer to be a racing fan.
Animal Kingdom will try for the Derby/World Cup/Royal Ascot trifecta.
In 2011, Animal Kingdom pulled the upset in the Kentucky Derby and, after losing the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, looked to be heading toward a career of mediocrity.
Getting sidelined with an injury turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to him. He came back more mature and stronger than ever the following February and demolished an allowance field at Gulfstream Park. Unfortunately, he went back to the shelf with injury again.
At that point, most horses would have been whisked to the breeding shed. His trainer, Graham Motion, and owner, Barry Irwin, kept the faith and brought him back in November for the daunting task of competing in the Breeders' Cup Mile off of a nine-month layoff.
While he did not win, his runner-up finish solidified his status as a top racehorse and proved his Kentucky Derby win was not a fluke.
The story did not end there. After one race this February, he boarded a plane to the United Arab Emirates and won the $10 million Dubai World Cup, etching himself a place in history.
On June 18, his world travels continue. He will compete in the Queen Anne Stakes (G1) at Royal Ascot and become the first Kentucky Derby winner to do so since Omaha in 1936.
That will be the final race of his career, which has been a testament to trainer Graham Motion's skills and perseverance to be able to repeatedly bring him back after injury.
Veteran jockey Gary Stevens pulled a Brett Favre-esque move when he announced suddenly this winter that he would be coming out of retirement after a seven-year hiatus.
The Hall of Fame jockey had hardly spent the past seven years idle. After several promising roles as an actor alongside a budding television career as an analyst, Stevens had stayed busy. But talking about racing just was not the same as being in the saddle—and the siren song drove him back to the track.
His spring had a storybook quality to it as he continued to find his rhythm, racking up the victories in California before getting what he came out of retirement for—a victory in a Triple Crown race.
When he teamed up with fellow old-timer D. Wayne Lukas to win the Preakness with Oxbow in what was a masterful display of strategic race riding, it seemed like he had reached the peak of the mountaintop.
As the year progresses, will he remain at the top of his game? And more importantly, at 50 years old, he is more than twice the age of many of his rival jockeys. How long can he keep it up?
One of the biggest problems racing fans encounter is that it becomes impossible to follow stars for too long before they are gone to the greener pastures of the breeding shed to fuel the lucrative breeding industry.
Some of the sport's greatest warriors, the ones that last for years for fans to enjoy, are geldings. They have no value as breeding stock, so their shots at greatness start and end on the racetrack. Throughout racing history, there have been truly great geldings like John Henry, Kelso, Funny Cide and, in recent years, Lava Man.
Wise Dan, the reigning Horse of the Year, is trying to join those elite ranks with another award-winning season. After annihilating two Grade 1 fields so far this year, this modestly bred gelding is heading back to Churchill Downs for the Firecracker Handicap on June 29 and will continue his quest for racing domination.
He is truly a force to watch as he visibly toys with his rivals, shattering track records in his wake.
The great Zenyatta
Remember Zenyatta? To jog your memory, she was the physically imposing mare who gained national attention after winning two Breeders' Cup races, including a historic win against male rivals in the Classic before suffering the lone defeat of her 20-race career by a head in her attempt at back-to-back Classics.
Regardless of that loss, she went down in the history books as one of the greatest horses of contemporary times, possibly even of all time. Her last-to-first style left fans on the edge of their seats as she won race after race.
Now she is retired, and her oldest foal, Cozmic One, is still a year away from beginning his career. In the meantime, fans can follow her promising younger sister, Eblouissante.
While at this point Eblouissante has some mighty horse shoes to fill, she is undefeated from two starts, and her come-from-behind running style and dominant stature cannot help but inspire memories of her brilliant sister.
She could be a star on the rise. Currently based in New York with Zenyatta's trainer, John Shirreffs, she is pointing toward a stakes debut this summer.
Hollywood Park will be gone for good.
It was announced in May that after a rich 75-year history, Hollywood Park would close its doors for good in December of this year.
After being home to some of the greatest moments in racing lore, including the inaugural Breeders' Cup in 1984, the track is to be developed for commercial and residential uses. To a racing fan, that is the equivalent of leveling Dodger Stadium and turning it into a Wal-Mart.
Enjoy this season at Hollywood, featuring Grade 1 races with deep history, like the Hollywood Gold Cup, the Shoemaker Mile and the American Oaks being run for the final time.
Though the Triple Crown has ended, the battle for supremacy among the three-year-olds will continue into the summer with races like the Haskell Invitational and the "Midsummer Derby," the Travers Stakes.
Some familiar names from the Triple Crown will be back in action along with plenty of new faces. Often, because horses in this age group can vary so much developmentally, the marquee summer races will showcase some seriously talented horses that were late bloomers.
Kentucky Derby also-rans such as Verrazano and Normandy Invasion opted to skip the Preakness and Belmont Stakes and instead rest and regroup in hopes of a strong second half of the season. The Travers and Haskell are chances for these horses to make names for themselves beyond the Triple Crown.
At this point, the Eclipse Award for champion three-year-old is still largely up in the air, and the outcome of the Haskell and Travers may have a lot of say in who takes home the coveted title as Orb, Oxbow and Palace Malice will head toward a much-anticipated rematch.
From coast to coast, the top older horses are in contention for the title of champion older male. With no massive standout, it is a division ripe with intrigue and full of talented contenders.
The West Coast division is led by Game On Dude, fresh off of a gallant victory in the $1.5 million Charles Town Classic. A perfect three-for-three this year, the Dude is on track to try to avenge his disappointing seventh-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Classic at his home track of Santa Anita last year.
His greatest rival out West may actually share a barn with him. Liaison, an also-ran from last year's Triple Crown season, has matured into a force to be reckoned with for trainer Bob Baffert and is improving with each start.
In Kentucky, Take Charge Indy (the older brother of Will Take Charge, who competed in the Triple Crown series) has returned from an injury suffered in last year's Kentucky Derby and is steadily carving a name for himself. He will likely take on Wise Dan's older brother, Successful Dan, in a much-anticipated match in the Stephen Foster Handicap on June 15.
Paynter, second in the 2012 Belmont .
Last summer, Paynter was a very sick horse.
Shortly after a triumphant victory in the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park, the talented colt became seriously ill. He developed colitis, which is a potentially life threatening affliction. Even worse, he began to display early signs of laminitis, the same disease that ultimately took the life of champion Barbaro.
Against all odds, Paynter showed the same tenacity he displayed on the racetrack and battled back. His connections, Zayat Stables, refused to give up on the colt, and, miraculously, he recovered.
He returned to the care of Bob Baffert at the end of the year and began his slow journey back to the races. Since his return, his workouts have gotten stronger and faster, and he is growing close to his comeback race.
While he has nothing left to prove on the racetrack, his comeback story is one for the ages.
Horse racing's next star could appear at any time.
Every great champion has to start somewhere. By closely following the two-year-old maiden races over the summer, particularly at Saratoga and Del Mar, you can witness the next potential superstar from the very beginning.
With every impressive two-year-old debut, a trainer begins smelling roses. Everyone with a promising juvenile hopes that this is the horse that will live up to his potential and continue to progress all the way until the first Saturday in May.
While it is a long way off, it never hurts to start scouting early. Todd Pletcher, Bob Baffert and other big-name trainers have an arsenal of new prospects ready to be unveiled.