For the first few weeks of the NTRA three-year-old poll, Classic Empire sat atop. The first ballot came before the Holy Bull. After his flat third the Holy Bull, most voters dropped him from the top slot…but I kept him on top. Yes, Irish War Cry was sharp in victory, and McCraken picked right up where he left off when he won the Sam Davis. Even with these talented contenders, Classic Empire’s two-year-old year was so good that he deserved a mulligan.
But, word came out within the last week that his foot abscess hadn’t healed up yet, and Classic Empire would miss the Fountain of Youth as a result.
Was I willing to give him another one? I had to sleep on it.
It comes down to voting philosophy. And, for the three-year-old poll, the Triple Crown guides my voting. It’s not the only way to do it, of course — see, all the voters who have Unique Bella on their ballots. (I don’t; we’ll talk again when she faces males.)
For me, focusing on the Triple Crown turns the (inherently arbitrary) task of ranking three-year-olds into a more meaningful and manageable question.
Much of that outlook stems from timing. The timing of the poll is very Triple Crown-centric: it started in January, and runs through the Belmont Stakes. The end criteria is a putative 3yo champion — which, as best as one can tell in mid-June, ends up quite Triple Crown-centric.
The three-year-old turf season hasn’t gotten into full swing, except for a few early races like the American Turf. The sophomore stars of the sprint division are only beginning to arise by mid-June, with the running of the Woody Stephens.
And, even with these other divisions, the three-year-old male crown tends to focus on the dirt route division. Even when a champion did not win a Triple Crown race, he tends to be the horse who dethroned those Classic winners later in the year. Think Will Take Charge. Think Arrogate.
So, that’s the lens through which I looked back at Classic Empire: what do his chances in the Triple Crown races look like? Winning a Classic requires skill, speed, things he has when at his best. Even after one disappointing effort, he could rebound. But, after a disappointing effort and then a slightly-more-nagging-than-first-expected foot issue?
That complicates his path just a little too much to keep him at the top of my list, and I moved him to fourth this week. After all, winning a Classic not only requires being good enough — but being good enough at the right time.
Mark Casse and his team are some of the best in the game. If they’ve got the horse, they’ll find the right path to make them shine. They’re doing the best for Classic Empire by bypassing the Fountain of Youth and giving him the time to heal. But, it takes a special horse to parlay Plan B or Plan C into a Classic campaign…something Classic Empire will have to do in order to be the three-year-old frontrunner come mid-June.