Judging the Three Year Old Crop After the Kentucky Derby and Before the Breeders’ Cup

October 27, 2019

Photo Credit: Courtney Snow

A few years ago I had a conversation with Mike Smith about judging and comparing horses from different eras. Different years even. When Mike and I were in agreement about this, I knew I was in good company, and we were likely right. Mike is not only a Hall of Fame rider and one of the best ever, but he is also the winningest jockey in Breeders’ Cup history. More relevant to the aforementioned conversation is the fact he has been given a leg up on some all time greats, going back many years and generations. Heck, he won the Kentucky Derby on the son of a horse he lost the Kentucky Derby on.

Our contention was you really can’t compare horses from different years or generations if they have not faced each other on the racetrack. Resumes are one thing, lining them up in the gate another. Horses are competitive athletes. As such they often run to their competition. You just don’t know how two horses, or athletes will react and perform until they are in the ring, on the court, in the field, or in the gate together. You may think you do, but in reality you don’t.

What does this have to do with all the “this is a terrible crop of three-year old statements we hear”? I’ll get to that.

Mike Tyson in his prime was just about the most devastating heavyweight fighter we have seen. At that point in his career I can’t think of any fighter I think would have beaten him in the ring. When you look closely at it however, he was not knocking out boxers of the caliber Ali was, guys like Joe Louis was, pugilists like George Foreman, Ken Norton, Joe Frazier, Max Dempsey. He was knocking out guys who literally looked scared in the ring before they even touched gloves.

“He knocked one guy out three times with one punch.”

Nonetheless he is still considered by many to have been one of the best.

Tom Brady is considered the “GOAT” of quarterbacks, and it is hard to argue that is wrong. He has surpassed guys like Joe Montana, John Elway, Johnny Unitas and all the rest. He may be the “GOAT” or greatest of all time but do any of you think or believe he would even be able to get up and finish a game, let alone complete a pass, after taking some of the direct line drive shots to the knees by guys like Deacon Jones, Merlin Olsen, Mike Curtis, and Dick Butkus like Joe Namath did regularly?

Different eras and generations yield different competition, rules, and even speed and pace at which sports are contested. Comparing those who competed in their time to those who competed in different times is fun, interesting, makes for good conversation, but at the end of the day is probably meaningless as to who was better.

This year we had three different horses win the three triple crown races, the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes. Before they even ran for the roses, you heard people stating how weak or poor this crop of three-year olds was. They may think they know, but they don’t.

Judging a three year old crop around the time of the Kentucky Derby is like betting a race without past performances. There is a lot more racing left to do including the year end Breeders’ Cup Championships. Further, who are they comparing the crop to in order to determine how good or bad it is? Crops from other eras or generations? Last I checked, a racehorse can only beat who is in the gate with them. Zenyatta didn’t beat anybody you’ll hear. I don’t know, it looks to me like she beat anyone they put in the gate with her except Blame and I am not sure if they ran that race 100 times she would not win 90 of them. Ruffian may be the best racehorse we ever saw, she didn’t beat much either.

My point is comparing and contrasting horses who have never raced each other is speculative, not definitive. It is all our respective opinions. It is the same with labeling a crop good or bad. Sure some crops wind up producing more accomplished runners resume wise, or more productive horses numbers wise, but are they really better? Can you say a horse from one of those less productive crops on paper would not draw away from the best one in the so called good crop? You may think you can, but that is why they run the race isn’t it?

“They” said it around Kentucky Derby time, and ” they” are saying it more now. This is a weak crop.

You have Code of Honor, a three year old in the Breeders’ Cup Classic with a shot at Horse of the Year should he win it. He has already won the Travers, and Jockey Club Gold Cup and may have won the Derby if it didn’t rain. War of Will, the Preakness is in the Breeders’ Cup Classic as is Math Wizard, the Pennsylvania Derby winner. Had Maximum Security not nearly died from a bad bout with Colic, he would have probably been in there too, making four three year olds in the Classic. Instead, he had to go easy and just beat older horses in a blistering 7 furlongs in the Bold Ruler at Belmont.

Weak crop they say.

Omaha Beach is in the Breeders’ Cup Mile, if not for an entrapped epiglottis he may have been in the Classic, that would have been an unprecedented five three-year olds in the big dance.

Weak crop, sure it is.

Improbable, Mr. Money, Hog Creek Hustle, Legends of War, Stubbins, and Spun to Run are all three year olds scheduled to run in Breeders’ Cup races. Had Bob Baffert elected to put Improbable in the Classic as opposed to the Mile, you’d have six horses from this weak crop in the biggest race of the year.

Bellafina, Covfefe, and Serengeti Empress, along with Dunbar Road are all three year old fillies competing in Breeders’ Cup races.

I am not so fast to label a crop weak, strong, or otherwise. This crop is doing a lot of good racing late in the year. How history will judge them remains to be seen. Calling them weak now is premature.

Nothing premature is ever good is it?

Contributing Authors

Jon Stettin

Jonathan’s always had a deep love and respect for the Sport of Kings. Growing up around the game, he came about as close as anyone...

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@jonathanstettin Thank you. This is a truly beautiful tribute to a racing legend. Good to hear the true story of what happened that day.

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