Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Ten Memorable Moments from Thoroughbred Racing in America in 2013

The start of the 7th race at Hollywood Park on December 21, the next-to-last day of racing ever at this historic track. (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Here are my ten most memorable moments in thoroughbred racing in 2013. Most happened on the track, but not all.

1) Wise Dan wins the Breeders' Cup Mile - OK, this was hardly an upset as I'm sure that most bettors who played the Pick Six on Breeders' Cup Saturday probably singled Wise Dan on their tickets. After all, he had won this same turf race at the same track (Santa Anita) the previous year. So why is this number one for me in 2013? Well, it's the way he won the race, stumbling out of the gate and them getting fanned four or five-wide in the stretch before finally rallying to defeat a stubborn ZA Approval and eight others. Great athletes perform at their finest in the biggest moments, and Wise Dan did so brilliantly at the past two runnings of this race. He is a cinch as Horse of the Year.

2) Mucho Macho Man wins the Breeders' Cup Classic - You could certainly make an argument for this being the number one moment of 2013; it was undeniably the most heartwarming. How nice to see Mucho Macho Man win this race after doing everything but win the 2012 revival; he was defeated by a half-length by Fort Larned in that race. But he made up that distance in this year's classic - plus a nose, by narrowly holding off Will Take Charge, who made a furious run in the final eighth of a mile. In so doing, Mucho Macho Man made Kathy Ritvo the first woman trainer to win the Breeders' Cup Classic. It was also the first winning ride by Gary Stevens in this race; Stevens also won the Distaff the previous day in the Breeders' Cup.

3) Oxbow wins the Preakness - This was not just about the horse, winning this second leg of the Triple Crown in front-running style. No, this was also about two great veterans - trainer D. Wayne Lukas and jockey Gary Stevens recapturing some previous glory in this race. Oxbow would be retired before year's end, but on this day, he was in superb form thanks to a great job of training by Lukas, who won his sixth Preakness; Stevens who rode a flawless race, captured his third Preakness. This was a treat for anyone who's followed thoroughbred racing for even just a few years.

4) Palace Malice wins the Belmont - This is a tribute to three individuals: the horse itself, jockey Mike Smith and owner Cot Campbell. Palace Malice had shown a lot of promise previously, but had never been able to put everything together until this race. He had just missed capturing the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland in April when he ran a bit green in deep stretch; in the Kentucky Derby, Smith took him to the lead, running suicidal fractions. Trainer Todd Pletcher equipped the colt with blinkers in that race, but never again. Palace Malice and Smith were ready for the Belmont, as he laid just off the pace and then swept by Oxbow at the top of the stretch in most convincing fashion. As for Campbell, the founder of Dogwood Stables and the man that revolutionized partnerships for owing thoroughbreds, this was his first classic victory since Summer Squall captured the Preakness in 1990. The fact that Campbell is slowing down his daily work tag at Dogwood after all these years no doubt made this victory that much sweeter.

5) Will Take Charge wins the Travers - When this colt closed stoutly to finish second to Palace Malice in the Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga on July 27, you had a feeling that he would be a major factor in the Travers a month later at the Spa. Boy, was he ever! He again put on a furious rally in this race, just beating out front-running Moreno by a nose to capture the mid-Summer Derby. Luis Saez stamped his name as a top rider with this win (trainer D. Wayne Lukas noted the effort put forth by Saez). Lukas did a marvelous job with this horse, barely getting edged out from the win in the Breeders' Cup Classic and then just four weeks later to narrowly defeat Game on Dude in the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs. The three-year old colt of 2013, no question.

6) Hollywood Park closes - Here was one of the saddest stories in American thoroughbred racing not just in 2013, but over the past several decades. One of the country's most history-rich tracks (it opened in 1938) with a list of winners ranging from Seabiscuit to Native Diver to Swaps, Affirmed, Cigar and of course, Zenyatta, this was the home of so many great races over the past seventy-five years. I might have ranked this higher on this list, but Southern California racing will survive just fine thanks to Santa Anita and Del Mar picking up most of the racing dates of Hollywood. So this may not be a disaster, but it is a heartbreaking moment for thoroughbred racing in America and it's something that never should have happened.

7) Mike Smith wins three Breeders' Cup races - At age 48, Smith gets better and better with time. Already the leading rider as far as Breeders' Cup victories coming into this year's event, he captured three more wins in the 2013 races with London Bridge in the Marathon and Outstrip in the Juvenile Fillies Turf on Friday and then Mizdirection in the Turf Sprint on Saturday. That brings his total of wins in Breeders' Cup races to 20; if anyone breaks that record, it won't be for a long time. Just a big-time money rider and in reality, one of the most consistent jockeys of the past twenty-five years; on top of that, he's also a great guy!

8) Orb wins the Kentucky Derby - Everyone remembers the winner of the Kentucky Derby, even if that horse doesn't go on to become the three year-old colt of the year or even if he doesn't win another race, as was the case with Orb in 2013. In fact, I might not have even mentioned this is it wasn't for his trainer, Shug McGaughey, one of America's most respected and beloved trainers of the past quarter century. This win was a long overdue one for Shug- congratulations!

9) Javier Castellano sets North American money earnings mark in a single season - Congratulations to Castellano, one of the game's finest riders, for breaking the record set by Ramon Dominquez just last year. Castellano quickly noted that a main reason for him setting the record was the fact that he rides in New York, where the purses are tremendous; classy move by this terrific reinsman.

10) Repeat Winners at the Breeders' Cup - Winning a Breeders' Cup race is a tremendous achievement for a horse or trainer, so what does that say about repeating? 2013 saw repeat wins from Wise Dan in the Mile (mentioned above at #1) as well as Groupie Doll in the Filly and Mare Sprint and in an incredible effort, Mizdirection in the Turf Sprint, a win made even more remarkable by the fact that the horse was coming off a layoff of nearly five months. Also quite notable was the three-peat performance of trainer Aidan O'Brien, who captured the Juvenile Turf for the third consecutive year, this time with Giovanni Boldini.

Friday, December 27, 2013

A Fond Farewell to Hollywood Park (Part Two)

Horses entering the track for Sunday's 6th race (Photo ©Tom Hyland) 

Part two of my farewell to Hollywood Park, which ran its final race on Sunday, December 22, concluding 75 years of world-class thoroughbred racing. 

Final few strides of Sunday's 2nd race (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Trainer Jack Van Berg (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

One fan's tribute to famous moments throughout Hollywood's 75-year history (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Corey Nakatani aboard Brokered in the paddock before Saturday's 9th race (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Losing win ticket on Sunday's final race (the last race ever at Hollywood) (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Part of the roll call of the winners of the Hollywood Gold Cup (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

P.S. A special thank you to the Hollywood Park press office and Benoit for their graciousness they afforded me this weekend.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A Fond Farewell to Hollywood Park

Start of the 7th race, Saturday, December 21, 2013, Hollywood Park (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Hollywood Park, one of America's greatest and most history-rich thoroughbred race tracks has run its final race. I attended closing weekend on Saturday and Sunday, December 21 and 22 and was fortunate enough to take dozens of images of the sights of this marvelous facility, from the excitement of the races themselves to the beauty of the paddock and other areas of the track. 

I could go on about how sad it is that Hollywood Park has closed, but I'll keep my words to a minimum, telling the story in images I captured this past weekend. Enjoy!

Jimmy O'Hara, maitre d' at the Turf Club (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Fans getting a look at the horses in the paddock on Sunday (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Rafael Bejerano in the paddock before Sunday's 9th race. He would win that race, clinching the jockey title for the track's final meet. (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

The apron after Sunday's final race (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Detail of the Native Diver monument in the paddock (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Volumes of thoroughbred history in the press box (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Bugler Jay Cohen plays one last time for a fan (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

P.S. A special thank you to the Hollywood Park press office and Benoit for their graciousness they afforded me this weekend.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

An Eclipse Award for Shared Belief?

Shared Belief winning the Grade 1 Cash Call Futurity at Hollywood Park (Benoit Photo)

With his dynamic win in the Cash Call Futurity (Grade 1) this past Saturday at Hollywood Park, Shared Belief put himself and his connections smack dab in the middle of the Triple Crown discussion for next year; he is already being called the 2014 Kentucky Derby favorite at the moment.

Hard to argue with that, as he is now 3 for 3, with each victory - two of them in graded stakes - a romp, with winning margins of 7 lengths in his maden win at Golden Gate, 7 and 3/4 lengths in the Gr. 3 Hollywood Prevue and last weekend by 5 and 3/4 lengths. But let's face it, despite the fact that he is being conditioned by Hall-of-Famer Jerry Hollendorfer, it's still five months until the Kentucky Derby, and bottom line, we've seen this before. There are just too many other horses out there and too many things that can happen between now and the first Saturday in May. Shared Belief may not even make the starting gate that day, although we certainly hope so. (Interestingly, Hollendorfer was quoted a few days ago as saying, "I hate putting a horse on the Kentucky Derby trail." Ominous words?)

But one thing is for certain - Shared Belief has to be considered one of the two logical choices for an Eclipse Award for 2 year-old colt. The other, of course, is New Year's Day, winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita. Trained by Bob Baffert, this horse has done everything right.

Before last Saturday, almost anyone would have told you that New Year's Day had locked up the Eclipse award that first Saturday in November at Santa Anita; after all, capture the Breeders' Cup Juvenile after a maiden win and you've accomplished a great deal.

So who gets the award? Certainly there will be some who say that New Year's Day benefitted greatly that day from his inside post, as favorites Havana and Strong Mandate were stuck in post positions 13 and 14 respectively. After watching this race, it it obvious that those two horses had much more to deal with than New Year's Day in terms of the actual race. 

Does that take away from the race run by New Year's Day? Maybe, maybe not. One thing for sure is that New Year's Day beat the best 2 year olds that day. His camp could argue that Shared Belief, while very impressive, defeated a nice group of horses in the Cash Call Futurity, but it wasn't the Breeders' Cup. 

I'm glad I don't have to vote, as I honestly wouldn't know whom to pick. My guess is that New Year's Day will win the award. But as I've said in the past, I've been wrong before.

Text ©Tom Hyland