Last Saturday's Belmont S. (G1) marked the virtual end of the first half of the three-year-old season, but there is little time to catch the collective breath as a potentially exciting second half will already be in full swing this weekend.
Kentucky Derby (G1) winner Nyquist, who was forced to skip the Belmont after falling ill after the Preakness (G1), returned to the worktab Friday morning for the first time since the Baltimore classic. Trainer Doug O'Neill's juvenile champion was timed in :48.60 for a half-mile over a fast track at Santa Anita.
O'Neill has several options in mind for Nyquist's comeback, but the $1 million Haskell Invitational (G1) at Monmouth Park on July 31 has been one of the more popular return spots for Triple Crown veterans in recent years, American Pharoah being a prime example last year.
The first post-Triple Crown graded stakes for three-year-olds this weekend both feature potential candidates for the Haskell. Gun Runner, the TwinSpires.com Louisiana Derby (G2) and Risen Star (G2) winner, figures to be an overwhelming favorite in the 1 1/16-mile Matt Winn (G3) at Churchill Downs in his first start since running third in the Kentucky Derby. On Sunday at Monmouth, the unbeaten Unified, from the barn of trainer Jimmy Jerkens, headlines the $150,000 Pegasus (G3), a 1 1/16-mile local prep for the Haskell. Unified is three-for-three on the year with victories in the Peter Pan (G2) and Bay Shore (G3) in his past two starts.
Unlike last year, when American Pharoah had sewn up championship honors with his Triple Crown sweep, the three-year-old title is presently up for grabs as the "second season" commences. Nyquist, by virtue of his wins in the Kentucky Derby and Florida Derby (G1), and his brave third in the Preakness after setting a record early pace, remains the pro tem leader in light of Preakness winner Exaggerator's flop in last week's Belmont.
Nyquist, Exaggerator, and Belmont winner Creator each have a pair of Grade 1 victories to their credit this season and are the three main contenders for division title honors as we head deeper into the summer. The latter two both have the $1.25 million Travers (G1) at Saratoga on August 27 as their primary summer goal, with Exaggerator, and possibly Creator, likely to use the $600,000 Jim Dandy (G2) on July 30 as a springboard to the 1 1/4-mile "Midsummer Derby."
There are plenty of other lucrative three-year-old stakes preceding the Travers. The $500,000 Ohio Derby at Thistledown on June 25 is expected to mark the return of the hard-luck Mo Tom, who captured the Lecomte (G3) before troubled trips in the Risen Star and Louisiana Derby and an eighth-place finish in the Kentucky Derby.
Other Midwest races scheduled close together are the $250,000 Iowa Derby (G3) at Prairie Meadows on July 1 and the $500,000 Indiana Derby (G2) at Indiana Grand on July 16. There's also the $500,000 Dwyer (G3) over a mile at Belmont Park on July 9 and the $750,000 West Virginia Derby (G2) at Mountaineer on August 7. Unfortunately, cannibalization is inevitable with so many of these being run so close together, but some or all are sure to include horses ultimately bound for the Haskell and/or Travers.
Finding out who's best isn't always determined in the five weeks surrounding the classics. This year is one of those where what happens in the second season might matter just as much as what happened in the first. Stay tuned!