The past year in thoroughbred racing provided a roller-coaster ride of chills and thrills with three different winners of the Triple Crown races, a 3-year-old who emerged late in the year and comeback stories featuring jockey Gary Stevens and trainer D. Wayne Lukas.
January: Wise Dan is voted 2012 Horse of the Year at the Annual Eclipse Awards held at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, Fla., the first male horse to win the honor since 2008.
New York-based jockey Ramon Dominguez suffers a career-ending injury at Aqueduct the day before winning the 2012 Eclipse Award for top jockey.
February: The Kentucky Derby prep races start to heat up under a new points system to determine Derby starters. A horse named Orb wins the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream, closing late to beat early Derby hopeful Violence, trained by Todd Pletcher, who was retired shortly thereafter.
Revolutionary wins the Withers at Aqueduct and another Pletcher trainee, Verrazano, wins an allowance at Gulfstream by 16 lengths and raises some eyebrows. No one seems to be taking the lead as horses such as Super Ninety Nine, Ive Struck a Nerve and Shakin It Up win prep races, but none of these colts materializes as a contender leading up to the Run for the Roses.
March: The Derby trail goes in full swing on both coasts with Vyjack winning the Gotham at Aqueduct, Verrazano taking the Tampa Bay Derby and Revolutionary emerging as a top colt with his victory in the Louisiana Derby. The month culminates with the Florida Derby where Orb continues his winning ways, defeating Itsmyluckyday.
Animal Kingdom, the 2011 Kentucky Derby winner, triumphs in the world’s richest race, the Dubai World Cup, as two American horses, the filly Royal Delta and Dullahan, both finish up the track. Joel Rosario turns in a brilliant ride for trainer Graham Motion. Back in the States, Game On Dude, on his way to a successful 6-year-old campaign, wins the Big Cap at Santa Anita for trainer Bob Baffert.
April: The winners of the three biggest Derby preps of April are Goldencents (Santa Anita Derby), Verrazano (Wood Memorial at the Big A) and Overanalyze (Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn). Departing wins the Illinois Derby, but earns no Kentucky points and has to point toward the Preakness.
The 3-year-old filly division looks very competitive as Beholder wins the Santa Anita Oaks and Close Hatches holds off Princess of Sylmar in the Gazelle at Aqueduct.
May: Jockey Mike Smith continues his winning ways aboard Kentucky Oaks winner Princess of Sylmar, who closes late to capture the Run for the Lilies at 39-1.
In the 139th Kentucky Derby, 5-1 Orb chases down the field on a sloppy track for venerable owners Stuart Janney and the Phipps Stable. Rosario pulls off only the second Dubai World Cup-Kentucky Derby riding double aboard Orb, equaling Jerry Bailey’s accomplishment.
A slow-paced Preakness allows Oxbow to steal the show for the old timers Stevens and Lukas. Stevens, retired since 2005, returned to racing in January, then in Baltimore captured his 11th Triple Crown race. Oxbow’s win was the 14th career Triple Crown victory for Lukas, a new record.
June: Palace Malice, who set early blazing fractions in the Derby with blinkers on, overtakes Oxbow on the long Belmont backstretch and never looks back with Smith in the irons for Pletcher and owner Dogwood Stable.
In the wide open handicap division, defending Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Fort Larned captures the Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs. Calidoscopio wins the Brooklyn Handicap after trailing by a whopping 22 lengths early in the race.
July: Back here in Western New York and Southern Ontario, racing turns to the Canadian Triple Crown. Fort Erie-based trainer Nick Gonzalez wins his second Queen’s Plate when Post Time selection 16-1 Midnight Aria wires the field at Woodbine on a rainy day in Toronto.
Fort Erie’s biggest race, the Prince of Wales, is won by Uncaptured for owner John Oxley and trainer Mark Casse, winning connections of the 2012 race with Dixie Strike.
Saratoga Race Course opens and celebrates its sesquicentennial season and Princess of Sylmar’s success continues, notching the Coaching Club American Oaks by six lengths. Verrazano wins the Haskell at Monmouth in a dominating performance over Itsmyluckyday, who suffers a pelvic injury early in the race.
Royal Delta shows no signs of a Dubai bounce in winning the Delaware Handicap, romping by more than 10 lengths. Groupie Doll rolls to her second straight Presque Isle Downs Masters down the Thruway in Erie, Pa.
August: Will Take Charge wins a photo finish in the Travers for Lukas after finishing second in the Jim Dandy at Saratoga. The Travers ends in dramatic fashion as Will Take Charge nips the front-running Moreno at the wire. Moreno’s trainer, Eric Guillot, publicly accuses jockey Luis Saez of using a buzzer in the race, but later recants and apologizes.
Princess of Sylmar follows up her Coaching Club win with a victory in the Alabama. Game On Dude wins the Pacific Classic at Del Mar, his fifth consecutive win of the year. Three-time Kentucky Derby winning jockey Calvin Borel leads a number of enshrinees into the Racing Hall of Fame.
September: Saratoga wraps up with last year’s Travers winner, Alpha, winning the Woodward Stakes and Strong Mandate winning the Hopeful. Parx stages a big day of racing with two $1 million races on the card.
Close Hatches wins the Cotillion and Will Take Charge wins the Pennsylvania Derby. Once again Wise Dan heads north to Toronto to win the Woodbine Mile, his fifth win in five tries on the year.
October: Havana holds off Honor Code to win the Champagne Stakes, with both juveniles looking to be early contenders for next year’s Derby. Wise Dan returns to Keeneland and is upset in the Shadwell Turf Mile by Silver Max when the race is taken off the turf.
Joshua Tree wins the Pattison Canadian International for the third time in four years at Woodbine under jockey Ryan Moore.
November: The Breeders’ Cup is run for the second year in a row at beautiful Santa Anita Park outside Los Angeles and draws 94,628 fans over the two-day event. Mucho Macho Man has his moment in the sun, winning a great stretch battle over Will Take Charge in the $5 million Classic at 4-1 odds in a photo finish with the 50-year-old Stevens riding.
Wise Dan rebounds from his loss at Keeneland by winning his second straight Breeders’ Cup Mile. Hometown favorite Beholder wins the Ladies’ Classic over two-time defending winner Royal Delta and Princess of Sylmar to tighten up the 3-year-old filly division.
Finger Lakes-based trainer Jeremiah Englehart wins the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies when Ria Antonia was placed first via the disqualification of She’s A Tiger. Will Take Charge finishes strong with a win against older horses in the Clark Handicap to wrap up the fall Churchill meet and most likely the 3-year-old colt division.
Two trainers and a clocker are arrested on federal charges of fraud in connection with races run at Penn National. The arrests resulted from an investigation by the FBI that is ongoing.
December: NYRA announces price increases at the gate at both Belmont and Saratoga. Sadly, Hollywood Park closes after 75 years of history in Inglewood, Calif., the second track to close in California since 2008, when Bay Meadows was shuttered in San Francisco.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.