When Ghostzapper won the American Horse of the Year title in 2004, he did so off just four starts, an unusually low number for the top honor in American racing. His feat was not unprecedented, however, as one previous champion was voted an American Horse of the Year title off just three starts. Name him and the year in which he took top honors.
January isn't usually the time when top Triple Crown prospects make their appearance, but the first weekend of the year nonetheless saw a couple of nice colts gain their first stakes wins. Flexibility, benefiting from the absence of the talented Mohaymen, scored a professional-looking win in the Jerome Handicap (USA-II) at Aqueduct, a couple of hours after Awesome Banner made hash of an overmatched field in the Hutcheson Stakes (USA-III) at Gulfstream Park.
Awesome Banner is decidedly the more brilliant of the two, but Flexibility shouldn't be overlooked as a Triple Crown prospect. The son of Bluegrass Cat simply cruised over the mile-and-seventy-yards distance, and on pedigree, the Belmont Stakes (in which Bluegrass Cat was the 2006 runner-up) looks to be right up his alley. Inbred 4x3 to 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew through the champion's sons A.P. Indy (himself a Belmont winner) and Vindication (a juvenile champion with a stamina-laden pedigree) and out of a half sister to 2000 Pimlico Special (USA-I) winner Golden Missile, Flexibility should improve as he matures and the distances stretch out. The question facing him is not likely to be stamina but whether he will improve enough during the spring to move into the top echelon of his crop.
The opposite question faces Awesome Banner, who must show that he can stretch his undeniable speed out around two turns. While his sire Awesome of Course was bred with the Classics in mind, his dam Miranda Stands is more speed-oriented. A half sister to the sprint stakes winner Scrubs (by Dr. Caton), she is by Zamindar, a French Group III winner over 1200 meters (about 6 furlongs) as a juvenile, and is out of Record Stands, a sprinting daughter of the speedy In Reality horse American Standard.
The nice thing for the connections of both colts is that they are coming into the race to acquire points for the Derby starting gate relatively early, which gives them more options as to how to proceed. The challenge will be to have them fit and peaking five months from now, and there are many pitfalls along the Derby trail.
1981 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Pleasant Colony, whose granddam was the Uruguayan stakes winner Colonia, died on December 31, 2002. His Derby had 21 runners thanks to a last-minute court order.
I'm Avalyn Hunter, an author, pedigree researcher and longtime racing fan.