Saying farewell to an historic 2009, and Hello to what could be in 2010
By: Wesley D. White
What could you say about the year in horse racing that we have seen in 2009, from top to bottom, from the beginning to the end, we have seen some performances and some yearlong achievements that are second to none in this truly magnificent sport. First let me start by saying that in this post I will not weigh in on the HOY debate, as I do not have a vote and even if I did have a vote it would be a vote that I made privately due to the incredibly intense nature of the HOY voting between the horses that are in contention for this honor. Next let me say to the connections of the winner of the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic and the Breeders Cup Ladies Classic, congratulations are in order, the owners stepped up on this championship day venue and placed their horses in ambitious spots and were rewarded with the types of races that will not soon be forgotten. Special kudos goes out to Zenyatta and Life is Sweet for putting on an absolute show, and putting their names down in the history books. Never to be forgotten are the trainer, John Sheriffs, and the Jockeys, Mike Smith & Garrett Gomez for great rides on both of these mares. The classic victory by Zenyatta is one for the ages, to beat the boys the way she did it was a remarkable feat and it really showed how classy a lady she really is.
Next let me say to the connections of Rachel Alexandra her owner, trainer and jockey. Thank You, Thank you for again for the 3rd year in a row allowing your horse to prove its mettle on the track and not just once, but over and over again. In this age of paper races and imaginary fictitious races, I have to say that I am utterly impressed with the way that Mr. Jess Jackson handles his horses. He doesn’t allow his horses to be handled with the proverbial kid gloves, Mr. Jackson could have plotted out a course similar to that of other fillies and mares that run, and placed Rachel strategically in races like the Mother Goose, Alabama, Coaching Club American, Personal Ensign and then the Beldame, but that would have been boring, it would have been nice to see that she could beat the same fillies over and over and over again, but unless one of the fillies were to jump up and beat her and the type of rivalry developed that we had between Proud Spell and Music Note, Jackson would have been criticized for continuing to run in the same boring races throughout the year. Instead he took chances, he took chances that have never been taken before, and had the sense to realize that due to the fact that the filly had been running since February it was important to stop on her. Looking back at the last 12 months for Rachel running 10 times during that time took its toll and would have taken its toll on any horse male or female. I understand that some feel that he should have just continued to run her into the ground by going to the Breeders Cup. But the truth is extending her season another 2 months would have most likely been detrimental to her health. I enjoy that Jess Jackson challenges his horses I can only compare his sporting actions to those of the Europeans who run their fillies and mares against top tier male competition all year long. This is not seen in the U.S. as the many grade 1 races out there allow for the connections to pick and choose the easiest spots or the path of least resistance. Sad but true, and then at the end of the year there is a big push and marketing scheme by the connections and race tracks to lobby for these Eclipse votes. That does not impress and unfortunately leads to an award becoming political. So to the connections out there with competitive horses, please follow the lead of people like Rick Porter the Owner of Fox Hill Farm, Jess Jackson of Stone Street Stables, these men realize that a champion is made on the track, all year long, not by means of a piece of paper or an award.
Let’s not forget the other spectacular performances that we saw that day from Goldikova, Conduit, and Informed decision. First when you think about Goldikova and how this mare is being compared to Miesque, it really gives you an indication that she is something truly special, the way that she wins her races is something that leaves you astonished, because her closing kick is something we’ve not seen in quite a while, now I say that keeping in mind that I am not taking Zarkava into consideration. The reason well because we didn’t see Zarkava up front and personal; in my humble opinion, and I’ll only weigh in on this because for some reason in the horse racing circles, every horse that comes along and is undefeated or very impressive has to be compared to horses of the past. The problem I have with that is with regards to the fact that the respect that Zarkava was given was short lived. The very next year across the pond a colt by the name of Sea of Stars comes along and wins a number of Group 1 events and all of a sudden he is compared to the best, not the best in the last couple of years but the best ever. Now I watched both of these horses win the event, both Zarkava and Sea of Stars, but there is one difference, Zarkava brought such electricity to the race that I was up early watching the running of the race, bright eyed and bushy tailed, this year not so much, I watched the race hours later on YouTube. A filly running by colts from the back of the pack, a filly who faltered in the gate and broke extremely slow, a filly who because of the break was shuffled back to last at the start of the race and was pinned down on the rail the whole time and had to make an amazing run within the last 2 furlongs to win the race comfortably. There is not any amount of words that you can use to describe Zarkava, I for one wish that the Aga Khan would send her to Santa Anita last year. The problem again though is that the way that the Breeders Cup is view by the Europeans, they view the B.C. as second rate or lower tier. They feel that American horses do not deserve to be on the same turf as their horses. And they prove that every year by skipping the Breeders Cup.
Going back and considering the number of stellar performances by the fillies and mares that raced this year, what can you say? Rachel Alexandra, Ventura, Zenyatta, Goldikova, and now to hear that Vodka beat the boys in the Japan Cup. It really shows that there are some outstanding females out there showing they are champion caliber on the track. The connections again are to be applauded for allowing these ladies to do what they love to do most. Whenever these connections have stepped up and thought outside the box they did so with fillies and mares that were able to handle the stresses of facing males but doing so without putting them in races that might take too much out of them. No one wants to see a repeat of the Rags to Riches saga. Her performance against Curlin on Belmont day in 07 was magnificent, but if Pletcher could go back and see what that 12 furlongs took out of Rags to Riches and the rest of her career, maybe, just maybe he makes a different decision about that race. You do not want to put a horse’s career on the line to win or run in one race.
Let’s not forget the performances of the Birds, both Mine that Bird and Summer Bird did some things that will not be soon forgotten. Mine that Bird skimming the rail with Calvin Borel up is one of the most exciting memories to take from 2009. Going into the race no one even knew of the horse, but afterwards he would always be known as a champion, a champion of the Kentucky Derby, a gutsy little colt that reminds me so much of Afleet Alex by stature the way that he accelerates in the final 3/16th of the race is truly amazing. There were some questionable decisions made by the connections but we all know that Chip Woolley and the owners were doing so in the best interest of the horse. Here’s hoping for a wonderful 2010 season for this little guy. As for Summer Bird he is a big, robust son of Birdstone who has all the talent in the world, when you think about how this guy was ridden early in his career coming from way off the pace because that’s what his father did, and then later in the year being so much closer to the pace, that is extraordinary. You don’t see changes made like that often and certainly not mid season, after a 3rd place finish in the Arkansas Derby, Summer Bird went on the Win the Belmont, Travers & Jockey Club Gold Cup. This is a stellar resume and I would be quick to say that in many other years Summer Bird and his connections could be looking at HOY honors. Incredibly this year he has been trumped the Ladies. I was saddened to hear that Summer Bird injured himself while training for the Japan Dirt Cup, there are a lot of ways to view this injury, it is possible that he may have injured himself during the running of the Breeders Cup and the injury didn’t show up until now, he may be injured due to a long campaign and it is just now taking its toll. Most important though is that he is able to have successful surgery and enjoy a normal life, I know the owners are stating that he might run again, but that is not going to be the focus going forward. The focus going forward should be on him being able to be comfortable and rehabbing for whatever lies in front of him.
We are led into 2010 with so much anticipation and so much eagerness to get things started. We would be wise to temper our keenness due to the fact that it is possible we may never see another year like 2009 again. The Kentucky Derby and Triple Crown hype has already begun, with horses like Buddy’s Saint, and Super Saver winning big races, Vale of York and Looking at Lucky and of course one of my favorites Dublin. This is one intriguing horse going forward to 2010, while at Saratoga for the Woodward I caught up with D.Wayne Lukas, we talked for a few moments about Dublin and where he intended to winter the horse, and it looks as if he will be coming through Arkansas to achieve his major goals. I would anticipate a run in the Southwest, the Rebel and the Arkansas Derby is all goes well with him. He seems to be a big horse that has not quite grown into his body, I believe the next time we see this big fella he will be more filled out, and much bigger.
The Oaklawn meet is coming upon us pretty quickly and with the quality of horses that are wintering at Fairgrounds those of us close to Oaklawn feel that there could be some incredibly important graded stakes races run during the 56 day meet. The Apple Blossom could potentially include a horse that we all want to know where she will run next, Rachel Alexandra. With Jess Jackson doing the smart thing an allowing her plenty of time off to rest, she is being pointed towards a return in March or April of ’10 and that could possibly mean a run at the Grade 1 Apple Blossom. With the hopeful return of Summer Bird who could run in the Oaklawn Handicap, that leaves the imagination running wild about what we could potentially see that day at Oaklawn, maybe a record crowd of upwards of 80,000. I am excited about the prospect, and to hear that the Arkansas Derby has been upgraded like it rightfully should have been years ago to Grade 1 status.
2009 will go down as one of the most exciting and thrilling years in the history of horse racing, but we need to move forward and look optimistically to 2010 to solidify the game of horse racing, it needs new fans and a new following to be able to get back to the status it had in its glory years. We are now in the age of what have you done for me lately, and what we have lately is an impressive product, one that the ntra and other bodies needs to make sure stays in a positive light. The safety of the equine athletes is most important, the measures being taken to verify that the tracks are in the best shape possible are important in this regard. I will say this Horse Racing is here to stay, the product that is being put out on the track right now is impressive and people are coming back to the sport, we need to keep it that way and continue to enjoy the beauty of these magnificent creatures and the joy they bring to us as they do what they love to do most and that’s “Run like the wind”.
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