Breeders' winners no sure bet to age well

Success in Juvenile doesn't guarantee success in 3-year-old races

October 22, 2002|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - You're going to hear a lot about age in these days leading to the 19th Breeders' Cup.

When the eight Breeders' Cup races take place Saturday at Arlington Park northwest of Chicago, you're going to hear about 3-year-olds taking on their elders in the highly competitive Breeders' Cup Distaff and the marquee Breeders' Cup Classic. You're also going to hear about the 2-year-olds, especially the colts, because they are racing's future stars.

And no star would shine brighter than the 2-year-old who wins the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and then comes back at 3 and wins the Kentucky Derby. No winner of the Juvenile in its 18 runnings has ever won the Derby. Few have run well in the Derby. Many don't even make the race.

Donna Ward, who with her husband, John, trains Sky Mesa, the probable favorite in this year's Juvenile, says she knows why. She says horses at this early stage are so vulnerable, so eager to please, their achieving ultimate success at 2 costs them in their quest (or, more to the point, their owners' and trainers' quest) for ultimate success at 3.

"Every single year, we ask more and more of these young horses," Donna Ward said. "They end up paying the price somewhere along the way. Maybe with winners of the Breeders' Cup, they've stretched the rubber band too tight."

The Wards trained Monarchos, who won the 2001 Kentucky Derby. He raced only twice in the fall as a 2-year-old because, Ward says, during the summer "he was like a big, dumb kid." Monarchos, the future star, finished eighth in his first race and third in his second. He was never considered for the Breeders' Cup.

Sky Mesa, on the other hand, raced twice in August and once this month, and he won each time. Ward says he is the most developed, the most advanced, of any 2-year-old she and her husband have trained.

"He may be big and strong and look mature," she said. "But all his joints and ligaments, everything within his body, are still that of a young horse. These 2-year-olds are babies, really. I think they're just like children.

"They're so eager to please. They'll do what you tell them. So you have to be careful not to ask them for too much. With Sky Mesa, it's kind of scary. Every time I've asked for something, he responds. Now, if we can survive this ... "

Because of the configuration of Arlington Park, the Breeders' Cup 2-year-old races will be contested at 1 1/8 miles for the first time. If they lasted their usual 1 1/16 miles, the start would have to occur on the clubhouse turn.

That additional sixteenth of a mile may not seem like much, but it puts a horse closer to the 1 1/4 miles of the Kentucky Derby. The winner of the Juvenile at 1 1/8 miles would seem a most worthy candidate for the Derby, assuming, as Ward said, the rubber band isn't stretched too tightly.

Several horses in the Juvenile - a full field of 14 is expected - will likely benefit from the extra distance, but none more than the Maryland colt Toccet. John Scanlan trains Toccet at Laurel Park.

"That really suits me just fine," Scanlan said of the Juvenile's 1 1/8 miles. "This son of a gun will run as far as they write the races. I can never get him tired. He's like the Energizer bunny. He just keeps going and going, and he's getting better and better."

After winning races in Maryland by 8 1/2 and 10 lengths, Toccet tried stakes company for the first time Oct. 5 at Belmont Park. He captured the Champagne Stakes, one of the country's premier races for 2-year-olds, by 1 1/2 lengths. It was Scanlan's first Grade I victory, and it thrust Toccet into that elite group of 2-year-olds with a legitimate chance of winning the Juvenile.

But like most of his competitors - or playmates, because they're all children - Toccet isn't sure yet what he's doing. Scanlan's assistant and Toccet's exercise rider, Petra Kappel, said the colt hasn't begun reaching his potential.

"I don't think he has any idea what he's accomplishing," Kappel said. "He looks left. He looks right. Not all his energy is focused on this one thing.

"It's like he'd rather be playing in a playpen. Or he'd rather be reading a comic book. That's why it's called a `Juvenile.' "

Facts and figures

What:Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships

When:Saturday

Where:Arlington Park, Arlington Heights, Ill.

TV:Chs. 11, 4, 1 p.m.

Feature race:$4 million Breeders' Cup Classic (post time 5:35 p.m.)

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