Even though there is no 3-year-old in America that could properly be called a superstar yet, racing fans already are beginning to savor the dramatic possibilities of the 1991 Triple Crown campaign.
The spring classics easily could produce a memorable East vs. West confrontation, reminiscent of the year when the Easy Goer-Sunday Silence duels polarized the country. And the same races also could produce a battle of the sexes and a national heroine comparable to Genuine Risk or Winning Colors.
Easterners may now be aware of only two of the major candidates for the Triple Crown: Fly So Free, the champion 2-year-old colt of last season, and Meadow Star, the undefeated 2-year-old filly champion. But few people in the East knew about Sunday Silence, Winning Colors, Alysheba or Ferdinand while they were launching their careers in California.
Their victories in the Kentucky Derby demonstrated that America's best racehorses are most likely to be found in the West.
So each spring I ask Jeff Siegel, editor of the Handicapper's Report and an astute student of the game in California, for his assessment of the West Coast's Kentucky Derby candidates. Each spring he is fairly cautious in his assessments; he is no California chauvinist.
But this week he said flatly: "We are absolutely loaded this year. We haven't had so many good 3 year olds in one crop in the last 10 years."
The ranks of contenders for the Derby are deep, but here is my short list of top candidates for success in the classics.
--Meadow Star is almost certain to become the most famous racehorse in America in the next few weeks, although it is uncertain whether she will deserve this celebrity status. Last year, she won all seven of her races by a combined 36 lengths, but she was dominating a very weak crop of 2 year old fillies.
She will start her 1991 campaign this week by crushing other members of her sex, who can't offer her any meaningful competition. But can she beat top-class colts? It is a rare female who can defeat her male counterparts in the spring -- when males seem to spurt ahead in physical development -- and trainer LeRoy Jolley knows this.
He is going to evaluate Meadow Star race by race before committing himself to running her in the Kentucky Derby. It will be a dramatic story if Meadow Star tries and succeeds. The lessons of history say the odds are against her.
--Fly So Free may lack Meadow Star's charisma, and he never has run a race that has been dazzlingly brilliant, but he has a solid set of credentials that make him Las Vegas's early favorite for the Kentucky Derby.
He proved his class and his distance-running ability when he won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last fall. He has started his 3 year old campaign by winning two stakes at Gulfstream Park, and he will be odds-on to capture the Florida Derby March 16. He has an astute, experienced trainer, Scotty Schulhofer, who should have him ready to deliver a peak effort on the first Saturday in May.
--Dinard made his racing debut in late December, and on Saturday he scored his first major stakes victory at Santa Anita. Although he is relatively inexperienced, he already has run faster -- from the viewpoint of speed handicappers -- than Fly So Free has done in the best race of his career.
The gelding has a solid pedigree that suggests he will improve at longer distances, and an excellent trainer in Richard Lundy. He could plausibly be considered the No. 1 contender for the Derby.
--Split Run has raced only twice in his career, and so he must play a tough game of catch-up to be ready for the spring classics. But those two races have been dazzling -- a six-length victory in a maiden race followed by a 12-length romp in an allowance race. "He didn't beat much," Siegel said, "but he did it like a champion. He looks like the real thing." And in my system of speed figures, Split Run's allowance victory was the best single performance by a member of his equine generation.
--Compelling Sound, like Split Run, may be hindered by his inexperience; he has raced only twice and won only a maiden race. But he has one great asset to offset this disadvantage: He is trained by Charlie Whittingham, America's master horseman.
Whittingham used to disdain the Kentucky Derby, but since he became stricken with Derby fever in 1986, he has won America's greatest race twice (with Ferdinand and Sunday Silence) and he always seems to be a factor in major 3-year-old races. Compelling Sound, a son of Seattle Slew who has been impressive in both his starts at Santa Anita, appears to be his top candidate this year.
There are plenty of other colts who could establish themselves as leading 3 year olds this spring: Jackie Wackie, the winner of eight straight races in Florida; Best Pal, who finished only a nose behind Dinard at Santa Anita last weekend; Take Me Out, the second-place finisher in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile; and General Meeting, another solid California distance runner.
While it is far too early to make predictions about the Triple Crown races, it seems safe to predict that they are going to be filled with drama.