12/16/2010 2:55PM

Awarding the highs and lows of 2010

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Barbara D. Livingston
Eskendereya stamped himself as the Derby favorite with a 9 3/4-length win in the Wood Memorial, but he suffered a career-ending injury a week before the Derby.

Racing fans will look back on 2010 and be extremely satisfied with the performances of the sport’s star athletes.

Blame and Quality Road held down the fort in a strong handicap division.

Lookin At Lucky continued to dominate his fellow foals of 2007.

Blind Luck, Havre de Grace, Devil May Care, and Evening Jewel helped make the 3-year-old fillies an exciting bunch.

Do you want to talk turf? How about Gio Ponti, the consistent Paddy O’Prado, Proviso, and The Usual Q. T.?

Like 2-year-olds? Uncle Mo, To Honor and Serve, Boys At Tosconova, and Awesome Feather all delivered while still leaving us salivating for more.

What about European imports? Do the names Dangerous Midge, Chinchon, and Debussy ring a bell? I know the incomparable Goldikova needs no introduction.

And then there’s Zenyatta. The perfect streak is gone, but her exploits on the racetrack will never be forgotten. When Zenyatta strutted to the post, it was cool to be a racing fan again. And she always, even in defeat, delivered drama and unbridled excitement.

Yes, 2010 was truly a tremendous year. But with the Eclipse Awards almost upon us, it seems fitting to dole out some unofficial trophies for the best and worst of the season.

Biggest disappointment

It was supposed to be the race of the decade. Rachel Alexandra, the 2009 Horse of the Year, against Zenyatta, the then-undefeated reigning Breeders’ Cup Classic champion. The two ladies grappled head to head in the Eclipse balloting, but they never faced each other on the track. Who was better? We were supposed to find the answer in the Apple Blossom Invitational at charming Oaklawn Park. It wasn’t to be. Rachel Alexandra was shocked in her seasonal debut at Fair Grounds, never truly returned to her 2009 form, and skipped the Apple Blossom. Zenyatta shipped in, took no prisoners, and went back home to California still unblemished. It was a moral victory for Zenyatta’s supporters, but nothing more. There weren’t many disappointments throughout 2010, but the race that wasn’t topped the small list.

Almost as upsetting was the early retirement of the brilliant Eskendereya. After winning the Fountain of Youth by 8 1/2 lengths with a Beyer Speed Figure of 106, this son of Giant’s Causeway confirmed favoritism for the Kentucky Derby with a 9 3/4-length, 109-Beyer score in the Wood Memorial. As was the case with Derby chalk I Want Revenge in 2009, Eskendereya missed the Run for the Roses with a career-ending injury. It’s a shame that we got only a glimpse of this very talented colt.

They didn’t disappoint

The last juvenile champion to earn an Eclipse Award as best 3-year-old was Spectacular Bid in 1978-79, so it wouldn’t have been a surprise if Lookin At Lucky, the leading 2-year-old of last year, was usurped in 2010. It didn’t happen. Battling a slew of illnesses throughout the season, Lookin At Lucky won the Rebel at Oaklawn and had terrible trips in the Santa Anita Derby and Kentucky Derby before capturing the second jewel of racing’s Triple Crown in the Preakness at Pimlico. After passing on the Belmont Stakes, Lookin At Lucky gave one of the best performances by a 3-year-old colt this year in the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth and backed up that win with a facile score in the Indiana Derby at Hoosier Park. In the final start of his career, and his only race against older rivals, Lookin At Lucky finished fourth behind Blame and Zenyatta in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. That probably cemented another year-end Eclipse for Lookin At Lucky, who is now off to stud.

Honorable mentions go to Blind Luck, a multiple Grade 1 winner at 2 last year who continued to prove her class this season; the tough-as-nails Gio Ponti; and three-time Breeders’ Cup Mile heroine Goldikova.

Most underwhelming

Remember She Be Wild? Last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies winner and champion 2-year-old filly raced only twice in 2010 before suffering a fractured pastern that knocked her out for the remainder of the year. A synthetic specialist, She Be Wild ran fifth as the 7-5 favorite on dirt in the Forward Gal Stakes at Gulfstream to kick-start her year. A third-place finish, again as the favorite, in the Ashland at Keeneland was her last start of 2010.

Two other Breeders’ Cup winners from 2009 also failed to reproduce their best form. California Flag looked like he was on his way to more good things after finishing third in the Group 3 Al Quoz Sprint at Meydan and winning the Green Flash Handicap at Del Mar. But he flopped in the Grade 3 Woodford at Keeneland, finishing last of 11, before finishing eighth in defense of his Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint title.

Informed Decision won two Grade 3 races in 2010, but she never looked like the filly who compiled a 7-6-0-1 record the previous year. A four-time beaten favorite, Informed Decision finished seventh when she tried to make it two Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprints in a row.

Most underrated

Where to begin? With Zenyatta, Rachel Alexandra, and the Triple Crown dominating the headlines, many very good horses didn’t get the press they deserved.

Evening Jewel, a California-bred daughter of Northern Afleet, proved as honest as the day is long. She went 9-4-3-2 in 2010, with Grade 1 wins on synthetic (Ashland) and turf (Del Mar Oaks). She also took a pair of Grade 2 races on grass, but it was the narrow, tough-luck defeats that kept her out of the mainstream. In the Grade 3 Santa Ysabel, she was beaten a length by Crisp. If not for two of Blind Luck’s noses, she would have won the Grade 1 Las Virgenes over Pro-Ride and the prestigious Kentucky Oaks on dirt. She finished third in her final two starts of 2010, including her first attempt against older runners in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint.

Discreetly Mine gave his connections a case of the old Derby fever after winning the Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds at 1 1/16 miles Feb. 20. But a fourth-place finish as the favorite in the Louisiana Derby coupled with a 13th in the Kentucky Derby quelled hopes for longer-distance races. Instead, Discreetly Mine turned back in distance, was courageous in defeat after being hooked in a speed duel in the Woody Stephens on Belmont Stakes afternoon, and then reeled off three jaw-dropping sprint tallies, including a 111 Beyer effort in the Grade 2 Amsterdam at Saratoga. Discreetly Mine missed the Breeders’ Cup Sprint because of an injured left stifle and was retired in December.

Havre de Grace emerged from relative obscurity to butt heads with Blind Luck in some thrilling races over the summer. A Saint Liam filly, she was nosed out by Blind Luck in the Grade 2 Delaware Oaks and fell a neck shy of her in the Grade 1 Alabama at Saratoga. Havre de Grace finally got her revenge in the Grade 2 Fitz Dixon Cotillion at Parx Racing on Oct. 2 before finishing third against the older Unrivaled Belle and, you guessed it, Blind Luck in the Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic. Havre de Grace was never off the board in six starts this year and will return for a 4-year-old campaign.

Tuscan Evening went 6 for 6 in graded races on turf in 2010. She won at distances ranging from 6 1/2 furlongs to 1 3/16 miles but never got the credit she deserved while on her amazing run. Then, she was gone, a victim of a fatal heart attack while preparing for the Beverly D. Stakes.

Most underrated future stars

Everyone knows Uncle Mo, To Honor and Serve, and Awesome Feather. But a pair of juvenile fillies opened eyes in the latter part of 2010, and they could hold the key to some big pots next year. Dancinginherdreams won her two starts by a combined 10 1/4 lengths. She displayed a strong turn of foot to win her maiden at six furlongs over the Keeneland Polytrack before professionally slipping through along the inside to take the Grade 2 Pocahontas at a mile on dirt at Churchill Downs. A daughter of Tapit trained by John Ward, she looms a Kentucky Oaks contender if she remains healthy.

On the West Coast, Turbulent Descent has yet to get out of a gallop in her three races. A Congrats filly who sold for $160,000 earlier this year, she stamped herself as one of the best 2-year-old fillies in the West Coast with victories in the Moccasin at seven furlongs and the Hollywood Starlet at 1 1/16 miles.

Most overrated

The Kentucky Derby provided some fascinating story lines. Todd Pletcher finally won the roses. Calvin Borel duped the other riders, yet again, with a rail-skimming ride on Super Saver. Nick Zito was frustrated with the terrible trip endured by runner-up Ice Box. But the top two finishers never ran back to their performances in the Derby. Perhaps they weren’t very good to start with. Super Saver, eligible for an N3L before the Derby, ran eighth in the Preakness, faltered to fourth after making a menacing run in the Haskell, and finished 10th of 11 in the Travers before being retired to stud.

Ice Box reportedly flipped his palate when he ran eighth as the favorite in the Belmont, finished eighth in the Travers, and was next-to-last in the Haskell and Monmouth Cup.

Tough-luck trainers

Nick Zito (above) doesn’t need our sympathy. With more than $5.5 million in earnings in 2010, he doesn’t need our charity either. But if not for a few bobs here and there, Zito would have a great deal more in the bank. In graded stakes races of 2010, Zito compiled a 3-for-45 record with 10 seconds and six thirds. Many of the losses were heartbreaking. Ice Box was stopped on multiple occasions en route to finishing second in the Derby. Fly Down was beaten three-quarters of a length in the Belmont and a nose in the Travers, and he finished third behind Blame and Zenyatta in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Morning Line did all the running in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, only to be overhauled in the waning strides by longshot Dakota Phone. Also in that race, Zito’s Cool Coal Man finished fourth, beaten less than five lengths. Zito’s gritty Jackson Bend, second in the Holy Bull, Fountain of Youth, and Wood Memorial, was beaten less than a length when third in the Preakness.

Like Zito, Steve Asmussen is a premier horseman. But even a barn full of quality horses can suffer from injury and disappointment. Rachel Alexandra never returned to her best after an unprecedented campaign at 3. Majesticperfection, the top sprinter in the land following Beyer Speed Figures of 117 (Iowa Sprint Handicap) and 115 (Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap), suffered a fractured leg and had to be prematurely retired. Finally, Kantharos, the brilliant, undefeated juvenile who won his three starts by a combined 28 1/2 lengths, was forced into an early stud career following a leg fracture.

Something tells me Zito and Asmussen will be loaded for bear in 2011.

Under-the-radar trainers

Led by stable stars Successful Dan, Here Comes Ben, Wise Dan, Turallure, and Lady’s Laughter, Charles Lopresti compiled a 16-6-1-4 record in stakes races. Successful Dan won the Grade 2 Fayette and would have added a Grade 1 win in the Clark Handicap, if not for his disqualification from first. Here Comes Ben won his first four starts 2010, including the Grade 1 Forego at Saratoga, before finishing 11th in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile.

Bret Calhoun wins tons of races annually, but he broke through on the national stage in 2010. Calhoun went 32-5-7-6 in graded stakes races, including Breeders’ Cup victories with Chamberlain Bridge (Turf Sprint) and Dubai Majesty (Filly and Mare Sprint).

David Fawkes earned his first Breeders’ Cup victory when Big Drama took the Sprint, but his horses were consistently excellent in 2010. In graded stakes races, Fawkes went 13-5-3-1. Duke of Mischief helped carry the stable with big wins in the Grade 3 Fort Lauderdale Handicap at Gulfstream, the Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap, and the Grade 3 Philip H. Iselin Handicap.