The year in thoroughbred racing can best be described as tantalizing. The Triple Crown trail teased us with the opportunity to crown the first winner in 34 years, but the streak stayed intact when injury sidelined I’ll Have Another the day before the Belmont Stakes. The summer gave us a dead heat in the Travers and the fall culminated in a terrific four-race win streak for Horse of the Year hopeful Wise Dan. Let’s take a look at how the past 12 months unfolded, via our year-end review:
January: Havre de Grace is voted 2011 Horse of the Year at the Annual Eclipse Awards held in Beverly Hills, making it the third female horse in three years to take home the honors. A special Eclipse award is presented to Rapid Redux, a horse that won 19 races in 2011, on his way to 22 straight victories. Michael Beychok of Baton Rouge, La., wins the $1 million National Handicapping Championship with his final mythical wager, beating 480 contestants for the top prize and Handicapper of the Year laurels.
February: The Derby prep races start to heat up in earnest. Union Rags wins the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park and grabs the role of probable Derby favorite early on. A horse with the odd name, I’ll Have Another, takes the Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita and Alpha wins the Withers at Aqueduct. The Donn Handicap, a strong Grade 1 for older horses at Gulfstream, is won by Hymn Book.
March: The Kentucky Derby trail moves into full swing on both coasts as 2-year-old champion Hansen wins the Gotham at Aqueduct, Woodbine-based trainer Mark Casse takes the Tampa Bay Derby with Prospective, and Creative Cause scoops the San Felipe at Santa Anita. The month culminates with the Florida Derby, where Take Charge Indy defeats a sluggish Union Rags, turning the Derby trail upside down. Monterosso wins the world’s richest race, the Dubai World Cup, as two American horses, the filly Royal Delta and Game on Dude, both finish up the track. Back in the States, Ron the Greek, on his way to a successful 5-year old campaign, wins the Big Cap at Santa Anita for trainer Bill Mott.
April: The winners of the three biggest Kentucky Derby preps of April give horseplayers a glimpse of the future Derby trifecta. I’ll Have Another wins the Santa Anita Derby, Bodemeister wins the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn, and Dullahan captures the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. Todd Pletcher’s Gemologist holds off Alpha in the Wood Memorial at the Big A to grab a spot in the Derby gate as well as a number of followers. A talented 4-year-old filly named Groupie Doll quietly dominates the Grade 1 Vinery Madison at Keeneland on her way to five straight victories. A Congressional Subcommittee interviews various members of the racing industry with the major focus centered on the use of race day medications.
May: Jockey Rosie Napravnik makes history by becoming the first female to ride a Kentucky Oaks winner aboard Believe You Can. In the 138th Run for the Roses, I’ll Have Another overtakes a front-running Bodemeister to win the Derby. The Flower Alley colt is the first horse to win the Derby from post 19 and the first in 23 years to pull off the Santa Anita/Kentucky Derby double. He comes right back to beat Bodemeister again in the rematch in the Preakness, making his move once again in deep stretch to set up a potential Triple Crown attempt and horse racing graces the front of sports sections across the nation once again. Fan favorite Shackleford rebounds in the Met Mile at Belmont Park, holding off his hard charging rival Caleb’s Posse at the wire. New York Racing Association (NYRA) Chief Executive Officer Charles Heyward and Chief Counsel Patrick Kehoe are both relieved of their duties in the wake of a takeout scandal that cost bettors over $8 million when the takeout for certain wagers were not lowered when the law expired and NYRA officials were aware of it.
June: Sitting atop the George Washington Bridge on the Friday before the Belmont Stakes, I hear on the radio that a news conference is scheduled to announce the scratch of I’ll Have Another due to injury. The racing world exhales a collective groan as the 2012 Triple Crown hopes are dead in the water. Union Rags overtakes Paynter, a newcomer to the Triple Crown trail, by slipping inside him on the rail to capture the Test of a Champion. Bob Baffert’s horses finish second in all three Triple Crown events. Back in Western New York and Southern Ontario, our sights turn to the Canadian Triple Crown. Strait of Dover captures the first leg, the Queen’s Plate, in impressive fashion on the polytrack at Woodbine, but won’t ship down to Fort Erie due to his lack of consistency on dirt tracks for leg two.
July: Fort Erie’s biggest race, the Prince of Wales, is won by the filly Dixie Strike for owner John Oxley and trainer Mark Casse. Saratoga opens up its 144th season and Kiaran McLaughlin captures his second straight Coaching Club American Oaks with his filly Questing. Paynter wins the Haskell at Monmouth, following up his strong performance in the Belmont Stakes. The Haskell win is a record fifth victory for Baffert. Groupie Doll wins the Presque Isle Downs Masters in Erie, Pa.
August: Alpha sweeps the key Saratoga stakes for 3-year-olds, winning both the Jim Dandy and Travers for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. The Travers ends in dramatic fashion as Alpha dead heats with 33-1 long shot Golden Ticket, who last ran in the Tampa Bay Derby. The King’s Bishop is won by Willie Beamin coming off a four-day layoff, a move patented by trainer Richard Dutrow. Questing follows up her Coaching Club win with a victory in the Alabama. Dullahan upsets Game On Dude in the Pacific Classic at Del Mar on the polytrack, a surface he relishes. Canadian icon Roger Attfield and super talented jockey Johnny Velazquez are inductees into the Racing Hall of Fame.
September: Saratoga ends with To Honor and Serve winning the Woodward Stakes and Shanghai Bobby winning the Hopeful. Parx stages a big day of racing with two $1 million races on the card. My Miss Aurelia beat Questing in a thrilling back and forth stretch duel to take the lead in the 3-year-old filly division. Wise Dan heads north to Toronto to win the Woodbine Mile and racing pundits start taking note of his body of work. The Thoroughbred Times closes unexpectedly and files bankruptcy, putting 27 full-time employees, not to mention freelance journalists and photographers, out of work.
October: Undefeated Shanghai Bobby wins the Champagne at Belmont and Wise Dan returns to Keeneland and wins the Shadwell Turf Mile. Joshua Tree wins the Pattison Canadian International for the second time in three years and world renowned jockey Frankie Dettori performs his patented flying dismount in the winners’ circle. Governor Cuomo announces Cornell President David Skorton will chair the NYRA’s Reorganizational Board.
November: The Breeders’ Cup is run for the sixth time at beautiful Santa Anita Park outside Los Angeles and draws 89,742 fans over the two-day event. Fort Larned holds off Mucho Macho Man in a great stretch battle to win the Classic at 9-1 odds. Wise Dan culminates a super season by winning the Mile, beating former Derby champion Animal Kingdom, who was valiant in defeat. Royal Delta takes the Ladies’ Classic on Friday for the second straight year to wrap up top older female horse honors. Stay Thirsty wins one of my favorite races of the year, the Cigar Mile, to finish a solid campaign, edging a game Groupie Doll in a photo finish. Last year’s Horse of the Year Havre de Grace sells for $10 million at auction. Shackleford finishes a brilliant career with a win in the Grade 1 Clark Handicap at Churchill.
December: Gulfstream Park opens in December for the second straight year with more than $1 million in customer-friendly improvements and more on the way. Long-time horseplayer and owner Jack Klugman passes away at age 90. His homebred Jaklin Klugman finished third in the 1980 Kentucky Derby.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.