12/23/2015 12:54PM

Hovdey: Nine memorable moments and one quiet hour

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Benoit & Associates
Mor Spirit's easy win in the Los Alamitos Futurity gives trainer Bob Baffert another 3-year-old on the Kentucky Derby trail.

The National Thoroughbred Racing Association is soliciting its Twitter followers to vote early and often for the 2015 Moment of the Year. In a precaution against independent thought, there are only 10 “moments” listed from which to choose, ranging from American Pharoah did this to American Pharoah did that. However, unlike a certain fan poll taken recently by a national sporting magazine, the winning “moment” of the NTRA contest actually will win something, even if it’s only a turn in the white-hot glare of the Eclipse Awards dinner on Jan. 16 at Gulfstream Park.

Not to be an iconoclast – there’s no money in it – but this column has a few candidates for Moment of the Year that are not on the NTRA’s list. I am amazed they were overlooked:

No. 10 – That moment a racing writer realized all the words he had devoted to any 3-year-old other than American Pharoah during 2015 were a complete waste of time. Hello, Texas Red.

No. 9 – That moment early down the Saratoga backstretch during the Travers Stakes when Jose Lezcano, aboard Frosted, camped on the hip of Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in a statement that said “earn it” loud and clear. They were both beaten by Keen Ice, but that’s horse racing. At Saratoga.

No. 8 – The moment Mor Spirit went into a controlled overdrive to dominate the Dec. 19 Los Alamitos Futurity, giving owner Michael Lund Petersen his first big horse and trainer Bob Baffert a leg up on another exciting 3-year-old with a misspelled name.

No. 7 – The moment that PETA realized it had struck out with the Steve Asmussen investigation by the New York State Racing and Wagering Board. The animal-rights organization tried to spin its sorry whiff as an administrative victory but only succeeded in guaranteeing that no one in the sport ever would take it seriously again. As Omar Little said, “You come at the king, you best not miss.”

No. 6 – That moment on the morning of Aug. 10 when Mike Smith awoke to the realization that he was 50 years old. After an inventory of his six pack (they were all there), he decided not to give a damn because, among other reasons, he was riding a recent maiden winner named Songbird, and she was about to sweep the Del Mar Debutante, the Chandelier, and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies.

No. 5 – The day in October when California Chrome got off the van and settled into his double-wide stall at Los Alamitos, thus ending a bizarre seven-month odyssey during which he traveled from Dubai to England to Chicago to Kentucky and home to Art Sherman again without running a single race. Whew.

No. 4 – The unforgettable segment during Victor Espinoza’s time on “Dancing With the Stars” when, dressed apparently as an elf, he sat on Santa’s lap and asked for a pony for Christmas. Santa was Donald Trump’s good friend Gary Busey. Please, someone pass the eye bleach.

No. 3 –That moment just a few weeks ago when Trevor Denman fans realized his final call at Santa Anita would not come wrapped in an emotional farewell but instead was, in retrospect, the ninth race on Oct. 25, a maiden claimer at 6 1/2 furlongs for a $17,000 purse. For the record, Denman’s last Santa Anita call after 33 remarkable years ended with, “And it’s Cass in Stone very impressive. Lucky Reality was second. Then came Bern. Where’s Bubba ran a strange one, then Travel Bound.” Unbelievable.

No. 2 – The return of Michael Dickinson to training should have been high on anyone’s list of memorable moments, if he had actually returned. As it was, his announcement in August that he was putting a stable together again after eight years of retirement was catnip to his fans. But that was then, and nothing since. This is now.

“I have 10 backward 2-year-olds,” Dickinson said this week from his Tapeta Farm in North East, Md. “I hope to have 40 horses by the spring, but in the meantime, there has been a lot of building around here, including a performance center and spa.”

For the horses, I presume. Dickinson keeps himself physically fit by running alongside mounted foxhunters on occasional weekends, fence jumps included. He confessed to taking a fall his last time out.

“And, of course, somebody put it on Facebook,” he said.

When you are Michael Dickinson, the trainer of Da Hoss, Tapit, and the first five finishers in the 1983 Cheltanham Gold Cup, there is no hiding.

“I probably won’t be running anything until February at the soonest,” Dickinson said. “I have to say, it’s great having horses at the farm again. I do the first feed myself at 5:30 every morning. That’s not a lot of work, with only 10 horses. But I love it.”

No. 1 – This moment was all mine, although I did share it in a column. American Pharoah had just returned to Del Mar from his loss at Saratoga. It was late in the day, and the Baffert barn was deserted. I sat across from American Pharoah’s stall in the shadows, keeping still as a tub of poultice, watching the colt for the better part of an hour.

Nothing exciting happened. He was just a horse being a horse, far removed from the madhouse scenes he had inspired at the Belmont, the Haskell, and the Travers. He was simple, he was serene. He was also sleepy, which made sense.

The great ones have a language all their own. We can guess at what made American Pharoah the racehorse of this generation, but we probably would be wrong. At that particular moment, late on a warm August afternoon, I only could feel how privileged I was to be allowed inside such holy ropes. At that moment, it was just me and the champ, breathing the same dusty air, savoring the quiet, and wondering what might come next.