12/28/2012 4:48PM

Steven Crist: No dominant horse in 2012 Grade 1 races

Barbara D. Livingston
Groupie Doll won three Grade 1 stakes in 2012.

The Malibu Stakes at Santa Anita on Wednesday was the last of the 112 Grade 1 races run in the United States during 2012. A survey of the results (a full listing of them can be found on my blog) suggests an unusual lack of dominance by individual horses but an increasing concentration of success by the sport’s elite trainers and jockeys.

While only four horses won more than two U.S. Grade 1 races this year, accounting for just 12 of the 113 winners (there are two Travers winners via the Alpha-Golden Ticket dead heat), 10 trainers won three or more Grade 1’s, combining to win 65 of them, and 15 riders won three or more, taking 86 of the races.

The only four horses who won three Grade 1’s were Groupie Doll, I’ll Have Another, Little Mike, and Point of Entry. Two of them are Eclipse Award shoo-ins – Groupie Doll as champion female sprinter and I’ll Have Another as champion 3-year-old – while Little Mike and Point of Entry seem likely to run second and third behind Wise Dan for champion turf male. (Wise Dan, the likely Horse of the Year, won two Grade 1’s in the United States and the Canadian Grade 1 Woodbine Mile.)

Another 15 horses won two Grade 1’s apiece, including the cinch Eclipse winners Royal Delta (older female) and Shanghai Bobby (2-year-old male). At least three likely Eclipse winners – Beholder (2-year-old filly), Trinniberg (male sprinter), and Zagora (turf female) – won only one Grade 1 race apiece. The 3-year-old filly race is a close one between Questing (two Grade 1’s) and My Miss Aurelia (one Grade 1.)

These somewhat thin Grade 1 credentials reflect the larger trend of horses making fewer starts at the top of the game, especially in the major dirt races that have defined American championship racing for decades.

Wise Dan’s two Grade 1 victories are historically low for an American Horse of the Year, and it would mean that our last four Horse of the Year winners combined to win exactly two Grade 1 dirt races unrestricted by age or sex – Wise Dan and Zenyatta (2010) won no such races during their HOTY campaigns, while Havre de Grace (2011) and Rachel Alexandra each won the Woodward. You have to go back to Curlin in 2008 to find a Horse of the Year with anything resembling a conventional r é sum é , and to Curlin in 2007 to find a Breeders’ Cup Classic winner who was named Horse of the Year.

Also, if Wise Dan is named champion older male, it will be the third time in the last four years that the winner of that title did not win a single race on the dirt – Gio Ponti in 2009 and Acclamation in 2011 won only on turf and synthetics.

Bob Baffert led all trainers with 14 Grade 1 victories during 2012, followed by Todd Pletcher (11), Dale Romans (9), Kiaran McLaughlin (6), Bill Mott (6), and Shug McGaughey (5). Baffert’s 14 victories with 11 different horses would usually be imposing credentials in the contest for the training Eclipse, but a likely lack of Eclipse-winning trainees and a late-season cold streak (he was blanked at the Breeders’ Cup and was winless in Grade 1’s from Oct. 6 to Dec. 26) has tipped favoritism to Romans, who won his nine Grade 1 races with just four horses – Little Mike with three, and Dullahan, Shackleford, and Tapitsfly with two apiece.

In all, just the top five Grade 1 trainers accounted for 46 of the 113 victories: More than 40 percent of the year’s Grade 1 races were won by Baffert, Pletcher, Romans, Mott, or McLaughlin.

Pletcher figures to be the third Eclipse finalist for winning his 11 Grade 1’s with nine different runners and a strong finish – 10 of his 11 Grade 1’s came after the 4th of July.

John Velazquez topped all jockeys with 13 Grade 1’s (only four of them for Pletcher), followed by Ramon Dominguez and Rafael Bejarano with nine apiece (all nine of Bejarano’s were for Baffert), then Javier Castellano (8), Mike Smith (7), and Garrett Gomez (6). Rounding out the top 10 were Jose Lezcano, Rajiv Maragh, and Joel Rosario with five each, and Rosie Napravnik with four.

You can take a deep breath before turning to the 111 scheduled Grade 1 races of 2013: with the Santa Monica on Jan. 28 downgraded to a Grade 2 next year, the first Grade 1’s of the new year are not until Feb. 9, when the Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap and the Donn Handicap will be run at Gulfstream.