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Six months for each superstar
The year 2004 - like the Carolinas, the Dakotas, and Korea - was divided into two distinct halves. The first half, which encompassed the Triple Crown, belonged to Smarty Jones. He picked up where Funny Cide left off the previous spring and provided even greater highs and - because of the anticipation that the longest Triple Crown drought in history would finally end - an even more crushing low. But he last raced on June 5, then was retired. His racing career lasted seven months.
Exactly 29 days after the Belmont, on July 4, Ghostzapper won the Tom Fool at Belmont Park. The second half had started, and it belonged to him. Ghostzapper won two more stakes before a dazzling runaway victory against the best Breeders' Cup Classic field ever assembled. His campaign lasted less than four months, but at least he will race again next year.
Smarty Jones and Ghostzapper never met on the racetrack. They are waging a fierce battle, though, in the ballot box. Eclipse Award voters are faced with two completely different r?sum?s, not unlike the decision the American public faced in last November's presidential election. The votes were due last Monday, but not until the Eclipse Awards dinner Jan. 24 will Horse of the Year be revealed.
The dinner menu should be cheese steaks, Tastycakes, schnitzel, and beer, with the band playing the themes from "Rocky" and the "Sound of Music."
Smarty Jones may have prepped last winter in Arkansas, but he belonged to Philadelphia. Smarty Jones was bred in Pennsylvania. Owners Roy and Pat Chapman, trainer John Servis, and jockey Stewart Elliott all were based out of Philadelphia Park, the utilitarian track lovingly referred to as The Pha, where Smarty Jones began his career. Smarty Jones returned in the spring as a conquering hero after capturing the Kentucky Derby.
The city's rabid sports fans, accustomed to the annual disappointments of the Phillies, Flyers, 76ers, and Eagles, went wild over Smarty Jones. He was a prominent topic on sports talk shows. Thousands of fans came to watch him gallop - gallop! - at The Pha. They made pilgrimages to both the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes to cheer their hometown boy, and others packed The Pha to watch those races on television. Sure, they could have watched the race at home, but they wanted to be a part of something special.
So did the record crowd of 120,139 that attended the Belmont Stakes. No horse had captured the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978. Smarty Jones was the sixth horse in the last eight years, and the third horse in consecutive years, to head to the Belmont with a chance to become the 12th Triple Crown winner. A quarter-mile from the finish, Smarty Jones had the lead, and the noise was deafening. Then the building went eerily silent. To paraphrase the old question about a tree falling in the woods, if a horse going for the Triple Crown gets beat in the final 100 yards and 120,000 people don't make a sound, did he really lose?
Sadly, for those who came to see history, yes. But Smarty Jones's loss left open the chance for someone to come along and challenge him for Horse of the Year.
Trainer Bobby Frankel always believed Ghostzapper would handle two turns, but the colt was such a good sprinter, he didn't get his chance until his eighth lifetime start. All Ghostzapper did was earn the biggest Beyer Speed Figure of the year, a 128, in Monmouth's Iselin Handicap.
Unlike Smarty Jones, there was nothing romantic about Ghostzapper. Frankel has been one of the sport's leaders for two decades, and owner Frank Stronach, a native of Austria who deals with horsepower that has both four legs and four-wheel drive, is one of the world's wealthiest men. But purists were captivated by Ghostzapper's sheer brilliance. He might not have been the feel-good story of the year, but his performances were sublime.
The Breeders' Cup Classic, run for the first time in Texas at Lone Star Park, attracted a star-studded field that included Pleasantly Perfect, the winner of the Dubai World Cup; Birdstone, the conqueror of Smarty Jones in the Belmont and subsequent winner of the Travers; the mare Azeri, the 2002 Horse of the Year; and Roses in May, who had won all five of his previous starts this year.
Ghostzapper left them all gasping for air, romping by three lengths while covering the final quarter-mile of a 1 1/4-mile race in 23.64 seconds. That's a turn of foot that harkens back to Spectacular Bid and Secretariat.
Smarty Jones and Ghostzapper might both one day wind up in the Hall of Fame. If they make it, they would join the 2004 inductees, the horses Bowl of Flowers, Flawlessly, and Skip Away, trainer Shug McGaughey, and jockeys Kent Desormeaux and Jimmy Winkfield.
Jockeys were in the news all year long. John Velazquez set a single-season record for wins at Saratoga, but there were horrific tragedies - such as the death of Mike Rowland, and paralyzing injury to Gary Birzer - that led to contentious dealings both within the Jockeys' Guild itself, and between the Guild and racetracks, most notably at Churchill Downs, where 14 jockeys refused to ride because of insurance concerns. Shane Sellers retired, as did Ray Sibille, Patti Cooksey, and Rosemary Homeister Jr., and Julie Krone all but did. Rick Wilson was forced to retire after a nasty accident at Pimlico. Pat Valenzuela was suspended, reinstated, then suspended again after getting carried away with his Art of Shaving kit.
Todd Pletcher, the trainer for whom Velazquez rides first call, continued his steady ascent up the national standings and finally landed atop the money-won list, propelled by Breeders' Cup victories by Ashado in the Distaff and Speightstown in the Sprint. But Pletcher was not the only trainer who had an outstanding year.
Steve Asmussen obliterated the 28-year-old record for victories in a year held by Jack Van Berg. He went past Van Berg's 496 in November and had 553 entering the final days of the year. Frankel, who has set his bar impossibly high, nearly reached it again, with 13 Grade 1 wins, twice as many as anybody else. And Servis did a masterful job not only with Smarty Jones, but also the undefeated Rockport Harbor, who won the Nashua and Remsen for 2-year-olds.
Tim Smith left the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. His expected coronation as the president of the New York Racing Association was aborted, however. Charlie Hayward, the former president of Daily Racing Form, got the top-paying job. A month earlier, Barry Schwartz stepped down from his unpaid job as chairman.
Churchill Downs bought Fair Grounds, the biggest family-run track in the country. Magna Entertainment knocked down Gulfstream and rebuilt the racing surfaces to rave reviews, but continued to bleed money. The company did, however, manage to get its HRTV on Dish Network, putting it on equal footing there with TVG.
Several icons of the sport passed, most notably Hall of Fame trainer P.G. Johnson, and owners Robert Sangster and W.T. Young. The outstanding sires Deputy Minister, Private Account, and Storm Bird also died.
Racetracks continued to lobby with state and local governments to be put on equal footing with other forms of gaming. There was headway made on that front in Florida and Oklahoma, but the biggest stride was made in Pennsylvania, where approval was given for slots that will help fund purses. That might prove to be Smarty Jones's most significant long-term achievement.
Here's a look back at the racing year 2004, division by division:
Smarty Jones earned a $5 million bonus from Oaklawn Park for sweeping that track's Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby, as well as the Kentucky Derby. When he subsequently won the Preakness, Smarty Jones was 8 for 8. But a demanding middle half-mile in the Belmont softened him up just enough to get run down by Birdstone. In a show of how popular Smarty Jones had become, Birdstone's co-owner, Marylou Whitney, apologized for beating him. Two months later, on a dark and stormy afternoon, Birdstone won the Travers. Had he upset older horses in the Breeders' Cup Classic, Birdstone could have been both champion 3-year-old colt and Horse of the Year, but he finished seventh, more than 12 lengths behind Ghostzapper. Nick Zito, who trained Birdstone, also won the Blue Grass with The Cliff's Edge, who ran second to Birdstone in the Travers. Most of the division's best had abbreviated campaigns, or were retired by the end of the year, including Santa Anita Derby winner Castledale, Florida Derby winner Friends Lake, and Haskell winner Lion Heart.
The two best horses in training in early 2004, Pleasantly Perfect and Medaglia d'Oro, went halfway around the world and thrilled an international audience with a memorable duel in the Dubai World Cup. The winner, Pleasantly Perfect, returned home and, after a freshening and a prep race, won the Pacific Classic, his third Grade 1 victory at 1 1/4 miles in less than 10 months. Southern Image began the year on a roll, taking the Sunshine Millions Classic, Santa Anita Handicap, and Pimlico Special, then lost a narrow decision to Colonial Colony in the Stephen Foster. Roses in May re-rallied bravely to capture the Whitney during a five-race win streak. Frequent runner-up Total Impact jumped up and won the Hollywood Gold Cup. Funny Cide and Peace Rules, two graduates of the Triple Crown class of 2003, raced at a high level all year, with Funny Cide taking the Jockey Club Gold Cup, and Peace Rules the Suburban. It was a strong division, but no one was stronger than Ghostzapper.
Older filly or mare
In 2003, Azeri dominated in the West, Sightseek in the East, but they never met. Their duels in 2004 were among the highlights of the year. When we last left Azeri, she was so sour she refused to train. Trainer Laura de Seroux did not like the look of a tendon, and recommended she be retired. Michael Paulson, who manages the Allen Paulson Living Trust that owns Azeri, put her back in training after a two-month recuperation, and transferred her to trainer D. Wayne Lukas. In her first start for Lukas, Azeri won the Apple Blossom Handicap for an unprecedented third straight year. Paulson's desire to race Azeri against males found her taking on the boys, without success, in both the Metropolitan Handicap and Breeders' Cup Classic. But she won two other Grade 1 races, the Go for Wand and Spinster, and split two decisions with Sightseek. In the Ogden Phipps, Sightseek trounced Azeri, but Azeri avenged that setback in the Go for Wand. Sightseek, who fought unsoundness problems all year, bounced back from that defeat to take the Ruffian and Beldame. Storm Flag Flying mixed it up with Azeri and Sightseek all year, and upset Azeri in the Personal Ensign. In California, Star Parade won the Santa Maria and Milady, Adoration took the Santa Margarita, Island Fashion the Santa Monica, and Victory Encounter the Vanity.
Ashado was no match for Halfbridled in the 2003 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, but while Halfbridled failed to train on in 2004, Ashado rose to the top of the charts. She won the Kentucky Oaks and Coaching Club American Oaks, then defeated older fillies and mares in the Breeders' Cup Distaff. Society Selection got hot at Saratoga, taking the Test and Alabama. But for a troubled trip Society Selection also could have won the Acorn, which went to Kentucky Oaks runner-up Island Sand. The speedy Madcap Escapade burst onto the scene with four straight victories, including the Ashland against Ashado. She was hurt in the Kentucky Oaks, as were A.P. Adventure, the Las Virgenes winner, and Silent Sighs, the Santa Anita Oaks winner. Stellar Jayne upset Ashado in the Mother Goose, was second in the CCA Oaks and Alabama, won the Gazelle, and was third in the Breeders' Cup Distaff.
Male turf horse
Kitten's Joy, the Secretariat winner, emerged from a talented group of 3-year-olds to soundly defeat older runners in the Turf Classic, but was stunned by Better Talk Now in the Breeders' Cup Turf. Better Talk Now had also scored an upset in the Sword Dancer in the summer. Kicken Kris bypassed the Sword Dancer to take a shot at the Arlington Million, in which he got kissed in when Powerscourt was disqualified from victory. Powerscourt and his jockey, Jamie Spencer, had a particularly difficult time in the United States. Singletary, owned by a bunch of fun-loving thirtysomethings from California, won the Breeders' Cup Mile. Designed for Luck captured the Shoemaker, and Leroidesanimaux the Citation, Hollywood Park's Grade 1 races for middle-distance runners. Canada's favorite son, Soaring Free, scored a popular victory in the Atto Mile. Magistretti emerged from a thicket of horses with a dazzling turn of foot in the Man o' War. Meteor Storm, the best long-distance horse in California, headed east and took the Manhattan.
Female turf horses
Ouija Board, the top filly in Europe, scored a workmanlike victory in her lone United States outing, the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf. Another European, Crimson Palace, took the Beverly D. Riskaverse, the Beverly D. runner-up, returned to win the Flower Bowl. The best middle-distance runner might have been Intercontinental, who captured the Matriarch. Her trainer, Frankel, also trained Grade 1 winners Light Jig (Yellow Ribbon), Commercante (E.P. Taylor), and the tiny but mighty Megahertz. Ticker Tape could only finish third against older runners in the Matriarch, but she won the Queen Elizabeth II and American Oaks, and lost a heartbreaker in the Del Mar Oaks. Wonder Again crushed Intercontinental on a yielding course in the Diana. Musical Chimes captured the Mabee, and beat the boys in the Oak Tree Mile. Other major winners included Amorama (Del Mar Oaks), Lucifer's Stone (Garden City), and Noches de Rosa (Gamely).
Declan's Moon bypassed the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, but nailed down a probable championship by beating Breeders' Cup winner Wilko, and Champagne Stakes winner Proud Accolade, in a pivotal Hollywood Futurity. Earlier in the summer, Declan's Moon outdueled Roman Ruler in a thrilling Del Mar Futurity. Afleet Alex tenaciously prevailed on a sloppy track in the Hopeful, then lost narrowly in the Champagne and Breeders' Cup. Consolidator couldn't handle Afleet Alex at Saratoga, but later won the Breeders' Futurity. Rockport Harbor defeated Galloping Grocer in a gripping battle of the unbeatens in the Remsen.
Sweet Catomine overcame a troubled trip by swiftly accelerating past her rivals in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, in which she defeated the winners of the Frizette (Balletto), Alcibiades (Runway Model), and Matron (Sense of Style). The big, rangy Sweet Catomine also took the Del Mar Debutante and Oak Leaf. She towered, literally and figuratively, over the division.
Ghostzapper's lone sprint, in the Tom Fool, was outstanding. So too were the year-long exploits of Pico Central and Speightstown. Pico Central left his California base to win the Carter, Met Mile, and Vosburgh, the latter in his lone head-to-head meeting with Speightstown. The Vosburgh was the only setback for Speightstown, who returned to win the Breeders' Cup Sprint; Pico Central passed the Breeders' Cup because of a stiff supplementary fee. Lion Tamer, like Speightstown trained by Pletcher, then upset Pico Central in the Cigar Mile. Kela, the Breeders' Cup runner-up, upset Pico Central in the Pat O'Brien, which completed a sweep of Del Mar's major stakes, including the Bing Crosby. Pohave, the Crosby runner-up, took the Triple Bend. Wildcat Heir was the longshot winner of the De Francis, defeating Forego winner Midas Eyes. Our New Recruit went halfway around the world and won the Dubai Golden Shaheen. Pomeroy rallied to win the King's Bishop. Champali, and the mare Ema Bovary, were the stars of Calder's Summit of Speed. The best female sprinter on the East Coast was Lady Tak, who won the Ballerina.
The popular McDynamo returned from a lengthy layoff to win the Breeders' Cup Steeplechase, but he was no match for Hirapour in the Colonial Cup. Two other well-regarded veterans, Praise the Prince and Tres Touche, were the stars of the summer at Saratoga.
2004 Event Timeline
Jan. 1: The legendary Dr. Alex Harthill, a Kentucky veterinarian for more than 50 years, retires at age 77. For more than a year he had tried to recover from a broken back after a horse fell on him.
Jan. 22: Jockey Patrick Valenzuela fails to show up at Santa Anita for a mandatory drug test, setting off a months-long saga of suspensions, appeals, and reinstatements. In August, Valenzuela is ultimately suspended for the remainder of 2004.
Jan. 23: Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., opens for its 100th anniversary season, offering a $5 million Centennial Bonus to any horse who wins the Rebel, Arkansas Derby, and Kentucky Derby.
Jan. 26: Mineshaft, the winner of four Grade 1 stakes in 2003, is named Horse of the Year and champion older horse at the 33rd annual Eclipse Awards. Other winners include Azeri for older female and Funny Cide for 3-year-old male.
Feb. 21: Louisiana riding great Ronald Ardoin, winner of 5,226 races, retires at age 46.
Feb. 24: At Fasig-Tipton's sale at Calder, Fusao Sekiguchi spends $4.5 million on a son of his Derby winner, Fusaichi Pegasus, setting a world record for a 2-year-old in training sale. Now named Fusaichi Samurai, the colt won his maiden impressively on Dec. 11.
March 13: Edgar Prado, 36, becomes the 19th jockey to reach the 5,000-win mark when he captures the Swale at Gulfstream aboard Wynn Dot Comma.
March 27: Five months after winning the 2003 Breeders' Cup Classic, Pleasantly Perfect captures the $6 million Dubai World Cup after a thrilling stretch duel with Medaglia d'Oro.
April 15: Jerry Hollendorfer wins his 4,000th race, becoming just the sixth Thoroughbred trainer to reach that milestone.
May 1: Smarty Jones, a Pennsylvania-bred from the unheralded Someday Farm of Roy and Pat Chapman, wins the 130th Kentucky Derby for trainer John Servis and runs his record to a perfect 7 for 7. In addition to the winner's purse, Smarty Jones earns a $5 million bonus from Oaklawn Park - and the adoration of racing fans nationwide.
May 13: California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signs legislation to increase takeout on exotic wagers by 0.5 percent to offset the state's rising costs of workers' compensation.
May 15: Smarty Jones and jockey Stewart Elliott cruise to a record-setting 11 1/2-length victory in the Preakness Stakes, setting up a chance to join Seattle Slew as only the second undefeated Triple Crown winner.
June 5: With "Smarty Mania" at a fever pitch, Birdstone spoils Smarty Jones's Triple Crown bid with a one-length victory in the Belmont Stakes. Birdstone will go on to win the Travers Stakes, while Smarty Jones's future holds retirement and a $39 million syndication.
June 24: Patti Cooksey, the second-winningest female jockey in history with 2,137 victories, retires at age 46.
July 5: Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell signs a bill authorizing up to 61,000 slot machines in the state, a move that could generate $3 billion a year and greatly boost purses at Philadelphia Park.
July 7: Less than two weeks after Cooksey's retirement, Hall of Fame jockey Julie Krone, the winningest female rider, says she will not ride at Del Mar in the summer and is unlikely to return to the saddle. Krone, 41, has won 3,704 races and is the only woman to win a Breeders' Cup or Triple Crown race.
July 13: Danzig, one of North America's most successful sires of the past two decades, is pensioned at age 27.
Aug. 1: After losing to Sightseek in the Ogden Phipps earlier in the year, Azeri turns the tables in the Go for Wand at Saratoga, turning in a stakes-record time and setting an all-time earnings record for North American fillies or mares.
Aug. 9: Trainer Shug McGaughey and jockey Kent Desormeaux are inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame along with Flawlessly, an outstanding grass mare, and Skip Away, a four-time champion.
Aug. 31: Churchill Downs Inc. completes a $47 million deal to purchase Fair Grounds, trumping horse owner Mike Pegram's bid to control the New Orleans racetrack.
Sept. 3: Jockey John Velazquez breaks his own record for victories at Saratoga when he rides his 62nd winner of the meet.
Sept. 14: At Keeneland's September yearling sale, a Storm Cat colt out of Welcome Surprise goes for a sale-record $8 million, the fourth-highest price ever at a Thoroughbred auction. The sale was the top-grossing Thoroughbred auction in history.
Oct. 30: Ghostzapper caps his perfect season by winning the Breeders' Cup Classic in record time at Lone Star Park, and Kentucky Oaks winner Ashado takes the Breeders' Cup Distaff. The day's other winners: Sweet Catomine (Juvenile Fillies), Wilko (Juvenile), Singletary (Mile), Speightstown (Sprint), Ouija Board (Filly and Mare Turf), and Better Talk Now (Turf).
Nov. 4: Charlie Hayward, former president and chief executive officer of Daily Racing Form, is appointed president and CEO of the New York Racing Association.
Nov. 5: Dale Baird, the winningest Thoroughbred trainer in history, celebrates the monumental milestone of 9,000 career victories.
Nov. 8: Churchill Downs bans 14 jockeys for the remainder of the meet after the riders planned an unofficial boycott to highlight the issue of insurance coverage for jockeys. The boycott later spreads to Hoosier Park, and an NTRA task force begins to study the insurance issue.
Nov. 20: On his way to becoming the first trainer to crack the 500-victory mark, Steve Asmussen wins his 497th race of the year, breaking Jack Van Berg's 28-year-old record.
Dec. 7: L. Wayne Gertmenian, the controversial president of the Jockeys' Guild, receives a vote of confidence from riders as his contract is renewed through 2009. The vote comes amid questions about the Guild's finances, Gertmenian's resume, and the Guild's role in the jockey-insurance fight.
Dec. 16: The Sales Integrity Task Force releases the first-ever code of ethics for U.S. Thoroughbred auctions, pushing for disclosure in many areas but offering no penalties for violators.
Dec. 24: Azeri, the 2002 Horse of the Year and a divisional champion in 2002 and 2003, is retired.
- Dave Renard
Jan. 12: W.T. Young, 85, owner of Overbrook Farm
Jan. 13: J.R. Smith Sr., 68, trainer, Dave Penna, 46, jockey
Jan. 27: Kevin Goemmer, 48, track announcer
Feb. 2: Jerry Nielsen, 69, president of New York Thoroughbred Breeders
Feb. 8: Joss Collins, 56, bloodstock agent
Feb. 9: Mike Rowland, 41, jockey
Feb. 22: Einar Paul Robsham, 75, owner
Feb. 25: John Russell, 67, trainer
Feb. 28: Bud Baedeker, 90, handicapper
Feb. 29: Richard O'Connell, 54, trainer
March 6: Charles DiRocco, 69, simulcast pioneer
March 23: Russell Reineman, 86, owner
March 26: Victor "Lefty" Nickerson, 75, trainer
April 7: Robert Sangster, 67, owner
May 14: Danny Hutt, 55, trainer
May 25: Mary Kay Johnson, 79, owner
June 13: Morley Engelson, 69, owner
July 19: Woody Sedlacek, 85, trainer
Aug. 5: Phil Johnson, 78, Hall of Fame trainer
Sept. 2: Edward I. Kelly, 83, trainer
Sept. 26: Dean Kutz, 48, jockey
Oct. 25: William Reed, 83, veterinarian-breeder
Nov. 4: James Binger, 88, president of Tartan Farms
Nov. 21: Doug Peterson, 53, a trainer of Seattle Slew
Jan. 14: Withallprobability, 16, stakes winner, broodmare
Jan. 30: Angel Fever, 14, dam of Fusaichi Pegasus
March 6: Tabasco Cat, 13, Preakness and Belmont winner; sire
March 15: Evil Elaine, 20, dam of Favorite Trick
March 22: Rowdy Angel, 25, dam of Pine Bluff, Demons Begone, Angel Fever
March 23: Wynn Dot Comma, 3, multiple graded stakes winner
March 23: Excellent Meeting, 8, four-time Grade 1 winner
April 2: Miss Snowflake, 26, dam of Snow Chief
April 25: Irish River, 28, sire
May 2: Private Emblem, 5, Arkansas Derby winner
May 3: Chic Shirine, 20, broodmare
June 5: Clever Trick, 28, sire
June 17: Wavering Monarch, 25, Grade 1 winner, sire
June 18: Puzzlement, 5, multiple graded stakes winner
June 18: Machiavellian, 17, sire
July 2: Sky Beauty, 14, champion mare
July 19: Free House, 10, multiple Grade 1 winner, sire
Aug. 5: Glowing Tribute, 31, multiple graded stakes winner, dam of seven stakes winners (six graded), including Kentucky Derby winner Sea Hero
Aug. 8: Exclusive Ribot, 32, sire
Sept. 10: Deputy Minister, 25, champion 2-year-old, leading sire
Oct. 12: Bates Motel, 25, champion older horse, sire
Nov. 12: Epitome, 19, champion 2-year-old filly, Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies winner
Nov. 25: Private Account, 28, sire of Personal Ensign
Nov. 26: Blitey, 28, multiple graded stakes winner, broodmare
Dec. 3: Storm Bird, 26, sire of Storm Cat
Dec. 11: Northern Taste, 33, champion sire in Japan
Dec. 16: Miswaki, 26, sire
Dec. 24: Carson City, 17, Group 1 stakes winner, sire