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Updated on 09/16/2011 9:56AM
2002: A year of toil and trouble, glory and scandal
Thoroughbred racing was an emotional roller coaster in 2002, reaching glorious peaks, then crushing nadirs, in a whipsaw 12 months of triumph and tragedy.
Emblematic of the year was the story arc of The Thoroughbred Corporation's Prince Ahmed bin Salman, who fulfilled a lifelong quest to win the Kentucky Derby - the first Arab to do so - then dropped dead of a heart attack 2 1/2 months later.
The colt who brought Prince Ahmed that Derby victory, War Emblem, also won the Preakness Stakes, putting him one leg away from becoming the first Triple Crown winner since 1978, but he stumbled badly at the start of the Belmont Stakes, and all was lost.
Ken McPeek won the Belmont with Sarava, giving the rising training star his biggest victory, yet before Sarava ran again, he was taken away from McPeek. McPeek also had Harlan's Holiday removed from his barn, despite victories earlier in the year in the Florida Derby and Blue Grass that made Harlan's Holiday the Derby favorite.
McPeek, however, had been on the other end of such decision-making in the spring, when he sacked jockey Tony D'Amico, who had headed to south Florida for the winter to stick close to Harlan's Holiday and Repent. D'Amico returned to Kentucky in the spring having lost both mounts.
Trainer Todd Pletcher successfully got the sprinter Left Bank to stretch out and beat an all-star field in the Whitney at Saratoga. A little more than a month later, Left Bank was dead from colic. It was a particularly cruel summer for Pletcher, who lost two other promising runners, the stakes-winning 2-year-old filly Freedom's Daughter and the sprinter Warners.
European training superstar Aidan O'Brien won the Breeders' Cup Turf with High Chaparral, just two hours after being forced to euthanize Landseer because of the catastrophic injuries he suffered in the Breeders' Cup Mile.
Two of the greatest racehorses and stallions of the past 25 years, Seattle Slew and Sunday Silence, died, causing their many fans to fondly recall their exploits with both a smile and a tear.
The emotions the sport generated in the fall were pure cynicism, then outrage, as the Breeders' Cup pick six story unfolded.
When darkness fell on Arlington Park on Oct. 26, it was announced that six winning tickets had been purchased on the pick six. That seemed odd, since the day was punctuated by several longshots, most notably 43-1 shot Volponi in the Classic. By the next day, it was learned that all six tickets had been purchased at Catskill OTB in upstate New York, which raised further suspicion. One day after that, it was learned that all six tickets had been purchased by the same bettor, on a $12 base ticket that singled the first four races and bought every horse in the last two.
Anybody who has bet on this sport for more than a week knew instinctively that something smelled. But that olfactory aptitude did not extend immediately to the highest ranking officials at either Catskill OTB or Autotote, who at first said the bettor, Derrick Davis, had combined great skill and luck to win more than $3 million.
Fortunately, officials at the Breeders' Cup and National Thoroughbred Racing Association rose to the occasion. The pick six payoff money was immediately frozen, and an investigation, which eventually included the New York State Wagering Board, commenced, focusing on three former fraternity brothers, all 29 years old.
At first Davis, Autotote computer programmer Chris Harn, and a third man, Glen DaSilva, maintained their innocence. But their paper trail - coordinated by Harn at Autotote's hub in Delaware - was so easy to follow, and the evidence against them so overwhelming, that less than seven weeks after the Breeders' Cup all three had pleaded guilty.
The scandal rocked the sport, and exposed anew an antiquated system of processing bets. Years earlier, the system's inadequacies had been brought to the attention of racing's leaders; nothing had been done then. But after this tote debacle, business as usual could not stand.
Though Breeders' Cup 2002 will be forever associated with the rigged pick six, it also happened to be one of the best racing days in memory.
Azeri completed a brilliant year, and set herself up as the likeliest winner of 2002's Horse of the Year, with a front-running victory in the Distaff. The 2-year-olds Vindication and Storm Flag Flying polished off undefeated seasons with their victories. Orientate won the Sprint, leaving him unbeaten in dirt races around one turn. High Chaparral, one of Europe's elite long-distance turf horses, shipped in and won the Turf.
Azeri's trainer, Laura de Seroux, had a breakout year, with eight victories in Grade 1 stakes races. In addition to training Azeri, de Seroux also nursed the talented but fragile turf mare Astra to three stakes wins, two in Grade 1 stakes.
Bobby Frankel, however, dominated the trainers' standings again. He won more money, more stakes, and more Grade 1 stakes than anyone else, putting him in position to win his fourth consecutive Eclipse Award as champion trainer.
Jerry Bailey continued to reign over the nation's jockeys. He was poised to set a single-season record for purse earnings, and also was within hailing distance of the single-season record for stakes wins as the year neared an end. Victor Espinoza got his first Derby victory, with War Emblem, and Edgar Prado got his first classic victory, with Sarava in the Belmont. Northern California kingpin Russell Baze won his 8,000th race, and won 400 in a season for the 10th time in the last 11 years. Maryland's Mario Pino won his 5,000th career race. Apprentices Ryan Fogelsonger and John McKee both emerged as rising stars.
Jockeys Julie Krone, Shane Sellers, and Patrick Valenzuela all returned from lengthy absences and started winning with regularity. Mike Smith found himself rejuvenated in California, where he was the regular rider for probable champions Azeri and Vindication, and Eclipse contender Came Home.
The powerful Southern California jockey colony was weakened, however, by the midyear retirement of Chris McCarron. Another Hall of Famer, Eddie Delahoussaye, suffered serious injuries at Del Mar, and though he wants to come back, by year's end he had still not recovered enough. But another veteran Hall of Famer, Laffit Pincay Jr., continued to battle for leading riding titles at Southern California tracks, all while bearing down on his 56th birthday, on Dec. 29.
The Hall of Fame added five new members - trainer Bud Delp and the late jockey Jack Westrope, along with horses Cigar, Noor, and Serena's Song.
Many were taken away. In addition to Prince Ahmed, death claimed trainers Luis Barrera, John Gaver, and Leonard Imperio, and one of Britain's all-time greats, Maj. Dick Hern; owner-breeders Albert Clay, John Mabee, Ogden Phipps, Georgia Ridder, Bayard Sharp, Jan Siegel, and Verne Winchell; auctioneer and owner Laddie Dance, former Daily Racing Form publisher Walter Annenberg, racetrack owner John D. Schapiro, racing secretaries Jerry Botts and Howard Battle, attorney Don Sturgill, popular restaurateur Bob Lee, and perhaps racing's most prominent fan internationally, the Queen Mother.
In addition to Freedom's Daughter, Left Bank, Seattle Slew, and Sunday Silence, prominent horses who died included runners Hal's Hope and Tempera, retired racehorse Fourstardave, steeplechaser It's a Giggle, retired steeplechase great Lonesome Glory, retired champion females Flawlessly and Meadow Star, and the stallions Bien Bien, Big Spruce, Raja Baba, and Valid Appeal.
One person who sidestepped death, though, may be the most inspirational story in a year of intense emotions. Yvonne Azeff suffered serious head injuries and lapsed into a coma when a pony fell on her the morning of Jan. 26 at Gulfstream Park. She needed extensive rehabilitation, but came back, eager to continue what she loves most, working with horses.
Before we bid adieu to 2002, here's a look back at the past year, division by division.
Older filly or mare
In a year of rampant inconsistency, Azeri was a shining beacon. She won eight times in nine starts, including five Grade 1 victories earned in three states. Her five-length romp in the Breeders' Cup Distaff, coupled with several notable flameouts that day by other Horse of the Year candidates, left Azeri as likely the first female winner of Horse of the Year since Lady's Secret in 1986. Summer Colony, who handed Azeri her lone loss, was the standardbearer for owner-breeder Ed Evans, who combined with trainer Mark Hennig for a sensational season with homebreds such as Raging Fever and the sprinters Gold Mover and Gygistar. Summer Colony won stakes in four states, but flopped in her late-season showdown with Azeri, finishing last in the Distaff.
War Emblem's year was a soap opera. After he won the Illinois Derby - the last run at Sportsman's Park, which closed a few months later - his original owner, Russell Reineman, sold 90 percent of the colt to Prince Ahmed. War Emblem then went out and led start to finish in the Kentucky Derby, at 20-1. Prince Ahmed and Reineman then squabbled over the terms of a $1 million bonus earned by War Emblem for winning both the Illinois Derby and Kentucky Derby, a matter that was still not resolved at year's end. War Emblem came back to win the Preakness, beating Cinderella horse Magic Weisner, but his wicked stumble at the start of the Belmont ruined his chance to win the Triple Crown. Before War Emblem ran again, his owner would be dead. War Emblem came back in the summer and won the Haskell, but failed to hit the board in his final two starts, the Pacific Classic and Breeders' Cup Classic, his only two races against older horses.
Came Home won six times in eight starts, including the Santa Anita Derby, and beat older horses in the Pacific Classic, but ran poorly in his two most important starts of the year, the Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup. Medaglia d'Oro ruled the division in the summer, taking the Jim Dandy and Travers, then ran the best of this group in the Breeders' Cup, finishing second. Booklet and Harlan's Holiday dueled memorably in the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby. Repent was another star of the spring, winning the Louisiana Derby, then he came off the bench to give Medaglia d'Oro a stern test in the Travers. Buddha won the Wood Memorial, but was injured on the eve of the Kentucky Derby and never raced again.
This was one of the deepest divisions of the year. Farda Amiga was a 20-1 upset winner of the Kentucky Oaks, setting off a raucous winner's circle celebration. She then returned off a three-month layoff and shipped across the country to take the Alabama, a feat that brought her trainer, Paulo Lobo, national acclaim. Farda Amiga also finished second in the Breeders' Cup Distaff, just ahead of Imperial Gesture, who scored front-running victories in the Gazelle and Beldame. You won four Grade 1 races, including the Santa Anita Oaks and Test Stakes, but lost two of her three meetings against Farda Amiga. The First Lady of Keeneland, Take Charge Lady, won the Ashland in the spring and the Spinster in the fall to go along with her Alcibiades victory at Keeneland at age 2.
Many shined, but only briefly, like streaking comets. Mizzen Mast won powerfully in the Malibu and Strub, but didn't race after Feb. 2. Mongoose won the Donn, but was done by June. Kudos won the Oaklawn Park Handicap in April, and did not make another start before year's end. Florida fan favorite Hal's Hope was a popular winner of the Gulfstream Park Handicap, but died during the summer. Left Bank also died, just weeks after his Tom Fool-Whitney double. Sky Jack took the Hollywood Gold Cup, then was injured in the Pacific Classic and was done for the year. Street Cry looked like the best horse in the world when winning the Dubai World Cup and Stephen Foster, but he never raced after his loss to Left Bank in the Whitney. Milwaukee Brew won the Santa Anita Handicap, then went 1 for 6 the rest of the year. Evening Attire blossomed in the fall, winning the Jockey Club Gold Cup, but was only fourth in the Breeders' Cup Classic. Pleasantly Perfect was a stylish winner of the Goodwood, but bled, and was denied a start in the Breeders' Cup under Illinois Racing Board regulations. Lido Palace captured the Woodward, but was kept out of the Classic because of a stiff $800,000 supplemental fee. Volponi and jockey Jose Santos shocked the world in the Classic, winning by 6 1/2 lengths for the biggest victory of Hall of Fame trainer P.G. Johnson's career.
Male turf horse
Europeans Domedriver (Mile) and High Chaparral (Turf) won Breeders' Cup races to expose the shortcomings of North America's best in this division. Domedriver, at 26-1, held off an unlucky Rock of Gibraltar - Europe's horse of the year - whose eventful trip kept him from achieving a perfect season. Beat Hollow won three Grade 1 races, including a thrilling Arlington Million, but was only sixth in the Mile. Denon and With Anticipation dueled memorably in the United Nations and Sword Dancer. Good Journey won important stakes in three states and two countries, including the Atto Mile, and was a close third in the Breeders' Cup Mile. Sarafan defeated an unlucky Beat Hollow in the Eddie Read, then found tough luck himself with heartbreaking losses in the Japan Cup and Hong Kong Cup.
Female turf horse
Affluent, tired of chasing Azeri to three consecutive second-place finishes on dirt, moved to the turf and beat Golden Apples in the Ramona. Astra and Golden Apples had three sensational meetings, with Golden Apples winning twice, including in the Beverly D. Astra seemed to literally throw herself at the wire to nail Starine right at the finish of the Gamely. Starine saved her lone victory of the year for the day when it counted most, taking the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf.
Vindication carried on the legacy of his sire, Seattle Slew, winning all four of his starts, including the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. His trainer, Bob Baffert, won the Del Mar Futurity for the record seventh straight year, and owner Mike Pegram's entourage celebrated with an Icecoldbeeratreds. Sky Mesa was unbeaten in New York and Kentucky, but was forced out of the Juvenile with a minor injury on the eve of the race. Patrick Biancone won stakes at Saratoga with both Whywhywhy and Zavata. Toccet was the division's workhorse, winning Grade 1 races in New York and California, but was compromised by a severely disadvantageous outside post in the Juvenile.
Storm Flag Flying followed in the footsteps of her dam, My Flag, and granddam, Personal Ensign, by winning a Breeders' Cup race. She re-rallied bravely in the closing yards of the Juvenile Fillies to defeat Composure, the winner of the Oak Leaf. That completed a perfect, 4-for-4 season for Storm Flag Flying. Miss Houdini won the Del Mar Debutante. Awesome Humor won all four of her starts in Kentucky and New York. Ivanavinalot was the queen of south Florida.
Orientate picked up where Snow Ridge left off for trainer D. Wayne Lukas. After Snow Ridge suffered a career-ending injury in early summer, Orientate became the stable's No. 1 sprinter, closing the year with five straight victories, including the Breeders' Cup Sprint. Disturbingthepeace rattled off six straight wins in California before finishing seventh in the Breeders' Cup. Californians D'wildcat (De Francis Dash) and Swept Overboard (Met Mile) shipped east to capture major Grade 1 races. Bonapaw, the king of the Midwest, invaded New York to take the Vosburgh. Gygistar won all five of his races, including the King's Bishop, but had to miss the Breeders' Cup because of a badly bruised foot. Kalookan Queen beat the boys twice, including the Ancient Title. Mighty mite Xtra Heat, though only sixth in the Breeders' Cup, had another productive year, with seven wins in 11 starts, to bring her record to 24 for 33.
It's a Giggle was best early in the year, Zabenz in the middle, and Flat Top late. After a lengthy layoff, It's a Giggle won three times in five starts. By year's end, though, he had died, a symbolic coda to this emotionally draining year.