12/27/2012 12:34PM

2012 Year In Review: Illman's unofficial year-end awards

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Frankel wins the June 19 Queen Anne Stakes, one of his five Group 1 wins in 2012. Frankel scored his wins by a combined 30 3/4 lengths.

As the New Year looms ever closer, let’s pause to reflect on the many exciting moments that defined the 2012 Thoroughbred season. Since December is a month for giving, it feels like an appropriate time to hand out our annual unofficial awards.
 

SUPERSTAR OF THE YEAR

Wise Dan, Groupie Doll, and Royal Delta were brilliant. Little Mike and Shackleford displayed immense courage. I’ll Have Another gave the sport a needed shot in the arm.

But Frankel was flawless.

After winning all nine of his starts in 2010 and 2011, no one would have been shocked if Frankel was retired. After all, isn’t that how the business of racing is conducted in this era? Horses race sparingly, earn minor accolades on the track, and are quickly transferred to the cash cow that is the breeding shed.

Not Frankel.

::REPLAYS: Watch Dan Illman's top races of 2012

The brilliant son of Galileo returned for five more Group 1 races and won them by a combined 30 3/4 lengths at distances between a mile and 1 5/16 miles. He wasn’t just beating ham-and-eggers either. Throughout his career, he turned Group 1 winners Excelebration, Immortal Verse, Canford Cliffs, Nathaniel, Treasure Beach, Roderic O’Connor, Helmet, Dick Turpin, Poet’s Voice, Rio de la Plata, Zoffany, Dream Ahead, Wootton Basset, Grand Prix Boss, Pathfork, Casamento, Colour Vision, St Nicholas Abbey, Twice Over, Planteur, and Cirrus des Aigles into quivering masses of jelly.

Frankel’s uncanny ability to make very good horses look ordinary set him apart from the rest of the breed.
 

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Another year, another lost opportunity for a Triple Crown winner.

I’ll Have Another wowed racing fans with his determined performances in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes and was odds-on to become the first American Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. Then, as has been the case all too often in recent years, the balloon burst. I’ll Have Another was withdrawn from the Belmont Stakes the day before the event, and an exciting stretch battle between Union Rags and Paynter was overshadowed by his absence.

Considering the demanding prep schedule before the Kentucky Derby, the different distances and surfaces of the Triple Crown races, and the short recovery time between starts, the Triple Crown is among the most difficult feats in all of sports. A 3-year-old must be immensely talented, loaded with speed and stamina, and blessed with the good fortune to escape injury.
 

IRON HORSE

After competing in all three Triple Crown races and a Breeders’ Cup event in 2011, Shackleford danced just about every tango this year. The popular 4-year-old raced eight times in 2012, all for Dale Romans, all at the Grade 1 or Grade 2 level. Not only did he gut out the Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap at one mile and the Grade 1 Clark Handicap at nine furlongs, Shackleford also proved his mettle sprinting with a victory in the Grade 2 Churchill Downs Stakes.

Racing needs more horses like Shackleford, blue-collar warriors who show up for work ready for battle. Casual fans get to know horses like these and can easily follow their exploits without being disappointed when they retire after only a few races.

Romans also raced Little Mike seven times, and Little Mike kept proving the naysayers wrong. Compromised by injury in 2011, he returned over the winter with his usual potent early speed intact. Many felt a mile would be his limit, but Little Mike won the Grade 1 Turf Classic at 1 1/8 miles at Churchill Downs, the Grade 1 Arlington Million at 1 1/4 miles, and the Breeders’ Cup Turf at 1 1/2 miles.
 

TOUGH BEATS

Going into the year, expectations were high for Donnie Von Hemel’s Caleb’s Posse, the 2011 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile winner. A late-runner proficient at distances ranging from 5 1/2 furlongs to
1 1/16 miles, Caleb’s Posse made his 2012 debut in the Grade 3 Tom Fool Handicap on March 3. After trailing for the first half-mile over the Aqueduct inner track, Caleb’s Posse roared down the stretch, only to drop a neck decision to Calibrachoa.

The following month, in the Grade 1 Carter Handicap, Caleb’s Posse again rallied from last. This time he lost a nose photo to the gritty Jackson Bend.

On May 28, Caleb’s Posse again attempted a last-to-first bid in the Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap at Belmont Park. After eight testing furlongs, Caleb’s Posse was a nostril shy of the classy Shackleford.

Three starts, three lost photos. Fans of Caleb’s Posse may not have much hair left.
 

ICE MAN OF THE YEAR

Brian Hernandez Jr. has always been a solid jockey, albeit one who lacked the national media exposure given to a Mike Smith or Ramon Dominguez. Hernandez fit Fort Larned like a glove, however, and gave two of the most intelligent rides of the year with the big money on the line.

In the Grade 1 Whitney Handicap at Saratoga on Aug. 4, Hernandez was aggressive early from the outside post in the field of nine. He positioned Fort Larned just off the early leaders while three wide and outside of traffic before making a dramatic bid for the lead on the far turn. Fort Larned opened an insurmountable advantage with that decisive move, and quality late-runners such as Ron the Greek and Flat Out simply couldn’t catch him.

In the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Hernandez recognized the speed-favoring nature of the Santa Anita main track and put Fort Larned on the lead. Instead of completely rating the pacesetter until the stretch, Hernandez opened daylight on Mucho Macho Man on the final bend. Mucho Macho Man grinded away, but Fort Larned always found a little more. The tactical advantage that Hernandez afforded to Fort Larned may have made all the difference.
 

MOST HYPED

Each summer, the voices can be heard throughout the Saratoga backstretch. They begin as whispers, but soon there is a crescendo, and the word is out on a fast 2-year-old supposedly destined to make racing fans forget Secretariat.

Not surprisingly, Todd Pletcher’s barn gets the most attention when it comes to talented babies at the Spa. In 2012, Pletcher went 23 for 67 (34 percent, $2.42 return on investment) with his juvenile performers at Saratoga and won such notable races as the Grade 2 Adirondack Stakes with Kauai Katie and the Grade 2 Hopeful Stakes with probable 2-year-old champion Shanghai Bobby.

But it was Archwarrior who received most of the buzz.

Archwarrior, a $375,000 auction purchase, was withdrawn from a maiden race because of a sloppy track Aug. 11. The following day, he added to his growing reputation by working with the older Stay Thirsty, Pletcher’s 2011 Travers winner. After scratching from the also-eligible list Aug. 25, Archwarrior made his long-awaited debut five days later in a six-furlong maiden special weight.

Archwarrior, bet down to 25 cents on the dollar, gave a professional performance to win by 3 1/4 lengths with an 83 Beyer. Although he could do no better than fourth in his second start, the Grade 1 Champagne Stakes won by Shanghai Bobby, hopes remain high for his 3-year-old season.

Perhaps no horse in recent memory was as popular as the great Zenyatta, so it was understandable that Eblouissante’s every move was scrutinized. Zenyatta’s 3-year-old half-sister showed a plethora of workouts for trainer John Shirreffs before finally making her debut at Hollywood Park on Nov. 16. Eblouissante didn’t disappoint Zenyatta’s legion of fans, utilizing her older sibling’s late-running tactics to breeze by her opponents in the stretch. She earned an 88 Beyer.

Flashback was reported to be a talented juvenile before his winning debut at Hollywood on Dec. 8. A full brother to multiple Grade 1 winner Zazu, Flashback gave an excellent effort for Bob Baffert with a 93 Beyer Speed Figure. He’ll be given every chance to succeed in major graded stakes at 3.
 

COMEBACK OF THE YEAR

It wasn’t a winning effort, but Animal Kingdom gave a top-class performance when second to the extremely talented Wise Dan in the Breeders’ Cup Mile. The 2011 Kentucky Derby hero, Animal Kingdom has raced only twice since that year’s Belmont Stakes because of various physical ailments. Credit the patience of his owners, Team Valor International; the horsemanship of his trainer, Graham Motion; and the inherent ability of the racehorse for his excellent Breeders’ Cup showing. Remember, the Mile was Animal Kingdom’s first start since February, and he was buried behind horses while on the inside turning for home. Once clear, Animal Kingdom finished his final quarter-mile in 22.32. If Animal Kingdom can remain healthy, his major short-term goal is the Dubai World Cup on March 30, 2013.

Richard’s Kid left for Dubai in the winter of 2010 as one of the top handicap horses in the country, having just won the Grade 1 Pacific Classic at Del Mar and the Grade 1 Goodwood Stakes at Santa Anita. When he returned this spring, his form looked ragged following five non-threatening performances over the Tapeta surface at Meydan. Many could be forgiven for believing 7-year-old Richard’s Kid was too long in the tooth to successfully compete in good races, but he proved the skeptics wrong by competing seven times in the United States in 2012. Richard’s Kid won twice, breaking a pair of track records in the process, and placed in three Grade 1 races.

Wise Dan was one of the very best runners under tack in 2012, but his older half-brother Successful Dan also showed some gumption. Returning from a second year-plus layoff because of suspensory issues, Successful Dan won two of three starts, including the Grade 2 Alysheba Stakes over Fort Larned.
 

MOST UNDERRATED PREP RACE

Ask most horsemen about the top prep races for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and they’ll mention major Grade 1 events such as the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont, the Woodward Stakes and Whitney Handicap at Saratoga, the Pacific Classic at Del Mar, and the Awesome Again Stakes at Santa Anita.

While the Jockey Club Gold Cup has produced the last three winners of the Classic, the ungraded Challenger Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs has also emerged as a proving ground for top talent.

In 2011, Classic winner Drosselmeyer began his 4-year-old campaign with a fourth-place finish in the Challenger. This year, Fort Larned won it en route to a Classic score at Santa Anita.

The 2010 Challenger didn’t produce a Classic winner, but Arson Squad, second in the Challenger that year, returned from the race to take a pair of Grade 3 events. Meanwhile, fifth-place finisher Birdrun grabbed the Grade 2 Brooklyn Handicap the following year before placing second in the Breeders’ Cup Marathon.

Three months after prevailing in the 2008 Challenger, race winner Wayzata Bay scored in the Grade 2 Cornhusker Handicap at Prairie Meadows.

Istan, the 2007 Challenger winner, went on to win a pair of Grade 3 races that year, including a 111 Beyer tally in the Ack Ack Handicap at Churchill Downs. Fourth-finisher Gottcha Gold eventually won three graded events and finished second by a neck in the Grade 1 Pimlico Special in 2008.

Seek Gold, the 2006 Challenger runner-up, shocked Grade 1 foes at 91-1 in that year’s Stephen Foster Handicap. Tap Day, the 2005 winner, captured the Grade 2 Meadowlands Cup later that fall.

The 2013 edition of the Challenger will be contested at 1 1/16 miles on March 2.

chad mc rory More than 1 year ago
Why does Black Caviar get not even a mention...
Turnbackthealarm More than 1 year ago
Dan, Fabulous article! I couldn't agree more about Brian Hernandez. I think you hit the highest highs and the lowest lows. Have a great New Year and can't wait to see you at Gulfstream, but better yet, at the NHC!