12/15/2011 12:41PM

2011 Year In Review: Best and worst

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Barbara D. Livingston
Uncle Mo's roller coaster year included a dazzling win in the Kelso (above) and a disappointing 10th in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

After reveling in the exploits of star runners such as Curlin, Rachel Alexandra, and Zenyatta, racing fans could be forgiven for being a bit spoiled. Whether it was those three, or other excellent performers such as Big Brown, Rags to Riches, Indian Blessing, and Lookin At Lucky, handicappers and admirers of the sport had dependable, talented horses to follow.

History will view the 2011 Thoroughbred season as a roller coaster filled with twists, turns, and a strange combination of mediocrity mingled with excellent performances.

It’s almost time for the best horses, trainers, and jockeys of the year to be feted at the annual Eclipse Awards dinner. In the spirit of the event, let’s hand out some unofficial trophies for the best and worst of 2011.

MOST HYPED

Perhaps no horse was more talked about during the 2011 season than Uncle Mo, who entered the year as the winter-book favorite for the Kentucky Derby after a perfect juvenile year.

Before he even set foot on a racetrack in 2011, there were whispers that something was amiss with Uncle Mo. The champ seemed to quiet some of those rumors after a facile victory in the Timely Writer Stakes at Gulfstream, but a subsequent loss in the Grade 1 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct fired up the critics once again. After an illness sidelined Uncle Mo throughout the spring and into the summer, he returned with a vengeance, giving a game runner-up performance in the Grade 1 King’s Bishop Stakes at Saratoga before uncorking a 118 Beyer Speed Figure in whipping his opposition in the Grade 2 Kelso Handicap at Belmont. Still, Uncle Mo’s campaign ended on a sour note − a 10th-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Classic after faltering badly in the final quarter-mile. Uncle Mo didn’t win a Grade 1 race in 2011, but more often than not, his name was on the minds of racing fans.

On the left coast, The Factor was often spoken in the same breath as Uncle Mo. Both were brilliantly fast 3-year-olds with possible distance limitations, and early in the year, the possibility of an Uncle Mo–The Factor showdown had racing fans drooling with anticipation.

Also injured during the season, The Factor returned to defeat older sprinters in the Grade 1 Pat O’Brien Stakes at Del Mar. At the Breeders’ Cup at Churchill Downs, neither Uncle Mo nor The Factor was favored in his race – the Dirt Mile for The Factor, the Classic for Uncle Mo – and both finished off the board. It was a disappointing finish for two horses who may have produced more sizzle than steak.

MOST UNDERRATED

Never Retreat may have been the best horse no one remembers. A 6-year-old mare trained by Chris Block, Never Retreat raced 11 times this season, all in graded company. She won five of those starts: a turf route at Gulfstream, two at Keeneland, and two at Woodbine.

The 3-year-old males seemed to take turns beating up on each other, but Caleb’s Posse flew under the radar for most of the year. He won five stakes races in 2011, including one over champion Uncle Mo in the King’s Bishop and a four-length tour de force over older runners in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile.

Before her surprising loss in late November at Turf Paradise, juvenile filly Page Springs was perfect from five starts. She will never reach household-name status, but the way she won those races was astounding. She was never headed, putting up some gaudy pace figures en route to lopsided wins, including a 112 Moss Pace Figure for the first call of her win in the ATBA Sales Stakes on Oct. 16. Capable of rattling off first quarter-miles of 20 and change, she opened up a 15-length lead after the first two furlongs of an allowance race at Turf Paradise on Oct. 1.

COMEBACK HORSES OF THE YEAR

Don’t feel bad if you counted out Court Vision before his upending of three-time Breeders’ Cup Mile winner Goldikova at Churchill Downs. A graded stakes winner at ages 2 (Iroquois, Remsen), 3 (Jamaica, Hollywood Derby), 4 (Shadwell Turf Mile), and 5 (Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap, Woodbine Mile), Court Vision seemed on his last wheels before the Mile, finishing out of the trifecta in his first four races this year. But he was rejuvenated on that fall afternoon at Churchill Downs, outfinishing champions Goldikova and Gio Ponti at 64-1 odds.

After completing an undefeated championship season in 2010 with a strong victory in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, Awesome Feather came down with a serious tendon injury that put her career in jeopardy. Purchased by Frank Stronach for $2.3 million at last year’s Fasig-Tipton November auction, Awesome Feather was transferred to trainer Chad Brown. The patience paid off. Awesome Feather returned from the lengthy layoff to win the Le Slew Stakes at Belmont before overwhelming her competition in the Grade 1 Gazelle Stakes at Aqueduct on Nov. 26. Awesome Feather earned a career-best Beyer Figure of 99 in the Gazelle, completing a wonderful comeback story.

After his first four starts of the year, Jackson Bend was riding a 12-race losing streak. The diminutive runner exploded at Saratoga, however, winning the James Marvin Stakes before ending the meet with a Grade 1 victory in the Forego Stakes. Second behind Uncle Mo in the Kelso, Jackson Bend completed his year with a third-place finish in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Sprint.

BIG GAME TRAINERS

Bill Mott and Graham Motion obviously had big years, but legendary Irish trainer Aidan O’Brien shipped in from the other side of the pond with pinpoint accuracy. 

After compiling a 5-for-79 record in North America between 2003 and 2010, O’Brien got serious with his classy European invaders. Led by three-time Grade 1 winner Cape Blanco, O’Brien went 7 for 22 (31 percent, a $3.39 return on investment) on this side of the pond in 2011. He took Grade 1 races with Together and Treasure Beach and finished the year by winning two Breeders’ Cup events, including the Turf with St Nicholas Abbey. That race held special significance for O’Brien, whose son Joseph was in the saddle. Coolmore gave a renewed commitment to American racing this year, and the results were sparkling.

WEIRDEST DIVISION

It seemed that every time an older runner was poised to grab the division by the throat, something would happen to knock him back to reality.

Tizway may have won two of the best races for older horses in 2011, the Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap and the Grade 1 Whitney Invitational, but an injury forced his early retirement before the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Pool Play shocked the Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap field to the tune of a $75.20 mutuel but was subsequently hurt taken out of training.

First Dude took the Hollywood Gold Cup but was also whisked off to stud after sustaining a career-ending injury.

Horses like Twirling Candy, Misremembered, and Morning Line had a whale of a time staying sound.

The division was so depleted by physical afflictions and poor efforts that the excellent turf runner Acclamation switched to Polytrack to win Del Mar’s feature race, the Grade 1 Pacific Classic, and top filly Havre de Grace returned a paltry $6.50 in beating up on the boys in the Grade 1 Woodward Stakes at Saratoga.

And, of course, there was Drosselmeyer’s stunning upset in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs.

The bizarro year continued as the redoubtable claimer Rapid Redux’s exploits overshadowed those of the top handicap runners. Rapid Redux stretched his winning streak to 21 on Dec. 13, but he cracked the 90-Beyer range only twice in 2011.

MOST INSPIRATIONAL

Ben’s Cat wasn’t expected ever to make it to the track after suffering a broken pelvis at age 2 before his career debut. Now 5, he has a career record of 20-14-2-1 with earnings of $800,230. Ben’s Cat won six races in 2011, all for trainer King Leatherbury, including the Grade 3 Turf Monster Handicap at Parx.

Fifteen days after the tsunami tragedy in Japan, Victoire Pisa represented that country in the Dubai World Cup. Facing the good European runners Cape Blanco and Twice Over and salty Americans Gio Ponti and Fly Down, Victoire Pisa made a daring midrace move into a dawdling pace and still had enough to hold off another Japanese hopeful, Transcend. 

BIGGEST HEARTBREAKER

Perhaps racing fans should have realized 2011 would be out of the ordinary after Giant Oak’s come-from-behind score in the Grade 1 Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park. A talented son of Giant’s Causeway, Giant Oak had seemingly lacked the will to finish off his opponents in previous campaigns. After the Donn, many analysts − this one included − expected a more mature Giant Oak, one who had newfound killer instincts.

It never happened. Giant Oak failed to crack the exacta in his next seven starts and seemed to hang badly in the final furlong of the Grade 2 Breeders’ Cup Marathon.

Many handicappers get “married” to a horse. My 2011 romance was with Giant Oak. Call the divorce lawyer.