The second season of racing for 3-year-olds swings into high gear this weekend with the Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga and the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park. Too bad all the stars aren't around anymore.
While both races feature competitive fields, the winners of the Triple Crown races are retired, and the next best horse is recovering from a fever.
Is there another standout waiting in starting gate?
"With I'll Have Another, Bodemeister and Union Rags not being around, that leaves the door open for one of them," says Michael Matz, who trained Union Rags, the Belmont Stakes winner, and will send out Teeth of the Dog in the Jim Dandy on Saturday.
The Triple Crown grind took a toll on the top talent. Derby and Preakness winner I'll Have Another was retired the day before the Belmont because of a leg injury, followed a few weeks later by Union Rags' retirement due to injury. Preakness runner-up Bodemeister, meanwhile, was training for the Haskell but a fever put him on the shelf, and he's recouping before his next start.
And as Matz says, there just may be a rising star ready to step up.
In the Jim Dandy, Derby also-ran Alpha is the slight 5-2 favorite in a field of eight, while Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert's Paynter is the 3-2 choice in a six-horse field for the Haskell on Sunday. The 1 1/8-mile races are considered preps for the $1 million Travers Stakes at the Spa on Aug. 25.
Baffert finished second in each of the Triple Crown races - Bodemeister in the Derby and Preakness, Paynter in the Belmont - and now has a chance for a Jim Dandy-Haskell double. He will send out Liaison in the Jim Dandy as the 7-2 third choice.
Baffert is staying home in California this weekend, so it's the job of assistant Jimmy Barnes to have Paynter ready to give his boss a third straight Haskell win and a record sixth overall.
"I'm just happy to have a horse fit enough to run, and be the favorite," said Baffert, who won the Haskell with Coil last year, and with Lookin At Lucky in 2010.
His key to success at the Jersey Shore track?
"You have to go to Max's Hot Dogs and have a hot dog for lunch. It usually works," said Baffert of the near-the-track joint that's been dishing out dogs for more than 80 years.
To that end, Baffert has instructed Barnes to show up at Max's before Dale Romans, the trainer of 3-1 co-second choice Dullahan, a colt who ran third in the Derby and seventh in the Belmont.
Romans is optimistic, but knows he needs a sensational effort from Dullahan, who will be ridden by Kent Desormeaux.
"I am a huge fan of Paynter's," said Romans. "He's the horse to beat and will be out there running. We'll have to run him down."
A year ago, Romans' Preakness winner Shackleford was beaten a neck in the Haskell by Coil.
"We were walking back after last year's Haskell and Tammy (his partner, Tammy Fox) looked over and said `your problem is you just can't beat Bob,"' said Romans. "And it's been pretty true whether it's the Preakness or the Haskell, he seems to nose me out."
Dullahan also is looking for his first win on a dirt track. He won the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland over a synthetic surface, and finished second twice on the turf.
"We think he needs a big win on the dirt for his stud book," said Romans. "I think that on the right dirt track he'll run big."
Trainer Todd Pletcher is looking for a big race from Gemologist. The colt won the Wood Memorial in April to run his record to 5-0 but finished 16th in the Derby. He came out of the race with a foot bruise but appears back in top form based on recent workouts.
"We certainly have never been more disappointed with a Derby performance," said Pletcher. "We really felt like we had a horse that was doing great at the time and he didn't run anywhere close to his abilities ... since he came back to New York he's been training exceptionally well."
Also entered in the Haskell are Nonios (7-2), Handsome Mike (7-2) and Stealcase (8-1). Handsome Mike has the same connections as I'll Have Another, owner J. Paul Reddam, trainer Doug O'Neill and jockey Mario Gutierrez.
A year ago, Belmont runner-up Stay Thirsty stepped out of the shadow of his more famous stablemate Uncle Mo by winning the Jim Dandy and Travers. Matz is hoping Teeth of the Dog can move in for Union Rags as his top 3-year-old.
Teeth of the Dog comes into the race off victories in the Easy Goer and the Dwyer.
"We've asked a lot of him this year, and he's handled himself pretty well," said Matz. "One of the great things about this horse is that he's got a big heart and will give us his all. We'll wait and see if he can propel himself into the Travers."