Over the last few weeks I have been thinking a lot about what transpired in the world of horse racing during 2011 with an eye on my favorite races and moments. Typically, my favorite race will be one that resulted in me winning a lot of money, or one in which a favorite horse performs well. But sometimes, you end up on the wrong end of the equation and still have an appreciation for the quality of the race you witnessed. (As long as the parimutuel loses aren't too large.) And while the high-level stakes races tend to attract the most attention, if cashing a big bet on a $7,500 Claimer puts you into a signer, then class and condition might be completely irrelevant.
It can be a difficult task to pick a favorite race over the course of a year or several years. Most of us watch countless races during a season, many of which leave no lasting impression whatsoever. That's just the nature of the game. If you're a fan of a particular baseball team and you watch every single regular season game during the season, it's probably not hard to pick out the couple out of the 162 that leave a lasting impression. If you go to the track every day or follow the simulcast every weekend... well, you're looking at potentially thousands of races to pass in front of your eyes over the course of a year.
For a race that I didn't win any money on to be one of my favorites usually requires some kind of extra story or event. Something in the background needs to elevate the importance or the appeal of the race. Maybe the horse puts in an incredibly breathtaking performance or there's an interesting human interest story. Perhaps a favorite jockey or trainer comes up big or a a local no-name that triumphs on the big stage. Whatever the case may be, a race takes a position at the forefront of our mind due to the excitement it generates. That happens when you cash a ticket or have a particular interest in the outcome.
At the end of the day, I came up with two races that topped my list for 2011 - one of which caused me to cash a winning ticket, while the other saw me ripping up an IRS write-off. The first race is the 2000 Guineas from Newmarket Race Course in England on April 30th. I had the pleasure of attending the Guineas this year and was blown away by one of the greatest thoroughbred efforts I've ever seen - a complete domination of a Group 1 race by The Freak, Frankel (GB).
Extreme pre-race hype of potential super horses runs rampant within our sport. Part of that comes from the fact that it's easy to be impressed by horses winning by large margins and it can be difficult to truly put blowout wins into context. The other part comes from our desire to see greatness. We've all read the stories and seen the replays of the great horses of the past. Whether it's Secretariat, Man o'War, Citation, Forego, Spectacular Bid, Seabiscuit - there is something special about that truly once-in-a-lifetime animal that captures the fascination of the racing public.
Sadly, most of the hype ends in disappointment given the extremely difficult and competitive sport we love to watch. The ratio of super horse hype to actual super horses in existence is quite lopsided. Once in a while, on that rare occasion, a horse lives up to the incredible hype. Frankel was just such a horse last spring. He was brilliant as a juvenile, dominating races in a manner rarely seen in England. The expectations for this colt coming into 2011 were sky high. The bookmakers didn't just take bets on whether or not Frankel would defeat his opponents, but as to how many lengths he would beat them by. (7/1 to win by five or more; I should have emptied the 401(k) into that bet.) It wasn't a matter of 'if' he would win, but 'how' would he do it?
On the morning of this year's Guineas the Racing Post's front page proclaimed "King In Waiting" with Frankel's head taking up the entire cover. The expectation was tremendous, if seemingly unrealistic. And then the gates opened.
When the track announcer declared that Frankel was already five or six lengths ahead after a quarter mile there was a notable gasp from the Newmarket fans. That gasp soon led to wild cheers and, finally, a prolonged applause and ovation as Frankel strode easily past the grandstand on his way to victory. The matter had been decide so quickly and so authoritatively that the reception from the crowd as he crossed the finish line was more akin to a victory lap as opposed to the usual frantic cheers urging a horse to triumph.
Following the race I was down near the betting booths in front of the main stand when I overheard an older gentleman remark, "I've been coming to this race all my life and I've never seen anything like that." I think that feeling was shared by most in attendance.
As for my wagering, I had an exacta with Frankel on top and Rodrick O'Connor (IRE), Dubawi Gold (GB) and Native Kahn (FR) underneath (which were horses that all had a race under their belt prior to the Guineas), with the winning Frankel/Dubawi Gold combination paying a decent £28.20. That certainly doesn't qualify as winning a lot of money, but it helped to dent (ever so slightly) the funds taken from me at Ascot, Epsom and Royal Windsor in the days leading up to the Guineas.
The second of my favorite races of 2011 occurred at this year's Breeders' Cup at Churchill Downs and involved the gutsy, wire-to-wire win by the Turfway colt Hansen in the Juvenile. I had money on Creative Cause but had a sentimental interest in Hansen given his Turfway roots. I can't help but cheer for the horses that come out of the smaller tracks to take on the royalty from the likes Saratoga, Del Mar and Keeneland.
If you had watched Hansen's wins at Turfway, you knew that the only way he was going to win on Breeders' Cup day was to lead the Juvenile field from start to finish. In the Kentucky Cup Juvenile, Hansen's last race prior to the Juvenile, he opened up a lead of six lengths after only a half-mile of the eight and a half furlong trip. By the time he reached the top of the stretch he was ten lengths in front. At the wire, he was over thirteen lengths ahead of his nearest competitor. Despite running the first six furlongs in 1:11.48, Hansen still finished up with the best final split of any horse in the field -- 34.35 -- a testament to his ability to grind out furlong after furlong.
Despite Hansen's flashy win at in the Kentucky Cup, there were plenty of reasons for players to doubt his ability to duplicate that performance at Churchill Downs. First, the Turfway Park Polytrack played well for speed on that Saturday afternoon, a factor that was sure to have aided Hansen in his blowout win. Additionally, that field wasn't particularly strong, at least when compared to the graded juvenile events recently run at Saratoga, Del Mar or Santa Anita; there was a definite feeling that the task was only going to get tougher at the Breeders' Cup.
As the Juvenile field loaded into the gate, Hansen stood in stall number five at odds of 7/1, the third choice on the board behind race favorites Union Rags (6/5) and Creative Cause (6/1).
There wasn't a hint of a golden rail at this year's Breeders' Cup, or of a track that played particularly well towards speed. Hansen didn't have any bias in his favor except for what handicapper and author Steve Davidowitz might call a "single-race pace bias"; there wasn't another horse in the field that preferred to run all alone on the lead. The key question with Hansen, however, was not whether he would be on the lead, but whether he could carry his early speed all the way around the Churchill Down oval. Unchallenged in the early portions of the race, Hansen answered that question with an authoritative 'yes'.
Runner-up Union Rags didn't get an ideal trip (he was well wide around the far turn and he drifted out in the stretch), but it's tough to take anything away from the winner. Hansen carved out honest splits every step of the way (23.26, 47.39, and 1:12.24) and still had enough in the tank to hold off quality colts in Union Rags and Creative Cause. It's hard not to be impressed with that kind of performance.
Those are a couple of my favorite races from the past year. What are some of yours?