12/31/2009 12:00AM

Best of the decade

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Who were the best horses in the U.S. over the last 10 years?

Now that the decade of the 2000's is finally over, let's stop arguing about Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta for a few minutes and ask a different question: Who were the best horses who raced in the United States over the last 10 years?

There are two ways to conduct the inquiry. The first is to try to summon up the 10 or 20 best of them all - regardless of age, sex, distance, or surface - and attempt to rank them. I've chosen the other, which is to analyze the decade the way Eclipse Award voters are asked to analyze each racing season - division by division, with a winner in each major category.

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What follows is an attempt to compare the championship seasons of the last 10 years of Eclipse winners in 10 divisions: male and female 2-year-olds, 3-year-olds, older horses, and turf horses. Since an Eclipse for female sprinters was instituted only two years ago, I have a single category for sprinters. The 10th and final category is an entirely personal choice for a Horse of the Decade. In each division, I tried to boil down as many as 10 champions of the 2000's to three finalists and then ranked them in my order of preference.

2-year-old males

The biggest problem with comparing a decade's champion 2-year-olds is resisting the temptation to be influenced by how they developed thereafter. By that standard, Street Sense, who went on to win the 2007 Kentucky Derby and Travers, would be a runaway winner - but on 2-year-old form alone he only noses out Vindication for my bronze medal.

3. Street Sense (2006) blasted through at the rail to win the Breeders' Cup Juvenile by 10 lengths at Churchill Downs in the division's most dominant performance of the decade. His overall juvenile record, however, was just 2 for 5.

2. War Pass (2007) ran the decade's biggest Beyer Speed Figure by a 2-year-old (113) when he won the 2007 BC Juvenile at Monmouth. That strong performance - nearly two seconds faster than Indian Blessing ran in the BC Juvenile Fillies one race earlier - completed a 4-for-4 campaign.

1. Johannesburg (2001) completed one of the best 2-year-old campaigns of the modern era with a BC Juvenile victory at Belmont in his American debut. He was 7 for 7 at as many tracks and finished the year with four straight Grade 1 or Group 1 victories in four countries: the Phoenix in Ireland, the Prix Morny in France, the Middle Park in England, and the Juvenile.

He never won again, losing three times as a 3-year-old, including an eighth in War Emblem's Derby. But no other 2-year-old of the decade came close to his international dominance in 2001.

2-year-old females

As with the colts, the juvenile fillies of the 2000's were characterized by brief and precocious campaigns that generally failed to translate into future success. Choosing among the 10 Eclipse winners of the 2000's was a skullbusting exercise that came down to wafer-thin differences.

3. Indian Blessing (2007) made only three starts at 2 but won them by a combined

13 1/4 lengths, including a 3 1/2-length victory over previously unbeaten Proud Spell, the next year's champion 3-year-old filly.

2. Storm Flag Flying (2002) was 4 for 4 and won the Matron and Frizette as well as the BC Juvenile Fillies; only she and Stardom Bound (2008) won three Grade 1 races during their campaigns.

1. Halfbridled (2003) won all four of her starts by a combined 16 1/2 lengths, including a 2 1/2-length BC Juvenile Fillies victory over Ashado. She won from on and off the pace with a dazzling ease that suggested limitless potential. But like Johannesburg, she never won again.

3-year-old males

In the game's glamour division, it is at first difficult to exclude some of the decade's biggest names. How can the four who were in position to win a Triple Crown - War Emblem, Funny Cide, Smarty Jones, and Big Brown - not even make my final three? The quick answer is that they simply didn't accomplish as much as several others despite the overheated praise heaped their way during their five weeks of fame. Smarty Jones, for all his popularity, raced less than half the season and retired with two Grade 1 victories in his career.

An even more difficult exclusion was Tiznow, who was Horse of the Year in 2000 but whose only major victories that year were the Super Derby and the Breeders' Cup Classic. As individual campaigns go, those of the four Derby-Preakness winners and Tiznow don't quite measure up to these three:

3. Bernardini (2006) ripped off six straight victories by a combined 40 lengths, including the Preakness, Jim Dandy, Travers, and Jockey Club Gold, before a rough trip cost him the BC Classic and the Horse of the Year title by a length to Invasor. He ran five straight Beyers between 113 and 117 during his brief but memorable run.

2. Point Given (2001) won 6 of his 7 starts, losing only the Derby when he was too close to a wicked pace, and reeled off four consecutive victories in races worth $1 million or more - the Preakness, Belmont, Haskell, and Travers.

1. Curlin (2007) went from maiden to Horse of the Year in nine months, proving himself the best 3-year-old in the decade's strongest crop and becoming the only

3-year-old of the 2000's to win a Triple Crown race as well as a BC Classic.

3-year-old females

This was the closest thing to a walkover. Whether or not you think she should be Horse of the Year for 2009, Rachel Alexandra accomplished far more than any of the decade's other champion 3-year-old fillies.

3. Ashado (2004) remains the only filly to win the Kentucky Oaks and Breeders' Cup Distaff in the same year and also won the CCA Oaks.

2. Rags to Riches (2007) was a dominant winner of the Santa Anita Oaks and Kentucky Oaks before outdueling Curlin by a head to become the first filly in 102 years to win the Belmont Stakes.

1. Rachel Alexandra (2009), as every schoolchild knows, won the Kentucky Oaks by 20 1/4 lengths and the Mother Goose by 19 1/4 lengths, and she beat males in the Preakness, Haskell, and Woodward. Even her detractors had to go back to Busher in 1944 to find a comparably ambitious campaign by a 3-year-old filly.

Older males

Five of the 10 Horse of the Year trophies went to 4-year-old males: Mineshaft, Ghostzapper, Saint Liam, Invasor, and Curlin. For now, let's focus on those five campaigns while reserving the right to rank some of these horses differently when considering their entire careers later on. Tiznow and Curlin were the decade's only champion 3-year-olds who returned to be champions at 4, but their 4-year-old campaigns alone were arguably a tad shy of the following three:

3. Mineshaft (2003) won 7 of his 9 starts, including four Grade 1's - the Pimlico Special, Suburban, Woodward, and JC Gold Cup - with such authority that he was a runaway Horse of the Year selection despite missing the BC Classic because of an injury.

2. Invasor (2006) suffered his only career defeat in the UAE Derby in his first start of the year, then won the Pimlico Special, Suburban, Whitney, and BC Classic to be named Horse of the Year over Bernardini and Barbaro.

1. Ghostzapper (2004) had the shortest Horse of the Year campaign, but each of his four winning starts was a blockbuster, and three of them earned Beyers of 120 or more: a 4 3/4-length, hand-ridden victory in the Tom Fool (120); a 10 3/4-length Iselin romp that earned a decade-best 128 Beyer; a narrow victory over Saint Liam in a Woodward where he forced a brutal pace; and finally a Classic victory over two Dubai World Cup winners - Roses in May and Pleasantly Perfect - that earned a 124, still the highest in Classic history.

Sprinters

The champion sprinters were an eclectic and likeable bunch but lacked a clear standout like Groovy in the 1980's or Housebuster in the 1990's. I rearranged my top three several times and still wish there were room for Speightstown and Lost in the Fog.

3. Aldebaran (2003) was not among the six sprint champions who won the Breeders' Cup Sprint, but he did still lead the group with three Grade 1's during his championship season of 2003, when he won the Met Mile, Forego, and San Carlos. He was as good as anyone on his best day but more effective at seven than six furlongs.

2. Kona Gold (2000) won 5 of his 6 starts in 2000, including his lone BC Sprint victory among an incredible five straight starts in the race from 1998 through 2002. While that was his lone Grade 1 victory of 2000, three of his other victories came in races that have since been raised to Grade 1 status. In all, Kona Gold won 14 of 30 career starts and earned $2.2 million without ever racing beyond seven furlongs.

1. Midnight Lute (2008) was only 2 for 6 in 2007 and 1 for 2 in 2008, but he became the only two-time winner of the BC Sprint in those years, and both performances were sensational - brilliant rallies from impossibly far back, in heavy slop at Monmouth and then on a synthetic track at Oak Tree.

Older females

If you think choosing between Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta for this year's top Eclipse is tough, try comparing Zenyatta and Azeri, who combined to win five of the decade's 10 older-female titles. Eclipse voters aren't permitted to split their ballots for the 2009 Horse of the Year, but I'm calling it a tie for the decade's best older female - and dispensing with limiting either to a single championship season for consideration.

3: Riboletta (2000) won six straight stakes, including the Grade 1 Milady, Vanity, Ruffian, and Beldame, earning 115 Beyers in the latter two.

1. (Tie) Azeri (2002-2004) had her most accomplished year in 2002, when she was Horse of the Year, but returned to win the older-female title the next two seasons. In all, she won 17 of 24 starts, including 14 of her first 15. She won 11 Grade 1 races - a decade-high tally that would reach 15 under the current grades of the races she won - while racing at 10 tracks. She won Grade 1 races in New York, Kentucky, Arkansas (three Apple Blossoms), and California.

1. (Tie) Zenyatta (2008-09), as you may have heard, was 14 for 14 over three seasons while winning eight Grade 1 races. She won the Apple Blossom in her lone dirt start and otherwise raced exclusively on synthetic tracks in Southern California. In her final career start, she took on males for the first time and became the first female to win the Breeders' Cup Classic.

Turf males

The messy state of American grass racing, which continues to lag behind European standards, makes this a difficult category. Half of the decade's grass champions and 8 of its 10 Breeders' Cup Turf winners were foreign-based invaders who, with one exception, were not even considered Europe's best in those seasons.

High Chaparral and Conduit each won a pair of BC Turfs but were ranked well behind behind horses such as Rock of Gibraltar, Dalakhani, Zarkava, and Sea the Stars in the years of their Cup triumphs. And what is one to do with European Horses of the Year such as Rock of Gibraltar and Dylan Thomas, who were beaten in their only American appearances?

So let's limit our selections to a single winner:

1. Fantastic Light (2001) was the lone horse of the decade to be honored as both Europe's Horse of the Year and America's grass champion. He won 4 of 6 starts in 2001, beating Kalanisi in the Prince of Wales and Galileo in the Irish Champion before winning the BC Turf at Belmont.

Turf females

The picture is a lot clearer with the grass females because the two European fillies who enjoyed the most success in America were champions over there as well, and there was no ambiguity about their dominance on both continents.

3. Perfect Sting (2000) may have had the best all-American campaign of the decade, winning 5 of her 6 starts in 2000, including a BC Filly & Mare Turf victory over Tout Charmant, the only horse to finish in front of her all year.

2. Goldikova, who is likely to win her first Eclipse later this month, matched the great Miesque's 1987-88 feat of winning back-to-back Breeders' Cup Miles in 2008 and 2009.

1. Ouija Board was the European Horse of the Year in 2004 and 2006, the years she won the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf. She might well have won the 2005 edition but was victimized by a glacial pace and ran second to Intercontinental. Ouija Board won seven Grade 1 or Group 1 races during her career, including the English Oaks, Irish Oaks, and Hong Kong Vase.

Just like Horse of the Year each season, there are no rules on this one.

If I were doing a top 10 of the decade, it would include the four fabulous fillies of the 2000's: Azeri, Ouija Board, Rachel Alexandra, and Zenyatta. They might well rank fourth through seventh in some order. In the final analysis, though, looking at entire careers and achievements, my choice came down to three males:

3. Tiznow's individual 3-year-old and 4-year-old seasons were not as good as some other champions', but in combination they were a very strong body of work. They were capped, of course, by his being the only horse to win the Breeders' Cup Classic twice and beating a very serious European champion each time - Giant's Causeway in 2000 and Sakhee in 2001.

2. Curlin in many ways deserves top billing. He was the champion of the decade's strongest 3-year-old crop, returned with a championship season at 4, became the first two-time Horse of the Year since Cigar, and became the first horse to earn $10 million. In terms of quantifiable accomplishments, Curlin was the Horse of the 2000's - but I think there might have been just one better racehorse:

1. Ghostzapper. If you add his final start as a 3-year-old (a 6 1/2-length Vosburgh blowout) and his final race in his lone start at 5 (a 6 1/4-length Met Mile romp) to his 4-year-old campaign, you have six races that make up unparalleled brilliance at 6 1/2, 7, 8, 9, and 10 furlongs.

Ghostzapper made only 11 career starts and won only four Grade 1 races, but no horse took my breath away the way he did.

Adam Coglianese/NYRA
Ghostzapper is Steven Crist's top horse of the decade.

* Handicapping roundups from Aqueduct, Gulfstream, and Santa Anita

* Jay Privman's Q&A with Dubai-based jockey Ahmed

* Glenye Cain Oakford on the decline in major bloodstock sales in 2009

* Steve Andersen breaks down the older horse division in Southern California

* Marty McGee on Todd Pletcher's Harlem Rocker, who runs in the opening-day Hal's Hope at Gulfstream