12/27/2013 3:43PM

Jay Hovdey: For auld lang syne, accent on the auld


This being the last byline of 2013, the moment felt ripe for a list of some of the best and worst things that happened in Thoroughbred racing during the year.

Since racing is a sport in which even the best lose four out of five times at bat, a recitation of unhappy events comes way too easy. In fact, the year was bracketed by soul-crushing moments.

In January, Ramon Dominguez sustained head injuries that ended a singular career at the peak of his riding powers. In December, Hollywood Park was closed for good by the owners of a land development company who wouldn’t know Dominguez from a dog catcher.

Gary Stevens Gary Stevens Gary Stevens. All we ever read about is Gary Stevens, as if no other athlete ever retired for seven years and then came back at age 50 to reclaim his place among the best of his profession and win some of his sport’s greatest prizes. Okay, so maybe that’s true. But how about a little love on the side for young Mike Smith, who turned 48 in 2013, who did not have the benefit of a seven-year sabbatical, and who is ending the season as the most successful jockey in terms of Grade 1 victories (13) and average earnings per mount ($32,837 to date) from just over 400 rides aboard horses like Game On Dude, Royal Delta, Points Offthebench, Princess of Sylmar, and Mizdirection, all of them candidates for Eclipse Awards.

While we’re on the subject, has there been a worse year in recent memory for the cream of the riding crop? Dominguez was bad enough, but the list also includes the freshly minted Hall of Famer Calvin Borel (leg), national leader Joel Rosario (foot), Rajiv Maragh (back), Junior Alvarado (ankle), and John Velazquez both in April (rib, wrist) and November (spleen). Like Eddie Delahoussaye said in his prime, “Are we overpaid? Hell, no. Who else you gonna get crazy enough to do this?”

Some of the best and worst came wrapped in the same package. Orb may have provided Shug McGaughey with his long-awaited Kentucky Derby triumph, but the colt was worth far more to the sport than merely a rosy notch on the trainer’s belt. After some time off from a tough spring he could have provided fireworks as a 4-year-old. Instead, co-owner Stuart Janney packed Orb off to stud because, to him, breeding Thoroughbreds is every bit as exciting as racing them, which is like Sinatra saying he’d just as soon hum as sing.

The Hall of Fame voters got it right with Housebuster and Lure but continue to get it wrong with Craig Perret and Alex Solis. They’ll have another chance in 2014.

The California Horse Racing Board issued a report that was interpreted as exonerating trainer Bob Baffert of direct responsibility for the sudden deaths of seven horses at Hollywood Park over a 16-month period ending in March of 2013. But that was hardly the point. Five of the seven deaths occurred during training hours, for which there is no chain of custody protocol for evidence and therefore no way to make any charges stick, even if warranted. In fact, the “why” they died is far more important. And since nothing conclusive was discovered, no one should be resting easy.

There was a race for Arabian horses at the end of the first day of the 2013 Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita. The winner pulled up lame and was vanned off, and the field behind him was strung out the length of the stretch. It wasn’t the worst thing that happened that weekend – the death of Secret Compass will not be forgotten – but it could be if it happens again.

John Nerud turned 100 in 2013, and the best news is that he still has a lot to say about the industry upon which he has made an indelible mark. The patronizing line goes, “And he’s still so sharp.” Baloney. The question is, are you sharp enough to have a conversation with Nerud.

Charlie Whittingham would have turned 100 in 2013. But as much as he is missed – and there are trainers of all ages who still ask themselves every day, “What would Charlie do?” – part of me is relieved he was not around to witness the end of Hollywood Park. Granted, Whittingham owned the room wherever he raced, but it was at Hollywood Park he ruled supreme. His 222 Hollywood stakes wins dwarfs the 149 of second-place Bobby Frankel, and those 222 included eight in the Hollywood Gold Cup and 11 in both the Sunset and the Californian. Reminds me: time to put a can of peaches on Whittingham’s Sierra Madre grave.

The best news, or at least the best under the circumstances, is that many of Hollywood Park’s historic events will be continued during the new bloc of spring and early summer dates to be run at Santa Anita beginning in 2014. As long as the races look like they’ve always looked in terms of purse and conditions they will retain their graded status. Beyond that, Santa Anita management can call them anything they want. Word is, though, that names like the Californian, the American Oaks, the Vanity, and even the Hollywood (as in “Hooray for…”) Gold Cup will be retained, which has the benefit of being good news that also makes perfect sense.