12/28/2005 12:00AM

Silver linings to stormy season

Email
Horsephotos
Afleet Alex nearly falls as he collides with Scrappy T in the Preakness, but he won the race anyway.

Even Polyanna, bless her soul, would have had trouble smiling while trying to brave the powerful storms that buffeted racing on and off the track this year. Hurricanes pounded the Gulf Coast and tore up tracks from Louisiana to Florida, the New York Racing Association was going broke, Hollywood Park was sold to land developers, the Jockeys' Guild management put on an embarrassing display when hauled before Congress, and an inordinate number of top-class horses missed much of the year with injuries. Heck, they could not even grow grass in California.

If you think that was bad - and it was - imagine just how bad it could have been. Think back to May 21, Pimlico Race Course, a mile into the Preakness Stakes, the second leg of the sport's best-known races, the Triple Crown. Two horses came together, causing one to stumble grotesquely, his nose practically touching the ground, his jockey coming out of the stirrups.

From that precarious position, there were two extremes of possibilities. The first, chilling to comprehend, would have found a popular horse and his jockey splayed in front of the dozen horses who trailed them, all before a national television audience. Not pretty.

The second, amazing to comprehend, somehow was realized. Though inches from disaster, Afleet Alex, with jockey Jeremy Rose, righted himself, shook off the incident like he was swatting a horse fly, immediately gathered himself, overtook Scrappy T, and won the race. Every superlative in the dictionary could be used, but for brevity's sake, these two words encapsulate it - remarkable bravery.

What Afleet Alex did was nothing short of remarkable. Horses who clip heels that badly often fall, and even if they do not, they are usually so dazed they lose their action and are overtaken. Afleet Alex was so brave he went on about his business with the single-minded determination that embodies the essence of the Thoroughbred racehorse.

That was one of the defining moments in all of sports in 2005, let alone the most indelible moment of the year in racing. Fortunately, there were enough other performances on the track to serve as an antidote to all the ailments off the track.

Saint Liam was a breathtaking winner of the Woodward Stakes, and followed that with a Breeders' Cup Classic victory that likely clinched Horse of the Year. Lost in the Fog shipped seven times from California to the East Coast, and though he rolled craps and lost for the first time on trip number seven, he gained admirers with each successive victory. Cesario shipped in from Japan, made a mockery of a top-class field in the American Oaks, and left her handlers weeping tears of joy for having captured a Grade 1 race in the United States.

But Cesario, like many who shined so brightly, came and went all too quickly. Ghostzapper reminded everyone of why he was the 2004 Horse of the Year with a sublime performance in the Metropolitan Mile, but that was his only start of the year, and the last of his career. Roses in May went halfway around the world, won the Dubai World Cup, but never raced again. The sprinter Saratoga County won the Dubai Golden Shaheen, then succumbed to an infection and never raced again. He died later in the year.

The year began with a fortnight of relentless rain at Santa Anita, and a Gulfstream Park meeting that was conducted under tents. No wonder Roses in May felt so at home in the desert after wintering in Florida. In April, Sweet Catomine flopped as the favorite in the Santa Anita Derby, then became a cause celebre when her owner, Marty Wygod, revealed minutes after the race that she had been treated off-site in a hyperbaric chamber for a bleeding episode earlier in the week.

In the summer, Hurricane Katrina washed away much of New Orleans, and forced Fair Grounds to move its meet to Louisiana Downs. Delta Downs and Evangeline Downs also were impacted by the one-two punch of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Hurricane Wilma tore off barns at Calder, and a tornado ripped away half the grandstand at Ellis Park.

Calder, Ellis, and Fair Grounds all are owned by Churchill Downs, which sold Hollywood Park to the Bay Meadows Land Company, which said it would develop the track's property if California did not enact legislation in three years to let racetracks glean revenue from alternate forms of gaming. During the transition period, a new turf course was installed, but it did not properly take root, causing Hollywood Park to cancel grass racing, and its prestigious Autumn Turf Festival, at its fall meeting.

The New York Racing Association fired several longtime employees, including popular racing secretary Mike Lakow, just before Saratoga began, then continued its precarious slide toward bankruptcy. In the midst of all that turmoil, though, NYRA played host to a successful Breeders' Cup at Belmont Park.

The most significant firing might have been Dr. Wayne Gertmenian, who was ousted as the head of the Jockeys' Guild after his performance before a congressional committee that investigated the management of the guild since Gertmenian had taken over four years earlier. During his tenure, a catastrophic insurance policy for jockeys was not renewed.

There were plenty of reminders that the danger to jockeys is all too real. Thanks to Afleet Alex, Jeremy Rose was one of the lucky ones. But veteran rider Michel Lapensee and newcomer Josh Radosevich were killed in racing accidents, and Chris Herrell died, likely from extreme dieting.

A number of other racing figures died, including John Gaines, the creator of the Breeders' Cup, and two other prominent breeders, Charles Nuckols Jr. and Ben Roach. Hall of Fame jockey Ted Atkinson died, as did veterinarian Dr. Alex Harthill, Claiborne Farm matriarch Waddell Hancock, trainers Johnny Campo and Paul Fout, author William Murray, and Bill Boniface and Snowden Carter, who were triple threats - owners, breeders, and journalists.

Several outstanding horses died, including All Along and Criminal Type, both of whom were Horse of the Year, and Breeders' Cup winners Pebbles and Proud Truth.

Hall of Fame jockeys Pat Day and Gary Stevens retired. Another Hall of Famer, Julie Krone, produced her first foal, a daughter named Lorelei. Joining them this year as Hall of Famers were trainers Sid Watters Jr. and Nick Zito, jockey Tommy Walsh, and the great steeplechaser Lonesome Glory.

Young rider Eddie Castro set a record by winning nine races in one day at Calder, and veteran Russell Baze won his 9,000th race to move ever closer to the great Laffit Pincay Jr.'s all-time record of 9,530 victories.

The richest jockey was John Velazquez, who set a single-season record for purse earnings. Entering Wednesday, his total stood at $24,370,272. Trainer Todd Pletcher, who usually operates in tandem with Velazquez, also set a single-season record for earnings. With just a few days to go in the year, Pletcher was at $20,772,045.

The most money flowed, though, at Keeneland, where $384,904,900 was spent on 3,545 yearlings at the September sale, including $9.7 million for a Storm Cat colt. Everyone agreed with Polyanna that that was encouraging - despite all that ails racing, interest still remains high.

Here's a look back at 2005, division by division:

Three-year-old males

Afleet Alex was named in part because two of the owners of Cash Is King Stable have sons named Alex. But the colt also came to represent the late Alex Scott, a young girl who died at 8 from cancer in 2004, but before doing so became nationally famous for her Alex's Lemonade Stand charity. Because of that association, the exploits of Afleet Alex touched the hearts of many and helped sprout Alex's Lemonade Stands at tracks across the country. Afleet Alex did his part, winning the Arkansas Derby, running a close third in the Kentucky Derby, then capturing both the Preakness and the Belmont. He seemed to get stronger as the Triple Crown progressed, a tribute to the two-a-day training schedule devised by trainer Tim Ritchey. Giacomo, patiently brought along by trainer John Shirreffs, was a 50-1 upset winner of the Derby, then ran third in the Preakness and seventh in the Belmont. Flower Alley was the best in this division the second half of the year, with victories in the Jim Dandy and Travers and a second-place finish behind Saint Liam in the Breeders' Cup Classic. In the spring, trainer Nick Zito dominated with victories in the Wood Memorial with Bellamy Road and the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby with High Fly. He sent out five runners for five different owners in the 20-horse Derby, but Bellamy Road's seventh-place finish was the best they could do.

Older males

Saint Liam won the Donn Handicap in February against Roses in May, who subsequently captured the Dubai World Cup. After flopping in the Santa Anita Handicap against Rock Hard Ten, Saint Liam won the Stephen Foster, avenged a loss to Commentator in the Whitney when they had a rematch in the Woodward, then won the Breeders' Cup Classic in his career finale, all the while being managed through chronic foot problems by trainer Richard Dutrow Jr. Rock Hard Ten, after winning the Santa Anita Handicap, returned in the fall to win the Goodwood, but nagging foot troubles forced him to be scratched from the Breeders' Cup on the eve of the race. Lava Man was the star of the summer at Hollywood Park, with victories in the Californian and Hollywood Gold Cup, but he subsequently yielded to Borrego, who broke his bridesmaid label with a late-running victory in the Pacific Classic and a dazzling performance in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Eddington, another former underachiever, progressed this year to win the Gulfstream Park Handicap and Pimlico Special, but then was injured and retired. Purge made up for a largely disappointing year with his victory in the Cigar Mile. Offlee Wild won the Suburban, which, like Saint Liam's Stephen Foster, was not credited to Dutrow because he was serving a suspension. The most spectacular performance in this division belonged to Ghostzapper in the Met Mile, which he won in fast time without taking a deep breath. It was the best race any horse ran this year, but it proved to be his lone encore from his 2004 Horse of the Year campaign.

Older filly or mare

Ashado, the champion 3-year-old filly of 2004, started off slowly this year, losing her first two starts, including the Apple Blossom Handicap to Dream of Summer. But she rebounded into form for Pletcher and Velazquez in the summer to win the Ogden Phipps, Go for Wand, and Beldame, and though she was upset by longshots Shadow Cast in the Personal Ensign and Pleasant Home in the Breeders' Cup Distaff, she was the most consistent performer among her peers. She finished her career with seven Grade 1 victories, and her career earnings of $3,931,440 are second all-time among females behind Azeri, the 2002 Horse of the Year. Others who shined were Louisiana native Happy Ticket in the Ballerina, Miss Loren in the Santa Maria, Pampered Princess in the Spinster, Stellar Jayne in the Ruffian, and Tarlow in the Santa Margarita.

Three-year-old filly

This was an inscrutable division, with no one able to put together a consistent, lengthy season. Sweet Catomine was a comfortable winner of the Santa Anita Oaks, but was retired soon after her controversial performance in the Santa Anita Derby. Sis City won the Davona Dale and Ashland in the spring, but then yielded in the Kentucky Oaks to Summerly, the Fair Grounds Oaks winner. Summerly, however, was defeated in the Mother Goose and Coaching Club American Oaks by Smuggler. Although Smuggler excelled at Belmont Park, she could not turn back Fantasy winner Round Pond in the Acorn. Sharp Lisa took the Las Virgenes, but was fourth to Round Pond in the Fantasy. Splendid Blended finished fourth in the Acorn, then defeated older runners in the Vanity, but never raced again. Sweet Symphony came to the fore in the late summer, when she defeated Sis City and Black-Eyed Susan winner Spun Sugar in the Alabama. Others who had their moments of glory were In the Gold in the Gazelle, Indian Vale in the Falls City, and Leave Me Alone in the Test.

Male turf horse

Powerscourt avenged his controversial disqualification in the 2004 Arlington Million with an emphatic victory over 2004 Eclipse Award winner Kitten's Joy in this year's running of the Million. Better Talk Now won the United Nations and Man o'War, and Shakespeare captured the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic, but both were no match for Shirocco in the Breeders' Cup Turf. Among milers, the year belonged to Artie Schiller and Leroidesanimaux, who ran one-two in the Breeders' Cup Mile in their lone meeting. Leroidesanimaux had the better year prior to that, with victories in California in the Kilroe Mile, New York in the Fourstardave, and Canada in the Atto Mile. Last year's Breeders' Cup Mile winner, Singletary, was eighth this year, but previously won the Arcadia and Oak Tree Breeders' Cup Mile. There was plenty more to go around throughout the year. America Alive won Churchill's Turf Classic, Fourty Niners Son the Clement Hirsch, Good Reward took the Manhattan, Gun Salute the Secretariat, Host the Shadwell Turf Mile, King's Drama the Sword Dancer, Relaxed Gesture the Canadian International, and Sweet Return the Whittingham and Eddie Read.

Female turf horse

When historians look back at the great overlays of racing, Intercontinental in this year's Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf will stand out. Despite having won 4 of 6 starts in California, Kentucky, and New York entering the Breeders' Cup, questions about her ability to handle 1 1/4 miles caused her to float up to 15-1. But she led from start to finish to beat last year's Breeders' Cup winner, Ouija Board, and join half-sister Banks Hill as a Breeders' Cup winner at Belmont Park. Megahertz, the popular mighty mite, hated the soft ground at Belmont in the Breeders' Cup, but thrilled California fans with late-running victories in four stakes, including the Yellow Ribbon. California also was treated to the breathtaking performance by Cesario in the American Oaks. Other important race winners included Angara in the Beverly D., Amorama in the John Mabee, Honey Ryder in the E.P. Taylor, Luas Line in the Garden City, Mea Domina in the Gamely, Riskaverse in the Flower Bowl, Sand Springs in the Diana, Singhalese in the Del Mar Oaks, Sweet Talker in the Queen Elizabeth, and Wend in the New York Handicap.

Two-year-old colt

First Samurai and Henny Hughes dominated the major East Coast stakes in the summer and fall. Stevie Wonderboy moved to the head of the class in the West with his victory in the Del Mar Futurity. They all met in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and Stevie Wonderboy proved best, rallying wide to win going away. That marked the first defeat for First Samurai, who won the Hopeful and Champagne. The precocious What a Song won all three of his starts in the summer, including a pair of victories over Stevie Wonderboy at Hollywood Park, but he suffered a fatal injury while training at Del Mar. Brother Derek was the best around two turns, with victories in the Norfolk and Hollywood Futurity. With late-season victories in the Remsen and Nashua, Bluegrass Cat served notice that he would be one to watch next spring.

Two-year-old fillies

Folklore and Adieu traded volleys all summer in the East. Adieu aced the Astoria, Folklore took the Adirondack, then Adieu came back in the Spinaway. Absent Adieu, Folklore ran away with the Matron. Absent Folklore, Adieu captured the Frizette. When they met for a title-deciding showdown in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, it was no contest, with Folklore pressing a hot pace and then pulling away to beat late-running Wild Fit, the Del Mar Debutante winner, while Adieu faded to seventh. The unbeaten French Park was the queen of the fall in the Midwest, with victories in the Pocahontas and Golden Rod, while Diplomat Lady scored a late-season upset in the Hollywood Starlet.

Sprinter

Most any trainer who had Lost in the Fog would have sent him down the road to the Derby. Greg Gilchrist, however, is not like most trainers. He realized what he had, kept Lost in the Fog around one turn, and sent Lost in the Fog on a journey that made him one of the most popular horses of the year, rivaling Afleet Alex. After winning twice in 2004, Lost in the Fog ran his win streak to 10 with eight successive victories in 2005. He left his base in northern California to win three stakes in Florida and three in New York, including the King's Bishop. But he faded to seventh in the Breeders' Cup Sprint, which was won by Silver Train, who earlier had taken the Jerome at Belmont. Taste of Paradise, an unlucky runner-up in the Breeders' Cup, also thrived at Belmont, where he won the Vosburgh. Saratoga County was the best sprinter the first quarter of the year, when he took the General George and the Dubai Golden Shaheen. Others who won major races included Captain Squire in the Ancient Title, Forest Danger in the Carter, Greg's Gold in the Bing Crosby, Mass Media in the Forego, Madcap Escapade in the Princess Rooney, My Trusty Cat in the Humana Distaff, and Unfurl the Flag in the Triple Bend.

Steeplechaser

McDynamo saved the best for last, capturing the Breeders' Cup Steeplechase and Colonial Cup in the fall. Hirapour was second in the Colonial Cup, third in the Breeders' Cup, and earlier won the New York Turf Writers Handicap and the Royal Chase. Sur La Tete was the best in the spring, when he defeated McDynamo in the Iroquois, but he never raced after May.