epicenter or taiba for 3-year-old champion

I was hoping the Malibu Stakes on Dec. 26 at Santa Anita would provide clarification as I finalized my Eclipse Award ballot. Other than Horse of the Year, the 3-year-old male champion division is the most glamorous category. And why wouldn’t it be, given that the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes are the country’s most well-
known races.
I think the Breeders’ Cup Classic is more important, but the general public is not paying the same amount of attention in early November as they are during the Triple Crown from early May to early
When Taiba won the Malibu decisively, my initial instinct was to go with Taiba as the Malibu made him the only 3-year-old with three Grade I stakes wins. I thought his Pennsylvania Derby win at Parx was against the strongest field of 3-year-olds in 2022 other than the Kentucky Derby itself. The Pa Derby had Cyberknife (winner of the Arkansas Derby and Haskell), Zandon (Blue Grass) and White Abbario (Florida Derby) as well as the winners of the Fountain of Youth
(Simplification), West Virginia Derby (Skippylongstocking), Peter Pan (We The People) and Ohio Derby (Tawny Port). And Taiba was a no-doubt-about-it winner.
Epicenter won just a single Grade I race in 2022, but it was at Saratoga in the Travers, the most important 3-year-old race outside the Triple Crown.
Still, three Grade I wins should trump one Grade I win. That is a reasonable argument, but I thought it too simple so I decided to examine the records of each horse from the start of the year to the end. Taiba did not make his career debut until March 5 when he won a maiden race by 7 1/2 lengths at Santa Anita and got a 103 Beyer.

Incredibly, the horse came back 35 days later and won the Santa Anita Derby with a 102 Beyer. It was really impressive to watch, but looking back now, it turned out there was not much in that race. It was a Grade I race with a Grade III field.
I put a line through Taiba’s 12th place finish in the Kentucky Derby. It was way too much and far too soon. It was just a bad decision by the connections and should not be held against the horse. Taiba got a long rest after the Derby before running a strong second to Cyberknife in the Haskell while getting a 101 Beyer, winning the Pa. Derby with a 108, running a distant third to Flighline in the BC Classic with a 110 Beyer and winning the Malibu with a 106 against a field that was so weak Taiba went off at 2-5. So six races where Taiba actually had a chance with four wins, a second and third – three Grade I wins, two Grade I placings, a maiden win, a tremendous year. Epicenter began 2022 by finishing second in the Grade III Lecomte (88 Beyer) before dominating wins in the Grade II Risen Star (98 Beyer) and Grade II Louisiana Derby (102 Beyer), all at the Fairgrounds. I saw no difference in the La. Derby and Santa Anita Derby fields so even though only one is a Grade I, I don’t give Taiba extra credit there.
Epicenter separates a bit because of his performances in the Derby and Preakness. He ran a winning race in the Derby and finished second to impossible 80-1 Rich Strike shot while earning a 100 Beyer. Epicenter got a strange ride in the Preakness and again finished second (102 Beyer) to Early Voting. Epicenter ran against Early Voting again in the Grade II Jim Dandy and Travers, decisively beating the Preakness winner while winning both races, getting a 102 in the Jim Dandy and a 112 in the Travers. Rich Strike was 5 1/2 lengths behind Epicenter in the Travers. I thought Epicenter’s Travers win was the most impressive performance by a 3-year-old in 2022. Epicenter was injured in the BC Classic and subsequently retired. I gave that performance the same weight I gave Taiba’s Derby – none.
So Epicenter in 2022 – one Grade I win, three Grade II wins, two Grade I placings (in two of the most important races) and a Grade III placing in the seven races where he had a chance. Not sure there is a right answer between Taiba and Epicenter. There are some who actually prefer Modern Games who appeared in North America twice and came away with wins in the Grade I Woodbine Mile and Grade I BC Mile. While I am a huge Modern Games fan, two races is not enough for me and I think this is an award for dirt horses unless there is some overwhelming evidence to go with a grass horse.
In the end, I decided on Epicenter because he ran so well in the Derby and Preakness. He did not win, but I thought he ran winning races in races that just matter more. I loved his consistency from January until
August. If Tailba ends up winning the championship, I will not complain. He is a terrific horse who, at this point, looks like the early favorite for 2023 Horse of the Year.

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