12/16/2010 4:06PM

Looking back on the 2010 racing season

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Barbara D. Livingston
Zenyatta, with broodmare manager Charles Campbell, enjoys the December snow at her new home at Lane’s End. She was retired after finishing second in the BC Classic.

When Zenyatta’s legend was in its nascent stages − back when she had won eight, nine, maybe 10 races − her trainer, John Shirreffs, pointed out that merely watching Zenyatta on television did not give one a full appreciation of her charisma.

“To fully experience Zenyatta,” Shirreffs said, “you have to see her. See the way she plays to the crowd. See the way the crowd responds to her.”

No one knew that more than Jerry and Ann Moss, the owners of Zenyatta. They had thrilled to her exploits, most notably her dramatic late run to capture the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic. After briefly retiring Zenyatta, the Mosses decided soon after the new year that Zenyatta would be brought back. It was F. Scott Fitzgerald who declared there are no second acts in American lives. Good thing he did not live to see this encore performance.

From Santa Anita to Hollywood Park and Del Mar, and especially at Oaklawn Park and Churchill Downs, crowds flocked to see Zenyatta. She was the story of 2010. Oprah realized it. CBS’s “60 Minutes” realized it. Fans in California had embraced her long before this year’s campaign, but her legion of admirers swelled with her two road trips. At Oaklawn Park, hundreds gathered around her every morning after training hours, where Zenyatta calmly posed for pictures as if she were part of a petting zoo. At Churchill Downs, the adoration reached a crescendo. Cars would careen to a stop along Longfield Avenue when motorists realized Zenyatta was out grazing. On the street side, fans poked their fingers through the chain-link fence, trying to touch her. In the stable area, the scene was similar to what had taken place at Oaklawn or, to a lesser extent, every morning on the backside of Hollywood Park, where the faithful marched to have an audience with the queen of racing.

In her final public appearance in California, on Dec. 5, Zenyatta was brought to the paddock and then the winner’s circle at Hollywood Park. Her partisan fans responded by first chanting, “Zen-yat-ta, Zen-yat-ta,” and that melded into a cheer that eventually had the whole grandstand rocking: “Horse of the Year, Horse of the Year.”

Zenyatta, though, was not necessarily the best horse of the year. For the second straight year, she is part of a vigorous, two-horse debate. Last year, Rachel Alexandra beat her out for Horse of the Year. This year, her rival in the ballot box is Blame, whose victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic made him a unique figure in racing: the only horse to beat Zenyatta on the racetrack.

YEAR IN REVIEW: Dan Illman's highs and lows of 2010 

DRF WEEKEND: Handicapping roundups, Q&A with jockey Greta Kuntzweiler

In many ways, 2010 had some of the hallmarks of great racing years from decades ago. The best horses from the previous year stayed in training, owing to the sporting gestures of their owners and a depressed bloodstock market whose economic struggles mirrored the world writ large. Rachel Alexandra came back, and though she ran well, she was clearly not the same horse whose daring, audacious campaign – beating males three times – earned her the 2009 title as Horse of the Year. Gio Ponti, a two-time champion in 2009, continued to perform at a high level. Mine That Bird, the 2009 Kentucky Derby winner, also came back, but Fitzgerald had him nailed: He never won another race before being retired.

This year’s Kentucky Derby winner, Super Saver, had a successful campaign at 2, then won the Derby following a pair of preps designed to have him at his peak when it counted most, as old school as it gets. Blame also had a season that harkened back to the days of old. Though he ran only five times, he emerged in the spring after a lengthy winter vacation − just the way Mack Miller would have done it − ran in the best races for older horses on the East Coast, and fulfilled the goals set out months earlier for him by winning the Classic. Goldikova, making her annual visit from France, won the Breeders’ Cup Mile yet again, becoming the first horse to win three Breeders’ Cup races.

Nostalgia was everywhere. In California, Santa Anita went back to dirt after three years of synthetic track racing and cards lost to wet weather. In New York, a city without offtrack betting shops seemed possible. Racing at Monmouth Park was its best in years, with a less-is-more schedule that concentrated higher-quality racing into fewer dates, the way it was in the United States before year-round racing took hold.

Racing was buffeted, though, by the headwinds of the economy, and not just in the sales arena. The problems were most acute in Maryland, where the sport’s future seemed to be holding on by the thread of the Preakness Stakes. In Kentucky, small fields were a problem in the spring at Churchill Downs, and at Turfway Park, the Kentucky Cup was slashed. California also continued to be plagued by small fields, and one of the state’s most prolific breeding farms, Marty and Pam Wygod’s River Edge, decided to close up shop, with the bloodstock either being reduced or relocated.

The common denominator for California, Kentucky, and Maryland is that they do not glean revenue from alternative gaming, which puts them at a competitive disadvantage with neighboring states. Maryland, for instance, is surrounded by West Virginia, Delaware, and Pennsylvania, all of whom have purses enhanced by gaming revenue.

In New York, however, a near-decade-long struggle to get aid from alternative gaming finally reached the finish line with slots being approved for Aqueduct, a prospect that figures to tilt the balance of power on the Eastern Seaboard further to the Empire State, where it has long reigned.

Some oldies but goodies reached new heights. Russell Baze, the sport’s winningest jockey, surged past the 11,000-victory mark. The Breeders’ Cup, in its 27th year, ran under the lights for the first time at Churchill Downs, which helped make the Friday card and Saturday’s Classic seem even more dramatic.

The end of the line was reached, though, for popular veteran jockeys Curt Bourque and Richard Migliore, both of whom announced their retirements.

The Hall of Fame welcomed horses Azeri, Best Pal, Harry Bassett, and Point Given; jockeys Don Pierce and Randy Romero; and trainer Buster Millerick.

In a sport that is balanced on the backs of 1,000-pound animals whose legs are no wider than a human wrist, tragedy can be just a misstep away. It was a particularly cruel year for jockeys. Mark Anthony Villa died in a racing accident, Tad Leggett and Michael Martinez were left paralyzed, and Justin Vitek died after battling leukemia.

Former jockeys Denise Boudrot, John Bucalo, Alan Cuthbertson, Jesse Davidson, and John Sellers passed, as did trainers Dravo Foley, Eric Longden, Mack Miller, Alan Seewald, Noble Threewitt, and Irish legend Paddy Mullins. Some of the sport’s most prominent owners and breeders also died, most notably Ernest Auerbach, Mary Jones Bradley, Ed Gann, John Kluge, Betty Mabee, George Steinbrenner, Frank “Scoop” Vessels III, and Barbara Walter.

John Forsythe, the actor and horse owner who for years gracefully emceed the Eclipse Awards, died at 92. Racing officials Norm Barron, Leonard Foote, and Chick Lang; pedigree analyst Jack Werk; Churchill Downs outrider Shawn Brasseaux; publicist Steve Schwartz; and Equibase’s Jack Kelly all left much too soon.

Dick Francis, whose racing mysteries captivated millions, reached the final chapter of his extraordinary life. Many veteran racing journalists passed, including Larry Bortstein, Bill Handleman, Bob Summers, and Vic Ziegel.

Tuscan Evening, at the time the top female turf runner in the country, dropped dead following a workout at Del Mar in the summer, and Canadian champion Wake At Noon, brought back at an advanced age, suffered a fatal injury in a workout. Also taken were Black Tie Affair, Chinook Pass, Dixieland Band, Greinton, John’s Call, Mr. Greeley, Real Quiet, Salt Lake, Skip Away, and Snow Chief.

Of all the equine deaths in 2010, though, none resonated more than that of Personal Ensign. In the late 1980’s, she was the embodiment of perfection. She completed her career with a dramatic, late-running win in the 1988 Breeders’ Cup Distaff, her 13th victory in 13 starts, the kind of feat that seemed unattainable. Then Zenyatta came along. She zoomed past 13 last year, then kept motoring on this year, all the way to 19 in a row before her lone loss, in her final start, when she tried to win the Classic for the second straight year.

In 2009, the only place Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta met was at the ballot box. At the beginning of this year, all of racing hoped for a showdown on the track between those two. Once Rachel Alexandra lost her first start of the year, though, the chances of that happening evaporated. But the disappointment over that development turned out to be a mere speed bump and hardly took away from the richly rewarding racing of 2010.

Here now, division by division, a recap of the racing year:

OLDER FEMALE

Zenyatta began the year by weaving through traffic to win the Santa Margarita, then beat creampuffs in the Apple Blossom before carrying 129 pounds and running down the talented St Trinians in the Vanity. For much of the year, Zenyatta’s detractors cited her largely lackluster competition when decrying her winning streak. But that’s truly a chicken-and-egg argument, for Zenyatta could beat only who showed up, and as the victories mounted, few were eager to take her on. In the Vanity against St Trinians, and then the Lady’s Secret against Switch – the subsequent runner-up in the BC Filly and Mare Sprint – Zenyatta had worthy rivals this year even before beating 10 of 11 males in the BC Classic.

Rachel Alexandra was defeated twice at the beginning of the year, including in the La Troienne against Unrivaled Belle, a result that foretold the result of the BC Ladies’ Classic six months later. Among those Unrivaled Belle beat in the Ladies’ Classic were Malibu Prayer, who won the Ruffian; Persistently, who won the Personal Ensign; and Acoma, who won the Spinster. Life At Ten, with victories in the Ogden Phipps and Beldame, built an impressive body of work in this division. But her controversial performance in the Ladies' Classic, in which she ran as if in a daze after jockey John Velazquez told a national television audience that she was not warming up as sharply as she had in past races, was one of the lowlights of the year.

OLDER MALE

After Blame won the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs in the fall of 2009, his connections, including trainer Al Stall Jr., mapped out a plan focused on getting him to the Breeders’ Cup Classic, which was to be run over his home track. Other than a second-place finish in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, the plan worked to perfection. Blame returned to Churchill Downs for his second start of the year and won the Stephen Foster, took over the divisional lead when he corraled Quality Road in the Whitney, then staked his claim for Horse of the Year when he held off Zenyatta in a thrilling Classic, his third Grade 1 win of the year. He might not have had the following of Zenyatta, but his talent was unmistakable.

Quality Road began the year atop this division with an overpowering victory in the Donn, and he followed with a brilliant performance in the Metropolitan Mile. After his setback in the Whitney, he returned to win the Woodward before a desultory effort in his career finale in the BC Classic.

Haynesfield became the only horse to defeat Blame this year with his front-running victory in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, then, following the Breeders’ Cup, was second to longshot Jersey Town in the Cigar Mile.

California’s major races – the Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup, and Pacific Classic – went to Misremembered, Awesome Gem, and Richard’s Kid, who at least followed his Del Mar success with a second Grade 1 win in the Goodwood.

Dakota Phone won just one of his first 10 starts of the year while based in California, but then pulled off an upset in the BC Dirt Mile.

Eldaafer won a roughly run Breeders’ Cup Marathon, which was overshadowed by the postrace fight between jockeys Calvin Borel and Javier Castellano outside the winner’s circle.

This year’s Clark had an unsatisfactory ending, with Giant Oak being placed first on the disqualification of Successful Dan following a brutally rough stretch run.

3-YEAR-OLD MALE

Super Saver gave trainer Todd Pletcher his first Derby win and Borel his third Derby in the last four years. By the end of the year, though, Super Saver had been retired without winning another race. His owners, Bill Casner and Kenny Troutt, decided to end their partnership in WinStar Farm even though they won two-thirds of the Triple Crown, with Drosselmeyer bringing them a victory in the Belmont, too.

Before the Derby, the best 3-year-old appeared to be Eskendereya, who had scored overpowering victories in the Fountain of Youth and Wood Memorial. But a soft-tissue injury necessitated his being removed from consideration before the Derby and then retired.

As with last year, this crop of horses came to be ruled by Lookin At Lucky, the 2-year-old male champ of 2009. After an unlucky trip in the Derby, he returned to win the Preakness, Haskell, and Indiana Derby before finding the waters too deep when facing Blame and Zenyatta in the BC Classic.

John Sadler had a terrific spring with Line of David, who won the Arkansas Derby, and Sidney’s Candy, who won the Santa Anita Derby. Stately Victor won the Blue Grass, but his co-owner, Jack Conway, finished second in his only other significant race, in Kentucky, where he ran for United States Senator. Afleet Express hung a nose on Fly Down in the Travers, one of several major races in which trainer Nick Zito finished second this year, including the Kentucky Derby. Ice Box, the Derby runner-up, had his high point when he won the Florida Derby.

3-YEAR-OLD FILLY

The best race of the year in this category was the Kentucky Oaks, in which Blind Luck nosed out fellow Californian Evening Jewel. That gave Blind Luck the divisional lead, and she held on to it by virtue of a victory over Havre de Grace and Devil May Care in the Alabama before running second to the older Unrivaled Belle in the BC Ladies’ Classic. A throwback, Blind Luck raced from February through November and made six trips from her home in California to face top-class competition. Despite that ambitious schedule, this mighty mite never lost her enthusiasm, motoring around Churchill Downs like a whirling dervish the week of the Breeders’ Cup. Alas, her success was bittersweet for trainer Jerry Hollendorfer. At the Oaks, Blind Luck was cared for by his longtime friend, Galen May, who was murdered in August.

Evening Jewel also had tragedy marching alongside her. Tom Braly, her co-owner, succumbed to cancer this summer, but his widow, Marilyn, and trainer Jim Cassidy said they were convinced Evening Jewel’s success − including Grade 1 wins in the Ashland and Del Mar Oaks − kept Braly going longer than might have been expected.

Before her title showdown with Blind Luck, Devil May Care won the Mother Goose and Coaching Club American Oaks. Like Devil May Care, Champagne d’Oro was a two-time Grade 1 winner, her specialty being one-turn races in New York, the Acorn and the Test.

Crisp was one of the few to get the best of Blind Luck, upsetting her in the Santa Anita Oaks. The well-traveled No Such Word got her first Grade 1 win in the Gazelle.

TURF FEMALE

For the third straight year, Goldikova left everyone breathless with her electrifying stretch run in the Breeders’ Cup Mile. This year’s race, an unprecedented third straight Breeders’ Cup win, might have been her best yet on these shores. She beat the best male miler in North America in Gio Ponti, the best female miler in North America in Proviso, and the best male miler in Europe in Paco Boy. While North Americans rightly swooned over Zenyatta, Goldikova was Europe’s deserved sweetheart.

Proviso disappointed in the BC Mile, but she was sensational before that, with four straight Grade 1 wins: the Kilroe against males, then the Just a Game, Diana, and First Lady.

Shared Account just missed against Proviso in the Diana but returned two starts later to win the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf.

Before her tragic, sudden death, Tuscan Evening reeled off a series of victories in races such as the Gamely. Eclair de Lune, who could not catch Tuscan Evening in the Modesty, gave owner Richard Duchossois an emotional victory in the Beverly D., named for his late, first wife.
The late-developing Harmonious won a pair of Grade 1 races, the American Oaks and Queen Elizabeth. Other major race winners in this division were Ave (Flower Bowl), Check the Label (Garden City), Gypsy’s Warning (Matriarch), Hibaayeb (Yellow Ribbon), and Reggane (E.P. Taylor).

TURF MALE

Gio Ponti, this division’s champion in 2009, began the year by focusing on the Dubai World Cup, in which he finished fourth on a synthetic surface. After returning to North America, and turf, he never finished worse than second in five races, all Grade 1’s, and captured the Man o’ War and Shadwell Mile. Gio Ponti probably secured his second straight title in this division with an exemplary second-place finish to Goldikova in the BC Mile.

Debussy shocked Gio Ponti in the Arlington Million, and Winchester, Gio Ponti’s Christophe Clement-trained stablemate, upset him in the Manhattan. Winchester also took the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic in the fall.

Like Winchester, Court Vision was a two-time Grade 1 winner, in the Gulfstream Turf Handicap and the Woodbine Mile.

European imports did particularly well in North America this year, highlighted by Debussy in the Arlington Million and Dangerous Midge in the Breeders’ Cup Turf. Others included Chinchon in the United Nations, Redwood in the Northern Dancer, and Joshua Tree in the Canadian International.

The Usual Q. T. flirted with synthetics but was clearly at his best on turf. He won the Eddie Read at Del Mar and was a sharp third in the BC Mile.

Other major race winners included Acclamation (Whittingham Memorial), Champ Pegasus (Clement Hirsch), General Quarters (Woodford Reserve Turf Classic), Haimish Hy (Hollywood Derby), Karelian (Maker’s Mark Mile), Paddy O’Prado (Secretariat), Prince Will I Am (Jamaica), Telling (Sword Dancer), Unusual Suspect (Hollywood Turf Cup), and Victor’s Cry (Shoemaker Mile).

2-YEAR-OLD MALE

It’s still early, but so far Uncle Mo’s career has mirrored that of Seattle Slew, who parlayed a three-race campaign in 1976 to a divisional championship as a 2-year-old − and the best was still to come. Uncle Mo, the worst-kept secret before his debut this summer at Saratoga, romped by 14 1/4 lengths going six furlongs first time out, stepped right into the Champagne and cruised again, then crushed his rivals in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. He is the deserved ante-post favorite for the Kentucky Derby.

The most satisfying aspect of Uncle Mo’s Breeders’ Cup win was that he beat the winners of all the other major preps for that race, including Boys At Tosconova (Hopeful), Jaycito (Norfolk), J. B.’s Thunder (Breeders’ Futurity), and J P’s Gusto (Del Mar Futurity).

Not far behind Uncle Mo, though, is To Honor and Serve, whose Remsen win late last month served notice that he should be a force in next spring’s classics.

On turf, Pluck won the BC Juvenile Turf, which gave Pletcher a sweep of the Breeders’ Cup’s grass races for 2-year-olds.

2-YEAR-OLD FILLY

Awesome Feather won her first five starts at Calder, then wrapped up a divisional title with her game victory in the BC Juvenile Fillies. In the Breeders’ Cup, she defeated R Heat Lightning, the Spinaway winner; A Z Warrior, the Frizette winner; and Tell a Kelly, the Darley Debutante winner.

Two other prominent members of this division, Oak Leaf winner Rigoletta and Alcibiades winner Wickedly Perfect, missed the Breeders’ Cup because of injuries suffered during or immediately after those final preps.

Celebrity chef Bobby Flay threw it down in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf and walked away with the trophy when his More Than Real, trained by Pletcher, upset favored Winter Memories and Kathmanblu.

MALE SPRINTER

Like Awesome Feather, Big Drama has come out of the acclaimed 2-year-old program at Calder to reach national prominence. After giving distance races a try as a 3-year-old, he was kept in sprints this year at 4 and won three times in five starts, highlighted by his triumph in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint.

In the summer, Big Drama was twice second in stakes at Saratoga, to Here Comes Ben in the Forego and to Majesticperfection in the Vanderbilt. There was no rematch in the Breeders’ Cup, though. Here Comes Ben opted for the BC Dirt Mile, and Majesticperfection was retired shortly after the Vanderbilt with a career-ending injury.

Another divisional standout, King’s Bishop winner Discreetly Mine, also was injured before he could make it to the Breeders’ Cup.

Smiling Tiger, with victories in the Bing Crosby and Ancient Title, emerged as the best sprinter in California, whose ranks included Triple Bend winner E Z’s Gentleman and Pat O’Brien winner El Brujo.

Other major race winners were Warrior’s Reward (Carter) and Girolamo (Vosburgh).

On turf, Chamberlain Bridge proved best of a competitive bunch in the BC Turf Sprint.

FEMALE SPRINTER

Chamberlain Bridge’s trainer, Bret Calhoun, and jockey, Jamie Theriot, combined to win the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint with Dubai Majesty, who was among the division leaders all year and came with her best effort when it counted most.

Last winter, Gabby’s Golden Gal won the Santa Monica. In the spring, Dr. Zic won the Madison, and Mona de Momma won the Humana Distaff. In the summer, Jessica Is Back won the Princess Rooney, Franny Freud sped to victory in the Prioress, and Rightly So led from gate to wire in the Ballerina.

But through inconsistency or injury, none could put together a year that measured up to Dubai Majesty. She won 3 of her last 4 starts and 4 of her last 6, on turf, synthetic, and dirt.

North of the border, at Woodbine, the mare Serious Attitude beat the boys in the Nearctic, yet another indication of the superiority of European grass form this year compared with North America.

STEEPLECHASE

Owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey have had great success with flat runners, such as Kitten’s Joy and Roses in May, but they may have their first steeplechase champion in Slip Away, who won the season-ending Colonial Cup last month in Camden, S.C. Earlier in the year, he won the Temple Gwathmey.

Tax Ruling, third in the Colonial Cup, had his seasonal highlight when winning the Iroquois.

Other major race winners were Sermon of Love (New York Turf Writers), Arcadius (Helen Haskell Sampson), and Percussionist (Grand National).