12/26/2013 4:08PM

Year in Review: A comeback for Stevens, a Derby for McGaughey, and a Preakness for Lukas

Justin N. Lane
Gary Stevens enjoys the moment after winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic aboard Mucho Macho Man. Stevens, 50, returned to the saddle after seven years in retirement and showed he hadn’t lost a thing, also taking the Breeders’ Cup Distaff with Beholder and the Preakness with Oxbow.

What difference does a year make? Consider that when Anderson Cooper and Kathy Griffin welcomed in 2013 at Times Square 52 weeks ago, Gary Stevens was retired, D. Wayne Lukas hadn’t won a Triple Crown race since 2000, Shug McGaughey had yet to win a Kentucky Derby, Rick Dutrow was training, Ramon Dominguez was riding, and Hollywood Park was open.

All their lives were altered immeasurably during the following 12 months.

Stevens scratched a seven-year itch and came back, at age 50, as good as he left, perhaps better, highlighted by victories in the Preakness Stakes, Breeders’ Cup Distaff, and Breeders’ Cup Classic.

“This is retirement for me, believe it or not,” Stevens said after the Classic, “and it’s a pretty good retirement check every month.”

Lukas, previously tied for the most Triple Crown race wins among trainers with Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, became the all-time leader with 14 victories when Oxbow – ridden by Stevens – captured the Preakness.

McGaughey, like Lukas a Hall of Famer, but compared with Lukas seemingly allergic to the Derby, molded Orb into a Derby winner, rewarding his longtime patrons, Ogden Mills “Dinny” Phipps and Stuart Janney III, with a blanket of roses.

Dutrow won the Derby with Big Brown in 2008, but less than five years later, he was out of the sport, suspended 10 years by the New York State Racing and Wagering Board for multiple rules violations, a legal saga that took more than a year to play out.

Dominguez was forced out in a more shocking and sudden manner. The reigning three-time Eclipse Award-winning jockey suffered severe head injuries in an accident at Aqueduct in January and had no choice but to retire.

Hollywood Park – where such greats as Seabiscuit, Citation, Swaps, and Affirmed once raced – ended a 75-year run last weekend, earning the dubious distinction of being the biggest and most successful track in this country to be shuttered.

Those were the most notable changes this year, but there were some constants that wore well, like a favorite winter blanket, none more exceptional than Wise Dan, who followed up a 2012 campaign that brought him Horse of the Year honors with another bravura season that likely will earn him Horse of the Year again. He won four Grade 1 races this year, including a repeat on firm turf in the Breeders’ Cup Mile, and he won two stakes on a rain-soaked course at Churchill Downs.

“He’s had to overcome a lot,” said Charlie LoPresti, who trains Wise Dan for owner-breeder Morton Fink. “We didn’t scratch. We danced every dance.”

The Breeders’ Cup also saw repeat victories by Groupie Doll in the Filly and Mare Sprint and Mizdirection in the Turf Sprint, while Beholder became the second horse to win two different Breeders’ Cup races, adding the Distaff to a résumé that included a 2012 victory in the Juvenile Fillies (Zenyatta was the first to win two different Breeders' Cup races, the Ladies' Classic and Classic). This year’s Distaff may have been the best yet, with a field that included Royal Delta, who was seeking a third straight win in the race, and Kentucky Oaks winner Princess of Sylmar.

Secret Circle also became a two-time Breeders’ Cup winner, his Sprint victory following a 2011 score in the since-abandoned Juvenile Sprint.

In a refreshing development, some eight winners of Breeders’ Cup races in 2012 were back this year. The Breeders’ Cup Classic included the first four finishers from 2012, along with Game On Dude, who in 2013 swept the Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup, and Pacific Classic before again flopping as the favorite in the Classic.

Ken and Sarah Ramsey, consistently among the nation’s leading owners and breeders, took their excellence to new heights, particularly in the spring meet at Keeneland, where they, trainer Mike Maker, and jockey Joel Rosario all set single-season records. With their stallion Kitten’s Joy providing the kick-start, the Ramseys won more Grade 1 races than any owner or breeder. Their best day came Aug. 17, when they won the Arlington Million with Real Solution, the Sword Dancer with Big Blue Kitten, and the Secretariat with Admiral Kitten.

Keeneland itself thrived, both in racing and sales. The fall race meeting set records for both attendance and handle, and that followed a September yearling sale that was the best since 2008.

Todd Pletcher led the nation’s trainers in purse earnings and Grade 1 wins and saw his belief in Palace Malice rewarded with a victory in the Belmont Stakes.

John Velazquez became the leading rider of all time at Saratoga and the leading money earner of all time among jockeys, while Javier Castellano set a single-season record for earnings, his mounts banking more than $25.8 million.

The comeback of Stevens at age 50 may have been the best story of the year, but his good friend and fellow veteran rider, Mike Smith, had an even better year, leading the nation’s jockeys in Grade 1 wins and making off with three Breeders’ Cup races and the Belmont, all during a year in which he turned 48.

Another golden oldie, Russell Baze, the all-time leader for victories among jockeys, passed the 12,000-win mark. He already is in the Hall of Fame, a club whose newest inductees were Calvin Borel, Housebuster, Invasor, Lure, and the steeplechase greats McDynamo and Tuscalee.

It was a particularly good year for graduates of the 2011 Kentucky Derby. Animal Kingdom, who won that race, this year won the world’s richest race, the Dubai World Cup, while Mucho Macho Man, third in that Derby, won this country’s richest race, the Breeders’ Cup Classic, in a thriller over Will Take Charge.

Kathy Ritvo, the trainer of Mucho Macho Man, like Stevens fashioned her own comeback tale, winning the Classic just five years after receiving a heart transplant. Both were races that came right down to the wire.

Paynter, second in the 2012 Belmont, returned from serious illness and won his comeback race, and though he failed to win again, he provided an inspiring tale for his devoted fans.

Racing continued to struggle, though, with such omnipresent issues as medication and race dates.

Congress again held hearings related to possible federal intervention regarding drug testing. A federal investigation resulted in arrests for alleged medication and gambling illegalities at Penn National. In California, that state’s racing board launched an investigation into the sudden deaths of seven of trainer Bob Baffert’s horses. No violations were found. At the Breeders’ Cup, there were two sets of rules, with Lasix forbidden for all 2-year-old races but allowed for all other races.

California’s race dates have been altered with the closing of Hollywood Park, resulting in additional dates for Santa Anita and Del Mar and new Thoroughbred dates for Los Alamitos. At least there, tracks were trying to cooperate and make the best of a bad situation. In Florida, though, Calder and Gulfstream Park, located just nine miles apart, ended up going head-to-head in the summer, with Calder seemingly taking the worst of it.

The sport lost several notables to death, including Hall of Fame trainer T.J. Kelly, breeder David Greathouse, and the esteemed horseman Henry White. Overseas, the United Kingdom grieved for the death of trainer Henry Cecil.

The greatest stallion of modern times, Storm Cat, died, as did Unbridled’s Song and Harlan’s Holiday. The deaths of stallions who long ago finished racing, though certainly sad, are easier to fathom than a sudden, shocking death of a racehorse cut down in his prime, like Points Offthebench, who perished in his final work before the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, or the popular New York-bred Saginaw, who died at Saratoga.

There was the sublime – Wise Dan in the Breeders’ Cup Mile, Beholder in the Distaff  – and the ridiculous, such as when trainer Eric Guillot accused jockey Luis Saez of using an electrical device to help urge Will Take Charge past Guillot’s Moreno in the Travers Stakes.

It might have seemed ridiculous, too, for a 50-year-old man to return to riding after a retirement of seven years. That, though, turned out to be truly sublime.