For as strong a year as Curlin had last year, his list of Triple Crown nominees for 2016 is quite short: just four.
Exaggerator (Dawn Raid, by Vindication) heads that list, and for good reason. The Keith Desormeaux trainee broke his maiden at second asking at Santa Anita last year, and then started dancing the big dances. He won the Saratoga Special (GII), posting a mature effort for a horse who was only starting for the third time. He stretched out to two turns for the first time in the Breeders’ Futurity (GI) at Keeneland; he struck the front late, but got a bit cocky and allowed Brody’s Cause to run him down. Exaggerator was a slightly disappointing fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, nailed for the show by old foe Brody’s Cause, but rebounded the next month. In his final juvenile start, Exaggerator found his gritty side. He did some of the front-end dirty work in the Delta Jackpot (GIII), but managed to outgame Sunny Ridge in the late stages to win by a neck.
Exaggerator is expected to return soon in California. Most of the discussion has suggested that he will return in the San Vicente (GIII), the same seven-furlong sprint race in which stablemate Texas Red made his three-year-old debut last year. That looks the most likely path. However, the Robert B. Lewis (GIII) is also coming up. By virtue of being nominated for the Santa Anita Derby, Exaggerator is nominated for the Lewis.
Among the other three nominees, only one has won so far: Walk Out (Cheryl’s Sister, by Dixieland Band). Walk Out raced three times as a juvenile, all at Indiana Grand, for trainer Steve Asmussen. His third start was his first try at two turns. He went a mile and seventy yards in the slop, in a race originally carded for turf. Walk Out overwhelmed the field. He made an eye-catching move from midpack, and drew off to win by fourteen and a quarter lengths. Walk Out made his three-year-old debut January 21 at Oaklawn, in a top-shelf route allowance. He finished fifth behind Cutacorner that day. He was closing ground late, but still well beaten by the top four. Perhaps he will be sharper second off the lay, though his class and his fast track form remain questions.
The other two Triple Crown nominees by Curlin have much in common. Each sold for six figures as a yearling. Each runs for by connections who saw Grade I success with a Curlin sophomore in 2016. Each has started just once, on the same day. And, each has much to prove.
All World (Marquet Rent, by Marquetry) is trained by Todd Pletcher and owned by Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners — the same team behind Curalina. (If the dam sounds familiar, that is because he is a full brother to Wood Machine.) All World debuted on December 26 in a maiden special weight dirt mile at Gulfstream. He was the Pletcher “B” entry that day. The Pletcher “A”, Rally Cry, cleared to win by three lengths, and returned to finish a troubled third behind buzz horse Shagaf in an allowance today. All World, on the other hand, lagged well behind the field throughout and came home a well-beaten tenth behind his stablemate. He has posted a pair of works since that race, but still needs to figure out maiden company before one can begin to think that he will advance toward the Triple Crown.
Curlin Rules (Awe That, by Boundary) races for team Stellar Wind: trainer John Sadler and owner Hronis Racing. He made his debut on December 26 as well, but clear across the country. He ran in a seven-furlong maiden special weight over the Santa Anita dirt. Danzing Candy ran away with the race that day, with Mr. Coker not too far behind. Though Curlin Rules came home 18 3/4 lengths beaten that day, he was less than five lengths out of third. He was still well beaten, but not quite as badly as the margin may first suggest. Furthermore, he should improve with more distance, and there is some chance that turf may end up his surface moreso than dirt.