12/15/2011 3:31PM

2011 Year In Review: A season of highs and lows

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Barbara D. Livingston
The sun sets behind trainer Larry Jones and Havre de Grace hours after she joined Rachel Alexandra as the only females to win the Woodward in September.

Larry Jones got to be friendly with John Shirreffs a few years ago when the trainers had their horses stabled near one another the week of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. By the end of 2009, when Shirreffs trained Zenyatta to her popular victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita, and the following year, when Zenyatta came up just short in her quest to close an undefeated career in the Classic at Churchill Downs, Jones was on the sidelines. He first called it a retirement, but it turned out to be a sabbatical.

Zenyatta was retired at the end of 2010, around the time Jones decided to jump back in as a trainer. Owner Rick Porter, who had enjoyed a long, successful association with Jones, sent him a handful of horses, including Havre de Grace, who had closed her 2010 campaign with a third-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic for trainer Tony Dutrow.

Jones gave Havre de Grace a thorough examination in her stall when she first arrived in his barn at the beginning of this year. He was awestruck.

"She had the best heart I've found in any horse," Jones said. "She had the best throat system. She had good size. She had good conformation − not perfect, but nothing to complain about. I thought her potential was unlimited."

Jones then turned to his right-hand man, groom Corey York, and said, "This is gonna be our Zenyatta."

Like Zenyatta, Havre de Grace was given a chance to defeat males. She did it in the Woodward Stakes at Saratoga but came up short in the Breeders' Cup Classic, finishing fourth. Her overall body of work may very well bring Havre de Grace the Eclipse Award as Horse of the Year, which would put her on the same plateau as fellow females Rachel Alexandra in 2009 and Zenyatta in 2010. It would mark the first time in history that females won Horse of the Year three straight years.

But Havre de Grace's fourth-place finish in the Classic, while an unsatisfying final act to the year, was an appropriate symbol for 2011. More than any year in recent memory, this was a season where great hopes were dashed, where high promise more often than not led to crushing disappointment.

There was no better example than Uncle Mo.

Uncle Mo came into this year following a 2-year-old campaign that mirrored that of Seattle Slew. He was the overwhelming front-runner for the Kentucky Derby. But Uncle Mo lost for the first time in the Wood Memorial, then was taken out of training on the eve of the Derby with what turned out to be a liver ailment. He returned in the fall for trainer Todd Pletcher and owner Mike Repole, turning in two excellent efforts, but then went out with a whimper in the Breeders' Cup Classic, which proved to be the final start of his mercurial career.

The Triple Crown was won by three horses − Animal Kingdom in the Kentucky Derby, Shackleford in the Preakness, and Ruler On Ice in the Belmont − but Animal Kingdom was done for the year after being injured in the Belmont, and the other two failed to take charge of the 3-year-old male division.

Blind Luck and Havre de Grace put on a show for the ages in the Delaware Handicap, but they never faced one another again. Blind Luck, a model of consistency and toughness throughout her career, ran just once more but never put forth any effort in the Lady's Secret and subsequently was retired.

The best older males also failed to complete their mission. Tizway was brilliant when he showed up, winning the Met Mile and Whitney, but his fragility limited him to four starts, and he failed to make it to the Breeders' Cup. In California, Acclamation put together a strong string of races, winning five in a row − three Grade 1's, on turf and synthetic − but he, too, went to the sidelines before the Breeders' Cup.

The great turf mare Goldikova did make it to the Breeders' Cup, but she failed in her quest for an unprecedented fourth straight victory in the Breeders' Cup Mile, finishing third despite wiping out a number of her rivals with an indelicate right-hand turn at the top of the stretch.

No, the horse who proved the most consistent in 2011 was the blue-collar runner Rapid Redux, a 5-year-old gelding who ran his record to 21 straight, 19 so far this calendar year, while beating up on lowly starter-allowance company in the mid-Atlantic region. While staying sound enough to win that many races is a terrific feat, there was some talk of supporting him for Horse of the Year, a fanciful notion that proves just how desperate people were to latch on to something − anything − this year.

YEAR IN REVIEW: Dan Illman's best and worst of 2011 | Top 10 races of the year | Key dates

MORE: Q&A with trainer Chris Block | Handicapping roundups

There were moments of great satisfaction, though, led by Havre de Grace's victory in the Woodward.

Trainer Graham Motion pushed all the right buttons with Animal Kingdom leading up to the Derby, beginning with a brilliant workout over the Churchill Downs main track the weekend before the race.

Bill Mott put on a Hall of Fame training clinic the week of the Breeders' Cup, culminating with victories by Royal Delta in the Ladies' Classic and Drosselmeyer in the Classic. Royal Delta was sold at auction days later for $8.5 million to Benjamin Leon, who sent her back to Mott for a 2012 campaign.

There might not have been a more joyous scene than lanky 18-year-old jockey Joseph O'Brien, riding for his father, Aidan, and bringing home a victorious St Nicholas Abbey in the Breeders' Cup Turf.

After his namesake, Hansen, won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, Dr. Kendall Hansen practically danced into the winner's circle, his friends and family chanting, "Han-sen, Han-sen," then got on his knees and kissed the ground.

The likeable veteran trainer Scooter Dickey became so emotional he could not talk after winning the Jockey Club Gold Cup with Flat Out, his first Grade 1 win after 50 years in the game.

In New York after a decade-long delay, hope sprang anew with the opening of a casino at Aqueduct, revenue from which was projected to cause a dramatic increase in purses in 2012.

Churchill Downs drew a record crowd of 164,858 to this year's Derby, survived a wicked tornado in June with, miraculously, no loss of life to people or horses, and for the second straight year put on a successful Breeders' Cup, an event that was expanded to 15 races for its 28th running.

Steve Asmussen kept piling up the winners, recording victory number 6,000 in a year highlighted by his training of My Miss Aurelia, who completed an unbeaten campaign with her dominating score in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies.

Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, who beat Asmussen to 6,000 by a couple of months, at long last joined the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. His fellow inductees were trainer Matthew Byrnes, jockey Shelby "Pike" Barnes, 19th century star colt Duke of Magenta, and contemporary female racehorses Open Mind, Safely Kept, and Sky Beauty.

Mario Pino moved into 13th place on the all-time win list among jockeys with number 6,385. Cornelio Velasquez, who began his career in his native Panama, earned his 3,000th win in North America.

No incident this year perhaps melded the highs and lows of the game better than the Kentucky Derby. Jockey John Velazquez earned his first victory in that race, but it came at the expense of Robby Albarado, who was originally scheduled to ride Animal Kingdom for owner Team Valor International.

Albarado suffered a broken nose and cuts the Wednesday of Derby week. After Albarado took off Thursday and Friday, Team Valor chief executive Barry Irwin replaced him on Animal Kingdom with Velazquez, who became available when Uncle Mo scratched. Albarado has never won the Derby.
That wasn't the only soap opera.

Trainer Richard Dutrow Jr. was handed a draconian 10-year suspension by the New York State Racing and Wagering Board for medication violations, but he received a stay while the ruling is being appealed.

John Veitch was fired as the chief steward of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission following a tumultuous 12 months. That stretch included the controversial handling of Life At Ten before and immediately after her somnambulant effort in the 2010 Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic, the decision to leave Goldikova in third following a rough stretch run of this year's Breeders' Cup Mile, and an error in posting the proper order of finish in a race in September at Kentucky Downs, which resulted in incorrect superfecta payoffs. Veitch has appealed the dismissal to the Kentucky Personnel Board. On Dec. 14, a Kentucky report based on hearings last summer recommended a one-year suspension of Veitch's license for violating several racing regulations in the Life At Ten incident.

The process of turning Monmouth Park from state to private ownership took new twists and turns with the machinations of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and his minions.

The stagnant economy contributed to an ongoing downturn in overall handle, and though there was a continuing contraction of the foal crop, there were glimmers of hope at the major sales that the bloodstock market was beginning to rebound.

Proof of that was Royal Delta, but her sale was necessitated by the death of her owner, Prince Saud bin Khalid, who raced as Palides Investments. Several other prominent racing figures died, notably Jess Jackson, who raced Rachel Alexandra and Curlin, who were responsible for three consecutive Horse of the Year titles from 2007-2009.

Other prominent owners and breeders who passed included Frank Alesia, Keith Card, Joe Cornacchia, Pete Cristofi, Terry Lanni, Mel Lawson, Carl Lizza, Mike Sherman, Mace Siegel, and Bentley Smith.

John Sosby, for years the farm manager at Claiborne Farm, died, but his distinctive Southern drawl still captivates those who watch "The Greatest Race" in the Kentucky Derby Museum. Robert Green, who managed Elmendorf and Greentree, also passed.

Elliott Burch and Carl Hanford, trainers whose body of work put them in the Hall of Fame, both died this year, as did trainers Nancy Alberts, Diane Carpenter, Pete Ferriola, Thomas Heard Jr., Bob Holthus, Dominic Imprescia, and Larry Sterling.

Jockey Michael Baze, just 24, died, as did Joe Farley and former riders Bill Harmatz, Garth Patterson, Larry Saumell, and Webb Snyder.

William Donald Schaefer, the former Maryland governor and Baltimore city mayor who was such a strong advocate of the sport that he had a race at Pimlico named for him, also died.

Also passing were journalists Lucy Acton, Stan Bergstein, and Phil Jones, journalist-turned-realtor Arnold Kirkpatrick, publicist Bill Fidati, veterinarians Dr. Woody Asbury and Dr. Manuel Gilman, former steward Joe Anderson, popular jockey agent Bill Barisoff, and one of racing's most notorious figures, Dr. Mark Gerard, who in 1977 orchestrated the scandalous Cinzano-Lebon horse swap, for which he was convicted.

Prominent horses who died included current runners Banned and J.C.'s Pride; stallions Awad, Bernstein, Invisible Ink, Paradise Creek, Polish Navy, Rahy, Sadler's Wells, and Strike the Gold; and the mares Brown Bess, Fleet Indian, Miesque, Soviet Problem, and Cee's Song, the dam of two-time Breeders' Cup Classic winner Tiznow.

Cot Campbell, who has steered Dogwood Stables for four decades, eased into what he called "semi-retirement," while jockey Patrick Valenzuela and trainer Ramon "Mike" Hernandez also stepped away from the game.

Terry Wallace, who called 20,191 consecutive races at Oaklawn Park, also retired after his 37th season at the Arkansas track. But Wallace went out seeing the best, with his final two calls of the prestigious Apple Blossom won by Zenyatta in 2010 and Havre de Grace this year.

Read more: Division-by-division breakdown of 2011