12/29/2016 12:26PM

2016 year in review: Chrome-plated year that glinted like gold

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Emily Shields
Arrogate catches California Chrome in the Breeders' Cup Classic to cap a spectacular two days of championship racing.

This was the year of reinvention, of second acts, be it in the political theater, where a businessman was voted lead politician of the free world, or in racing, where a horse who nearly won the Triple Crown rose anew two years later to become the best horse on the planet.

Nothing in racing can trump a Triple Crown winner, and for years there were many – largely outside the sport – who said all racing needed to boost its popularity was a Triple Crown winner. In 2015, American Pharoah swept the series. But by year’s end – three races later – he was off to stud.

That void was filled magnificently in 2016, though, with perhaps the best collection of runners seen in this country in decades. At least four sure-fire Hall of Famers competed.

California Chrome, who won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 2014 en route to the title as Horse of the Year, had a fallow 2015 that was more notable for ownership squabbles than his racing exploits, but he returned with a vengeance this year and had a near-perfect campaign. The apex was his victory in the Dubai World Cup, which, at the time, made him the top-ranked racehorse in the world.

Beholder, who nearly was retired in 2014 with two Eclipse Awards on her résumé, stayed on the track, and after missing a showdown with American Pharoah in the 2015 Breeders’ Cup helped make the 2016 Breeders’ Cup the most memorable in the event’s history. Her dramatic nose victory over Songbird in the Distaff was a thrilling final chapter in a storied career that will number four year-end titles.

Songbird, the champion 2-year-old filly of 2015, towered over her 3-year-old filly brethren in 2016, and ran her perfect record to 11 wins before suffering her first career loss in the Distaff. She will win a divisional title for the second straight year.

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Tepin, the female grass champion of 2015 when she won the Breeders’ Cup Mile, took her accomplishments to another level by traveling to Royal Ascot to capture the Group 1 Queen Anne Stakes over a straight mile on soft ground, part of a campaign that makes her the favorite to win another Eclipse Award.

Lady Eli, who suffered a severe bout of laminitis in 2015, made it back to the races and won the Grade 1 Flower Bowl before a heartbreaking loss in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf against Queen’s Trust.

And in California, the renewed presence of Prince Khalid Abdullah’s Juddmonte Farms – which left the circuit in the aftermath of trainer Bobby Frankel’s death in 2009 – paid off handsomely in the Breeders’ Cup Classic when the late-developing Arrogate caught California Chrome to conclude a spectacular two-day run for the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita.

There was no Triple Crown winner, not even close, as the three races were won by three different horses – Nyquist, Exaggerator, and Creator – all of whom were retired before the Breeders’ Cup. But a horse who missed the entire Triple Crown won the Classic, the richest race run in the country in 2016, and the overall quality of racing at the top level was sensational. The crowds and the dollars followed, most notably at Santa Anita at the Breeders’ Cup, where the Saturday attendance of 72,811 was the best in a decade, and where the common-pool handle of nearly $160 million for Friday and Saturday even bettered the figures from the previous year, when American Pharoah ran.

There was, indeed, life after – and in addition to – the Triple Crown.

It was especially so for jockey Victor Espinoza, who rode California Chrome in 2014, American Pharoah in 2015, and was back for California Chrome’s encore after American Pharoah was retired.

The comeback of the immensely popular California Chrome was one of the many feel-good stories of the year, one year after acrimony between owners Perry Martin and Steve Coburn threatened to blow it all up. But Taylor Made Farm stepped in to partner with Martin, the majority owner, and when California Chrome was put back in training, trainer Art Sherman anticipated what lay ahead.

“This game needs heroes, and I think he could be one of the heroes again,” Sherman said in January. “I know he’s my hero.”

California Chrome returned from a nine-month layoff to win the San Pasqual, then spent two months in Dubai with Sherman’s son and assistant, Alan, culminating with a dominating victory in the World Cup made even more impressive by the fact California Chrome’s saddle slipped down his back, putting Espinoza in a precarious position. That made up for his second-place finish the prior year, which ended up being his final start of 2015 after plans to run at Royal Ascot were called off when California Chrome sustained bone bruising.

“I was very proud when he won the Dubai World Cup this year,” Alan Sherman said. “It’s very emotional when you win a race in another country and they play your national anthem.”

In the summer, California Chrome won twice at Del Mar, including his dismissive disposal of Grade 1 winners Beholder, Dortmund, and Hoppertunity in the Pacific Classic. He then won the Awesome Again before Arrogate ran him down in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Art Sherman, readily accessible throughout all of California Chrome’s ups and downs, was honored by the Turf Publicists of America as the Big Sport of Turfdom winner.

Arrogate gave trainer Bob Baffert his third straight victory in the Classic, and provided Baffert with a worthy replacement for American Pharoah. Arrogate did not get to the races until April, but a little more than four months later he won the Travers – the only race American Pharoah lost in 2015 – while setting a Saratoga track record for 1 1/4 miles in 13 1/2-length tour de force.

“The Travers was pretty mind-blowing,” Baffert said.

As with American Pharoah, Baffert brought Arrogate into the Classic on works alone, with no intermediate stops following the Travers.

“You can only do that with a great horse,” Baffert said.

Arrogate and California Chrome finished in the next county from the rest of the field in the Classic, which included such accomplished runners as Frosted, whose Met Mile win on Belmont Stakes Day was one of the most-brilliant performances of the year.

Consistent brilliance is what defined Beholder. Although she had finished second in three straight races entering the Distaff – once to California Chrome and twice to Stellar Wind – she put an appropriate ending to her magnificent career by outfinishing her heir apparent in Songbird. Both received heartfelt post-race cheers from the ontrack crowd for the show they put on. Owner B. Wayne Hughes deserved praise for keeping Beholder on the track, and trainer Richard Mandella for keeping her in top company for all five years she raced.

“I’ve had some good feelings in racing, but this is tops right there,” said Gary Stevens, who rode Beholder.

Even though Songbird lost that race, she won seven times, including runaway Grade 1 victories at Saratoga in the Coaching Club American Oaks and Alabama, and a shellacking of Kentucky Oaks winner Cathryn Sophia in the Cotillion. She was part of a sensational summer at Saratoga for jockey Mike Smith, who also jetted in to win the Travers, as well as the King’s Bishop on Drefong.

Drefong went on to win the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, but the feel-good sprint story of the year belonged to 10-year-old gelding Ben’s Cat, who won the Jim McKay Turf Sprint on Preakness Day for the fourth straight year, and fifth time overall.

It was like old times, too, for the connections of 2012 Kentucky Derby winner I’ll Have Another – trainer Doug O’Neill, jockey Mario Gutierrez, and owner Paul Reddam – who said they’d have another Kentucky Derby, winning it for second time in five in the last five runnings when Nyquist prevailed on the first Saturday in May.

Classic Empire bid to follow in Nyquist’s footsteps by winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, as Nyquist had done one year prior.

American Pharoah’s full sister American Cleopatra won her debut, but by year’s end the 2-year-old filly division was topped by Champagne Room, winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies. Lady Aurelia joined Tepin as a Royal Ascot winner, taking the Group 2 Queen Mary for 2-year-old fillies. She followed that up with a win against males in the Group 1 Prix Morny in France.

Tepin rightly got top billing among female turf runners, but Miss Temple City also beat the boys, twice in Grade 1 company. They were part of a robust group of turf milers, including Tourist, who beat them both in the Breeders’ Cup Mile.

Flintshire – like Arrogate owned by Juddmonte Farms – was the nation’s top-ranked long-distance grass runner for most of the year. But in the Breeders’ Cup Turf he couldn’t catch world traveler Highland Reel, who never looked back under a clever ride from Seamie Heffernan, beating Flintshire and Arc winner Found, the 2015 Turf winner.

Trainer Steve Asmussen had a memorable year, winning the Belmont Stakes with Creator just weeks after being voted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame along with Rachel Alexandra, whom he trained. It was fitting, too, that Rachel Alexandra went into the Hall the same year as Zenyatta, another female who was a Horse of the Year. Other inductees were former jockeys Ramon Dominguez and Wayne Wright, and the horse Tom Ochiltree, a two-time champion in the 1870s.

Trainer Keith Desormeaux had his best year yet, topped by Exaggerator’s victory in the Preakness under Hall of Fame jockey Kent Desormeaux, Keith’s brother.

But it was Chad Brown who led all trainers in purse earnings. His runners, including Flintshire and Lady Eli, had earned more than $23 million heading into the final days of the year. Brown won his first Saratoga training title during the summer.

Javier Castellano was atop the jockeys’ standings for the fourth straight year, his mounts this year earning nearly $27 million.

Castellano has 4,593 career wins, which is no small feat, and helps put in perspective the amazing 12,842 victories Russell Baze rang up during his Hall of Fame career, which ended when he retired in June. Calvin Borel also retired, but then returned. Mike Battaglia retired from race calling, and there was movement in the announcer’s booths on the West Coast, where Michael Wrona took over at Santa Anita after the retirement of Trevor Denman, and Frank Mirahmadi replaced Wrona at Golden Gate.

Andrew Beyer and Steven Crist, two of the greatest turf writers of all-time, also retired. Their significant contributions to the sport overall and to horseplayers specifically were cited as reasons for both being named winners of the Eclipse Award of Merit.

Some stories weren’t so satisfying. The saga of former trainer Maria Borell took an ugly turn when she and her father, Charles, were charged with animal cruelty in the case of 43 horses found abandoned on a farm in Kentucky, less than eight months after she was in the winner’s circle following the Breeders’ Cup Sprint with Runhappy. Charles pled guilty to nine counts, but Maria has yet to be held accountable in court. The Sprint was in the headlines again after its most recent running, when second-place finisher Masochistic was found to have trace amounts of a steroid in his system, a violation that will result in his disqualification.

As in the world at large, racing had a particularly dark year in terms of notable deaths, including former jockey Garrett Gomez, former trainer Jeff Lukas, and Ogden Mills “Dinny” Phipps, the longtime chairman of The Jockey Club whose family has bred and raced the best for generations.

Others who died in 2016 included current or former jockeys Tony Diaz, Bill Mahorney, Fray Martinez, Steve Neff, and Walter Swinburn; trainers Tom McCarthy, Britt McGehee, Cole Norman, Monique Snowden, and Keith Stucki; owners and breeders Ted Bates, Fred Bradley, Norman Casse, Richard Eamer, Harry Meyerhoff, Gretchen Mobberley, Dolphus Morrison, Chuck Sandford, Joe Stritzl, and Wheelock Whitney; track executives Lorraine King and Steve Sexton; Jockey Club registrar Buddy Bishop; exercise rider Steve Willard; racing official Richard Wheeler; handicapper Russ Harris; broadcaster Ernie Myers; journalists Peter Finney, Marianna Haun, Gene Stevens, and Larry Weinbaum; artist Christine Picavet; photographer Bill Mochon; former racebook impresario and tournament pioneer Muggsy Muniz; hornblower Bucky Sallee; and racecallers Phil Georgeff, Phil Salzman, and Daryl Wells Jr.

Three former champion sprinters – Cherokee Run, Gulch, and Smoke Glacken – and Kentucky Derby winner Monarchos were among the prominent horses who died during the past year. Other well-known former runners who died were the stallions Arch, Aussie Rules, Brilliant Speed, Exchange Rate, Hurricane Run, King Glorious, Kingmambo, Leroidesanimeaux, Northern Spur, Not For Love, Offlee Wild, Proud Citizen, Quiet American, Seeking the Gold, Timber Country, Turkoman, Vicar, and Wallenda, and the mares Havana Belle, Hidden Lake, Plenty of Grace, Somali Lemonade, Storm Flag Flying, and Tranquility Lake.

Current or recent runners who died included Chasing Aces, Found Money, Grand Tito, Homeboykris, Materiality, Miss Pink Diva, O.B. Harbor, Recepta, San Onofre, Stradivari, The Chilli Man, Toowindytohaulrox, and Vicar’s in Trouble, and the Grade 1-winning steeplechasers Bob Le Beau and Gustavian.