Top 10 themes to watch on horse racing scene for 2022

January 3rd, 2022

Horse racing fans have plenty to look forward to in 2022, so it’s not easy to sift through the possibilities for a “Top 10” list. Here are the themes – and horses – who intrigue me the most as we turn the calendar for a brand new season.

1. Flightline to the stratosphere?

After demolishing the Malibu (G1) just as ruthlessly as his maiden and allowance races, undefeated Flightline has fueled sky-high expectations for 2022. The Tapit colt strikes me as the type to carry his speed over a route of ground. More significantly, trainer John Sadler believes the same. If Flightline’s stratospheric Brisnet Speed figures racked up around one turn – a 117 for six furlongs at Del Mar and 114 for the Malibu – are anywhere near what he can muster over further, buckle up for potentially historic performances.

Sadler is treading very carefully regarding plans. According to Daily Racing Form, Sadler envisions four starts in 2022, with the Metropolitan H. (G1) on Belmont Day his main summer target. That could be a logical spot for the other super-talented sophomore of 2021, Life Is Good. It’s five months away, but we can dream of such an epic clash.

2. Life Is Good versus Knicks Go – and the world?

Before speculating far down the road into the summer, there’s a much nearer showdown looming between Life Is Good and Knicks Go in the Pegasus World Cup (G1) at Gulfstream Park Jan. 29. Both are coming off Breeders’ Cup wins in front-running fashion. Life Is Good dominated elders in the Dirt Mile (G1), while Knicks Go wired the Classic (G1) to cap a presumptive Horse of the Year campaign. But the two are at different phases of their careers. Knicks Go, the defending Pegasus champion, will retire to stud after seeking a repeat, while Life Is Good hopes to fulfill his potential at four. Since Knicks Go won’t get an easy lead, my hunch is that Life Is Good will dethrone him in the Pegasus.

If all goes well following the Pegasus, trainer Todd Pletcher has mentioned that the Feb. 26 Saudi Cup (G1) is on the radar for Life Is Good. The $20 million prize is shaping up to be a dandy with Mishriff eyeing a title defense; fellow Europeans Sealiway and Pyledriver; a few more high-profile Americans including Mandaloun, Midnight Bourbon, and Art Collector; and Japan’s latest dirt celebrity, T O Keynes (see below).

3. McPeek on the Kentucky Derby trail

Of all the storylines swirling around the Kentucky Derby (G1) trail, trainer Ken McPeek’s battalion is perhaps the most compelling. Rattle N Roll made a bold circling move en route to his Breeders’ Futurity (G1) victory, unbeaten Smile Happy looked better than the average Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) winner, and Tiz the Bomb had broken his maiden by a pole on dirt before proving his class on turf. As if that trio weren’t enough, McPeek unleashed Dash Attack at Oaklawn Park, where he went 2-for-2 in the Smarty Jones.

Famous for divining future champions on a modest budget at the sales, McPeek has won the other two jewels of the Triple Crown, but not (yet) the Derby. He’s been out of luck since his runner-up effort as a Derby rookie with Tejano Run in 1995.

Maybe McPeek is winning the classics in order of their historical establishment? The Belmont S. (G1), the nation’s oldest Triple Crown race inaugurated in 1867, was the one McPeek won first, with longshot Sarava (2002). He next captured the Preakness (G1) (dating back to 1873) with champion filly Swiss Skydiver (2020). McPeek must be due for a breakthrough in the Kentucky Derby, first run in 1875!

4. Gun Runner’s progeny going great guns

As the mortal lock for champion juvenile filly honors, Echo Zulu topped Gun Runner’s record-breaking first crop. The undefeated Breeders’ Cup heroine, who ran faster in the Juvenile Fillies (G1) than the colt Corniche did in winning the Juvenile (G1), deserves to be the early favorite for the 2022 Kentucky Oaks (G1).

But given how much Gun Runner himself blossomed with maturity, it’s reasonable to expect improvers among his newly-turned three-year-olds. We’ve been keeping tabs on his stakes performers and latest winners here on the Edge, so watch this space as the Gun Runners keep firing.

5. Golden Pal goes global

Sensational Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint (G1) winner Golden Pal is headed to Royal Ascot – which, by itself, is the equivalent of a “sun rises in the east” report for a Wesley Ward pupil. What is new, and worthy of flagging for follow-up, is that the highly-regarded son of Uncle Mo is charting a course to Australia later in the year.

The Coolmore brain trust is eager to advertise his merits as a future shuttle stallion. Beating the Australian sprinters on their home turf would be quite a coup. A Breeders’ Cup title defense is still on the cards as well, so Golden Pal could attempt a sweep of majors on three continents.

6. Luxembourg shades of St Nick?

Aidan O’Brien is sure to unearth more classic hopefuls through the spring, but at this juncture, it’s difficult to see any Ballydoyle colt being more exciting than Luxembourg. The undefeated Vertem Futurity Trophy (G1) winner appeared as a diamond in the rough through his three-race campaign, portending a leap forward at three.

Moreover, there’s something about Luxembourg’s manner that evokes the memory of much-missed St Nicholas Abbey. The two come from the same sire line – St Nicholas Abbey was by Montjeu, and Luxembourg by Montjeu’s triple classic-winning son, Camelot. St Nicholas Abbey won the same two Group stakes as a juvenile, saw his classic ambitions eliminated after one start at three, and went on to become a decorated globetrotter as an older horse before his sad passing. Here’s hoping that Luxembourg can have a better trajectory at three – and a long life as a Coolmore stallion.

7. Godolphin’s embarrassment of riches

My top international storyline of 2021 was the banner year for Godolphin, and the well-known royal blue colorbearers should continue their momentum into 2022. For our purposes as a “things to watch” column, however, I’d like to highlight three Godolphin runners eligible to move forward substantially this season.

Remember Rebel’s Romance, the impressive UAE Derby (G2) hero who was knocked out of the Belmont (G1) by a hind leg infection? The Charlie Appleby trainee has been sidelined ever since, but he’s now back in Dubai, and eligible to pick up where he left off at the World Cup Carnival. Indeed, Rebel’s Romance was achieving as a raw three-year-old well short of his physical peak, and the Dubawi gelding has every right to reach new heights.

He’s not the only up-and-comer who could have the Dubai World Cup (G1) in view. Godolphin trainer Saeed bin Suroor has Real World penciled in for another crack on the dirt. Whether that pans out for the son of Dark Angel or not, Real World is a perfect 4-for-4 on turf. The rampantly progressive homebred ended 2021 by upstaging The Revenant in the Prix Daniel Wildenstein (G2) on Arc weekend, and he remains one to follow closely this term.

As far as Godolphin’s 2022 European classic hopes go, I’m fascinated by Coroebus. The Dubawi colt, out of a Group 3-winning half-sister to Thunder Snow, has a serious engine, and arguably more scope to improve than his Cartier Award-winning stablemate, Native Trail.

8. Haggas on the horizon

British trainer William Haggas will have a fine squad for international forays in 2022, beyond stable star Baaeed and the convalescing Addeybb. Among them are freshly-minted four-year-olds Dubai Honour, Sacred, and Mohaafeth.

Dubai Honour was a sneaky fourth to Loves Only You in the Hong Kong Cup (G1) after an excellent second in the Champion S. (G1), and Haggas wasted no time in declaring that the “world is his oyster.” As a gelding with no stud value to mind, Dubai Honour will have plenty of time to become a money-spinner on the global stage.

Sacred was under consideration for last fall’s Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1), until her Cheveley Park connections opted to call it a season. A high-class two-year-old whose only loss at three came in the 1000 Guineas (G1), Sacred beat Saffron Beach in the Nell Gwyn (G3) and dispatched older males in the Hungerford (G2). By Exceed and Excel, and out of a half-sister to Lady Eli, she prefers the quick ground she might find stateside.

Mohaafeth could be something of a forgotten horse, having disappeared following a poor fourth behind Mishriff in the Juddmonte International (G1). But the Shadwell homebred was an exciting sophomore earlier in the season, crowning a four-race winning streak in the Hampton Court (G3) at Royal Ascot. If the ground hadn’t gone against him, he would have tried the Epsom Derby (G1). Mohaafeth’s optimal trip is shorter, though, and Haggas has his sights set on the Mar. 26 Dubai Turf (G1).

9. Frankels galore

Mohaafeth is just one of the Frankel offspring who can keep his sire’s momentum going into 2022. Retired as an unbeaten world phenom on the racecourse, Frankel now ranks as champion sire. Aside from 2021 classic heroes Adayar and Hurricane Lane, Frankel has a number of stand-outs remaining in training this season.

Inspiral, the undefeated Fillies’ Mile (G1) winner, looms large among his current classic aspirants. Natalma (G1) romper Wild Beauty is another in that demographic. Multiple German Group 1 queen Alpinista, who beat future Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1) upsetter Torquator Tasso, will be back to pad her resume. Miler Mostahdaf has regained his upward curve in Great Britain, and Japan’s Grenadier Guards could be bound for Saudi’s 1351 Turf Sprint. That brings us to our final theme…

10. Japan’s forthcoming international stars?

After the exploits of Japanese runners in both the Breeders’ Cup and Hong Kong, I’m eager to see who’s next in the pipeline. The aforementioned T O Keynes secured an invitation to the Saudi Cup by virtue of his romp in the Champions Cup (G1), where he easily beat Dubai World Cup runner-up Chuwa Wizard. Earlier in the summer, T O Keynes had left eventual Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1) shocker Marche Lorraine well behind. Off that evidence, the son of Sinister Minister warrants respect as he ventures to Saudi.

Among Japan’s turf set, Schnell Meister will bring top-tier form wherever he goes. As a sophomore taking on elders in early last June, the Kingman colt was a terrific third in the Yasuda Kinen (G1), and when next seen in the fall, he turned the tables in the Mainichi Okan (G2). In his latest, Schnell Meister beat all bar champion Gran Alegria in the Nov. 21 Mile Championship (G1). The German-bred, from a superb family, has more to offer.