In most years, after the whining ends about the subpar crop of 3-year-olds, complaints begin about the lack of depth and talent among the older horses. For once, you can't criticize either group.
If the field for the Breeders' Cup Classic on Oct. 31 turns out to be as good as the one for Saturday's 11/8-mile Whitney Stakes, the immortal American Pharoah could be life and death to win it.
(The 88th running of the Grade I, $1.25-million Whitney drew by far its best lineup in many years, with seven Grade I winners among 10 runners. The marquee names are this year's Met Mile winner, 3-1 morning-line favorite Honor Code; last year's Belmont Stakes and Jockey Club Gold Cup champion, Tonalist (4-1), and last year's 1-2 Travers finishers, first-place V.E. Day (12-1) and stablemate Wicked Strong (20-1).
Further proof of the Whitney's strength is that defending champ Moreno is 12-1. Also in are Donn Handicap winner Lea (6-1); Noble Bird (5-1), who edged Lea in the Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs; Todd Pletcher's pair of Liam's Map (6-1) and Coach Inge (15-1), and 30-1 Normandy Invasion.
Although Honor Code was spectacular surging from last in the Met on Belmont day, he gives the impression he's better around one turn than two. He ran fifth in his only two-turn try and could be vulnerable. If anyone can get him to handle two turns it's Javier Castellano, the country's leading rider and a master at working out trouble-free trips.
Tonalist missed by a head to Effinex last out in the Suburban at Belmont Park. Although trainer Christophe Clement was visibly upset with John Velazquez's ride, the Hall of Famer keeps the mount.
"I really think from a mile on, Tonalist can run with the best," Clement said. "People thought after the Belmont he's a mile-and-a-half horse. Well, he finished second in the Met, so he's not a mile-and-a-half horse. He showed pretty good speed, too. He's a very good horse, that's what he is."
Kentucky-based Mark Casse trains Noble Bird, a late-blooming 4-year-old. "Nothing is easy, but I like our chances," Casse said. "He's been super since he's been here at Saratoga. Some horses like it; some don't. My son, Norman, my main assistant, and I feel like he gets over Saratoga better than anywhere."
Need-to-lead Moreno set a track record in the Charles Town Classic after heavily favored superstar Shared Belief was injured and pulled up.
"He doesn't rate," trainer Eric Guillot said. "He gets beat when he rates. He's a 5-year-old who's had four years in training with 29 days off. So far, we haven't missed any big dances."
Liam's Map also has speed, and Pletcher joked, "Mr. Guillot will probably take back and make one run and not tell anyone about it."
That would be more shocking than a blizzard in August.
"[Liam's Map] is an up-and-coming nice horse," Guillot said. "But there's going to be one problem: If you're in front of me, you went too fast."