While the sporting world is ready to be fixated on a horse who is big and brown and going for the Triple Crown, another thoroughbred who is good and gray is about to touch down in Toronto.
Sometime tomorrow morning, an undefeated colt named Harlem Rocker will arrive at Woodbine to begin his preparations for next month's Queen's Plate, the jewel of Canadian racing. Owned and bred by Frank Stronach's Adena Springs, the colt will be the heavy betting favourite for Sunday's Plate Trial Stakes. And if he matches the early hype, look out.
From there, early indications are that the sky could be the limit for Harlem Rocker, starting with the $1 million Plate itself on June 22.
"He definitely shows the signs," Mike Rogers, the racing manager for Stronach Stables, said yesterday. "If he continues to move in the right direction, he can be pretty special. It's the early part of his career, obviously, but everybody is excited about him."
How special and how excited? How about praise from trainer Richard Dutrow, who won the first two legs of the Triple Crown with another undefeated colt, Big Brown.
Prior to the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore two weeks ago, Dutrow was asked if there was any steed who could stop his colt's bid to become the first horse in 30 years to capture the Crown.
"The only one that can beat us is that gray horse of Stronach's," Dutrow said at the time.
Yes, the gray in question was Harlem Rocker who turned heads by convincingly winning the Withers Stakes in his most recent start at Belmont Park in late April. That impressive outing in the mile race pushed his record to three for three and not only made him the clear favourite for the Plate, but a horse who many feel could eventually challenge U.S.-bred horses.
Among those of that belief is his New York-based trainer Todd Pletcher, who gently prodded Frank Stronach and his wife Frieda to consider shipping to the Preakness on May 17. After mulling it over, the connections opted for a conservative route and instead focused on Toronto.
"There was some serious consideration for going to the Preakness, especially since we own the stallion (Macho Uno)," Rogers said, referring to the potential for a huge syndication deal for a win in a big U.S. race. "But ultimately Mr. Stronach decided on what would be in the best interest of the horse and that would be to take the conservative road.
"This was the original plan. There will be plenty of time to run against (U.S.horses) down the road."
The comparison is way too early, but such is Harlem Rocker's cache that it is hard not to equate his status to one of the greatest Canadian champions of all time, 1997 Plate winner Awesome Again at the same point of their respective careers.
That colt won the Plate in his fourth career start and then went on to a stellar career that included a win in the Breeders' Cup Classic and emergence as a top stud in the U.S.
It would be silly to link Harlem Rocker with Big Brown as well, but remember that the latter captured the Kentucky Derby in just his fourth career start.
"I am very pleased with what he has done at this point," Pletcher said of Harlem Rocker, who will be ridden here by his regular New York jockey, Eibar Coa. "We had a plan to begin with and we decided to stick with it."
That plan includes at least two Canadian starts -- the Trial and the Plate -- but don't expect him to stick around for the second leg of our Triple Crown, the Prince of Wales Stakes in July.
Should he win this weekend, the Canadian Triple Crown might get some legitimate (and overdue) hype. And for the first time in years, for a change the Plate may have a legitimate four-legged talent to match the pageantry.
"I know it's early, but if you look at his first couple of races he's done things that a mature horse does," Rogers said. "It's pretty exciting to see what he will do next."