12/30/2009 12:00AM

Best of the decade: Best and worst


Tiznow won back-to-back Breeders' Cup Classics to kick off the decade, and the sport didn't take a backward step.

Point Given, War Emblem, Funny Cide, Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex, and Big Brown all won two-thirds of racing's hallowed Triple Crown, whipping fans into various states of frenzy as they chased the ghost of Affirmed's 1978 spring slingshot into immortality.

The Breeders' Cup Juvenile - Kentucky Derby "jinx" was finally snapped when Street Sense earned the roses on the first Saturday in May in 2007.

Mineshaft, Ghostzapper, Invasor, and Curlin made up a veritable murderer's row of Horse of the Year winners.

Who could forget the dramatic rise and tragic fall of the bullet-like Lost in the Fog?

The European invasions were often more successful than not with Johannesburg, Raven's Pass, High Chaparral, and Ouija Board's Breeders' Cup victories immediately coming to mind.

The racing gods may have saved the best for last. Conduit and Goldikova came, saw, and conquered the Breeders' Cup for the second straight season in 2009. Mine That Bird proved the greatest dreams of even the biggest longshots can come to fruition. Gio Ponti seemed an irresistible force on grass throughout the summer. Sea the Stars reached Nijinsky-like status in Europe. And then there were Rachel and Zenyatta, two amazing amazons for the ages.

Yes, the 2000's provided tremendous moments. So let's put away the Rachel vs. Zenyatta debate for now and concentrate on some of the best and worst of the past decade.

Biggest flop

It was the morning of February 19, 2006, and a 2-year-old son of Forestry was the hottest ticket in racing. The colt had already proved himself a looker - he sold for $425,000 the previous July - but on this morning he was Pegasus incarnate. After he worked an eighth of a mile in 9.40 seconds over the Calder main track, the feeding frenzy began in the Fasig-Tipton auction ring. The Green Monkey sold for a world record $16 million that day and was sent to trainer Todd Pletcher, ready to conquer the sport. After three losses, a paltry $10,440 in earnings, and a career-best Beyer Speed Figure of 78, The Green Monkey was retired to stud in Florida.

Best ride

Jockeys feel pressure before any race. Add in a full field of horses and the prestige of a Triple Crown event, and the stress intensifies. Jeremy Rose's ride aboard Afleet Alex in the 2005 Preakness is the perfect example of grace under fire. Sent off as the 3-1 betting favorite in the 130th Preakness, Afleet Alex was making a strong outside bid on the final turn when the leader, Scrappy T, ducked out sharply. Afleet Alex stumbled badly after clipping heels and, for a brief second, it seemed that he would go down. Thinking quickly, Rose kept his mount upright, angled inside of Scrappy T, and sent Afleet Alex through to win by almost five lengths. It was the perfect complement of supreme equine athleticism with human skill and patience.

Best training job

Few can forget Midnight Lute's explosive charge through a sea of slop to win the 2007 Breeders' Cup Sprint. Trained by Bob Baffert, Midnight Lute was a classy performer, there was not doubt. He earned a 124 Beyer that year and would go on to receive season-end honors as best male sprinter. Baffert made no bones about his willingness for a Breeders' Cup repeat, but the son of Real Quiet's myriad physical problems seemed an insurmountable obstacle. Cut to Del Mar in August, and Midnight Lute still hadn't raced in 2008. This left Baffert time for only one prep, and Midnight Lute fumbled the ball. After breaking poorly and racing in traffic, Midnight Lute retreated to 10th in the Pat O'Brien. A grabbed quarter in Midnight Lute's left front foot compounded Baffert's problems, and it seemed unthinkable that the horse would have enough foundation to repeat. But this is Bob Baffert we're talking about. His successes in big-race situations are legendary. After three straight bullet workouts, including a six-furlong gate drill in 1:10.60 and a quick half-mile breeze, Baffert had Midnight Lute ready, and his charge didn't disappoint, overcoming a slow start to run down a game Fatal Bullet. Most other trainers wouldn't have embarked on an ambitious Breeders' Cup run after an injury-plagued season and one disastrous prep race, but Baffert's faith in Midnight Lute paid dividends.

Most underrated

A study of Xtra Heat's past performances reveals an amazing transformation from ultra-consistent winner to extremely fast winner. Xtra Heat sold three times at public auction for a combined $18,800, arguably the greatest bargain since the Dutch purchased Manhattan Island. From her career debut June 30, 2000, to a win in the Artic Cloud Stakes at Belmont on May 9, 2001, Xtra Heat competed in 14 sprints. She won 13 of them, with her only defeat a filthy nose loss while conceding eight pounds. Amazingly, during that streak, Xtra Heat never earned a triple-digit Beyer. Followers of speed figures were skeptical. How would Xtra Heat perform against top-class sprinters? In her next 19 starts in the United States - she finished third against males in the 2002 Dubai Golden Shaheen - Xtra Heat received Beyers between 99 and 120, winning 13 stakes including the Grade 1 Prioress. She defeated males in the Phoenix and finished a close second in the 2001 Breeders' Cup Sprint. Xtra Heat retired with 26 wins from 35 starts and earnings of $2,389,635.

Don't forget this horse

Ghostzapper had the sexy Beyers, and Zenyatta and Rachel have the advantage of pleasant recent memories in their favor, but let's not forget Azeri's reign as the undisputed queen of the turf from 2002-2004. She won three straight Eclipse Awards for older female, and even took home Horse of the Year in 2002. Between her debut on November 1, 2001, to her third consecutive Apple Blossom win April 3, 2004, Azeri won 15 of 17 starts, including 11 in a row while competing strictly in Grade 1 or Grade 2 races. She earned Beyers between 100 and 112 in 16 straight races and retired with 17 wins from 24 starts and $4,079,820 in earnings.

Biggest story

Barbaro's heroic fight for life after his devastating injury in the 2006 Preakness captivated the nation and showed the world that horseplayers and racing fans aren't merely degenerate gamblers. Their compassion for this superstar athlete was boundless. Barbaro lost his battle, but he will never be forgotten by his legions of fans.