Playing the “what-if” game is endemic to a sport featuring innumerable variables, from troubled trips and adverse conditions to ill-timed setbacks. The counterfactuals I find most compelling are the ones that revolve around deliberate choice – the fork in the road and the option not taken. In 2017, one gnawing what-if was Cracksman’s skipping the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1) despite then being at the peak of his powers. He could have belonged on the 2018 list too, although the circumstances in play this time around made him a more quizzical character. So here are my top five “what-ifs” that might have changed the course of 2018.

  1. What if Winx had graced the stage at Royal Ascot?
Trainer Chris Waller and connections had the Australian supermare’s welfare and long-term interests at heart in foregoing an international sortie. And I can understand how a record fourth Cox Plate (G1) was their overarching goal, not to be compromised by a midyear trek to the other side of the world. Yet given the weakness of the older European milers in a subpar renewal of the Queen Anne (G1), I’m sorely tempted to say that even an 80 percent Winx could have dispatched them. Of course, we’ll also never know if it might have cost her the history-making Cox Plate. While fans missed the opportunity of one spectacle, we were richly compensated by another, making this trade-off much happier than the rest.
  1. What if Mendelssohn hadn’t been a “guinea pig” during his dirt campaign?
That’s not my word for it – trainer Aidan O’Brien explicitly told Racing Post that Mendelssohn “ended up being a little bit of a guinea pig because we were learning as we were going along with him.”  I don’t fault connections for the Kentucky Derby (G1) debacle, which can happen to the most meticulously prepared Americans too, but the second half begs for second-guessing. The Dwyer (G3) was to be a palate cleanser for the Pennsylvania Derby (G1), but then no, it was a tune-up for the Travers (G1), after which he’d train up to the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1). Cancel that, we’ll squeeze in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) before the Classic. Oh how about the Cigar Mile (G1) as an afterthought? The frequent flyer miles for all the transatlantic round trips just kept adding up, without the commensurate rewards. Even more frustrating to me was the on-pace-at-all-costs tactic that proved more of a hindrance than a help. With more judicious handling, Beholder’s half-brother might have achieved more on the American dirt.
  1. What if Saxon Warrior had dropped back to a mile?
Another miscue from the Coolmore/Ballydoyle brain trust. To be fair, I’m guiltier than most for getting carried away by Saxon Warrior’s prospects of an elusive English Triple Crown, so this is a case of hindsight being 20/20. After his emphatic display in the 2000 Guineas (G1), a deflating fourth in the Derby (G1) was the first clue that maybe 1 1/2 miles was beyond him. Sire Deep Impact gets classy milers as well, and the speed of his dam Maybe appears to have tilted him in that direction. Had Saxon Warrior reverted to a mile, how much better might his resume have looked? After all, Saxon Warrior was a perfect 4-for-4 at a mile before his fruitless attempts going longer. Perhaps the male milers were all uninspiring because the best of them wasn’t there.
  1. What if Polydream wasn’t a vet scratch from the Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1)?
The defection of the morning-line favorite is regrettable in any race, but when it’s the leading international contender in a Breeders’ Cup event, ordered to be withdrawn the day before in controversial circumstances, it’s positively maddening. The Kentucky state veterinarian concluded that Polydream was lame and therefore not fit to race in the Mile. The galling part is that her trainer’s counterpoint was summarily rebuffed. That horseman is only Freddie Head, the most legendary human participant in the history of the race, as the rider of two-time Mile champion Miesque and trainer of three-peater Goldikova. You’re seriously brushing off an all-time Breeders’ Cup great, as though he doesn’t deserve to be heard? As Daily Racing Form’s Marcus Hersh reported, Head explained that Polydream’s offset knees make her look off at a trot, and he sensibly requested that the vet watch her gallop on the track. Had the state vet let him do so, and seen her moving fluently, would she have been allowed to race? What if Polydream would have won?
  1. What if Instagrand had been given the chance to finish his juvenile season?
The bombshell decision by owner Larry Best to shelve a reportedly sound and healthy Instagrand left a void not only in the two-year-old division, but also a question that will carry over to the 2019 Triple Crown trail. For starters, I’d argue he might have walked away from a divisional Eclipse Award. Instagrand looked freakish when winning his two starts by more than 20 lengths combined. Those were sprints, but it’s not outlandish to think he would have been effective around two turns in, say, the American Pharoah (G1) and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1). While I’m usually reticent about the classic prospects of Into Mischief progeny, Instagrand likely gets help from broodmare sire Lawyer Ron and second dam sire Lord at War. Whatever his ultimate distance capacity, 1 1/16 miles probably would have been within his compass at two – just at the time he held a developmental edge over his rivals. Instead of capitalizing on that edge, Instagrand forfeited it. Instead of gaining experience on the track and building up his strength through training, he was idle. There’s no guarantee that time off will pay dividends (or prevent setbacks) down the road. We can only hope that he picks up right where he left off, without missing a beat. Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer will do his utmost toward that end. But if Instagrand doesn’t progress, the time lost, for no apparent reason, would haunt us all.