As each year comes to its end, I go through all the racing stories I’ve bookmarked or shared over the past 12 months and pluck together a short list of pieces that stand out, whether for great reporting or great storytelling. If you haven’t read the stories linked below yet, take a few minutes to enjoy some of the best turf journalism from 2011 before 2012 begins:
“As 10-year ban hangs over Rick Dutrow, opinions vary about controversial horse trainer.” The definitive profile of the New York trainer, handed a record suspension this year, by Jerry Bossert for the New York Daily News.
“For Pletcher, managing a training empire is all in a day’s work” Joe Drape on how he does it, for the New York Times.
Pletcher was an assistant to trainer D. Wayne Lukas, dubbed “The most interesting man in racing,” by Gary West this spring, in one of the last posts published on his Star-Telegram blog. That the formidable turf writer with the superb flapdoodle detector was let go by the newspaper was a loss for Texas racing. Fortunately for readers, West now appears on ESPN.
Claire Novak won her first Eclipse award this year with “Pressure off Durkin at Belmont,” about the announcer’s decision to step down from calling the Triple Crown races on NBC, but I’m biased toward her terrific Kentucky Derby week story, “The Inside Scoop: Why Calvin Borel owns the rail,” which appeared on Kentucky Confidential. For fun, and a touch of Gay Talese, Novak’s recounting of a New Orleans cabbie’s racetrack story can’t be beat.
At Suffolk Downs, a rider reached a significant milestone: “Piermarini gets win 2000 on Sugar Trade.” Susan Salk of Offtrack Thoroughbreds talked to Tammi Piermarini about becoming only the fifth female jockey in racing to crack 2K.
Ryan Goldberg added context and depth to this year’s intense (and ongoing) Lasix debate with his well-researched and matter-of-fact story for the Daily Racing Form, “Lasix: Demystifying the drug, methods of training without it.”
DRF photographer Barbara Livingston shared some marvelous historic racing photos from her private collection this year, as in this post: “Man o’ War’s funeral: Remarkable final tribute for majestic champion.” The great horse was laid out in a casket for viewing; thousands filed past to pay their respects.
“Gray Thoroughbreds, a precious relic of the breed’s earliest days, became a rarity on the racecourse for a good part of the 19th century.” I had no idea. Kellie Reilly on the revival of grays in the 20th century, on BRISnet.
Spare yourself the trouble of ranking Kentucky Derby contenders and play the quick pick, with Green but Game’s random top 10 list generator.
I left Uncle Mo #1 on this week’s PDI, feeling contrary, if not enthusiastic. “[L]et’s keep it in perspective; he was beaten 1 1/4 lengths, not 5 1/4 lengths,” notes Jason Shandler. “I still think [Uncle Mo's] a very good horse and he’ll bounce back,” said trainer Bob Baffert. Many thought post-race that Mo looked less than fit in the Wood stretch, but not trainer Todd Pletcher. “I do not believe he was a short horse the other day. Maybe I’m wrong,” he tells Jay Privman. “Sometimes, making up for if you felt like you didn’t have him fit enough and going the other way would be a mistake.” So, no Mo tightening?
Enough about the Derby; “#KYOaks should be one helluva race!” Joyful Victory is the latest filly to announce herself an exciting prospect, following up her win last month in the Honeybee with a seven-length romp in the Fantasy Stakes, a race that’s turned out a Kentucky Derby runner-up (Eight Belles) and two Oaks winners (Rachel Alexandra, Blind Luck) in the last three years.
This is a huge development: Citing the increasing internationalization of racing, and the success of the steroids ban, The Jockey Club backs RCI’s call to end raceday medications. It’s time. Janet Patton tweeted on Monday, “KHRC vice chair Tracy Farmer says it will happen in Kentucky.”
4/13/11 Addendum: Well, trainer Nick Zito isn’t inspiring much confidence with his Derby approach for Dialed In either. “Zito plans to train Dialed In up to the Derby in nearly the same manner he got him ready to win the $1 million Florida Derby earlier this month — with a series of long gallops and just one more sharp five-furlong work between now and May 7.” That’s it?
The first installment of the Paulick Derby Index is up, and the top three horses are no surprise. Not that I can judge! I too made Uncle Mo #1. As for the consensus #3, Dialed In, I left him out, although I might not had I looked at the Holy Bull winner’s fractions per DRF Formulator before compiling my top 10. After a slow first quarter of :25.78 during which he fell more than 10 lengths off the lead, the colt ran the second quarter in a strikingly quick :21.58 and then finished faster than the rest of the field with a final quarter of :24.16. Speed and raw talent are certainly there, and I may have to concede after Dialed In’s next start (possibly in the Fountain of Youth) that dismissing him now was sheer contrarianism on my part. Re: my #10, that’s supposed to be Heron Lake, a Bernardini-sired Gulfstream maiden winner trained by Nick Zito, not any of the three Herons listed by Equibase, none 3-year-olds.
2/2/11 Addendum: “At this point, no one is saying that Dialed In is a good as the 2010 juvenile champion …” Nice to hear there’s a limit to the giddiness.
It’s that time of year again, when handicappers toss aside the disappointments of last spring and savor the pleasure of a fresh start on the Derby trail, when the horse who could win the Triple Crown is all unblemished potential. Lists appear like croci — every 3-year-old could be the one.
I’ll be adding to the list-mania, beginning next week, when the Paulick Derby Index returns for its third season, and one question preoccupies me as I consider who’s a top 10 Kentucky Derby contender — what to do with California sophomores such as Tapizar, wire-to-wire winner of the Sham Stakes? The hard new surface lauded as being similar to Churchill Downs’ deep dirt in the first days of training last December is turning out dazzling times that are anything but Churchill-like. Sand added to the track last week slowed things down a little, but front-runners retained their edge, and on Thursday, a $10,000 claimer named Self Insured ran a mile in 1:34. That’s quick.
It all makes me a bit nostalgic for the synthetic surface. The new surface is so kind to speed, it makes me doubtful it’s doing much for stamina.
It’s no exaggeration to say that every year I bookmark, tweet, or link here to hundreds of horse racing features, columns, and blog posts — stories and opinions that catch my attention for a turn of phrase, the quality of storytelling, the depth of research, an unusual argument, or a striking insight. A few each year — like the 10 pieces below — are especially memorable.
The Making of ‘Legends’ (Pat Forde/ESPN)
“The present is another matter. The present stings a bit. The present is Kentucky Derby week, and it offers vivid evidence of how brutally hard it is even for learned horsemen with a lot of money to win a Derby — or to simply reach the starting gate.”
The Linemakers (John Scheinman/Pimlico)
“It is no secret the man gambles with gusto, a word that derives from the Latin gustus, or tasting. Carulli is all appetite and, like the bear he resembles, doesn’t like to be disturbed while concentrating.”
The Best Broodmare of All Time? (Alicia Wincze/Lexington Herald-Leader)
“Though Hasili was a stakes winner on the track and had a solid pedigree in her corner, nothing in her form could have indicated the impact she would have on the sport once she entered the breeding shed.”
What Makes the Great Ones Great? (Jay Hovdey/DRF)
“No question, in terms of personality type, the great ones appear to be happy in their work.”
Why We Love Secretariat (Meghan O’Rourke/Slate)
“In the moment when he pulls away from Sham, his brilliant archrival (who would’ve been a champion in any other year), we have the sense of an animal exceeding the boundaries of the category of animal.”
Forlorn Filly Comes from Nowhere (Bill Finley/NY Times)
“A few days after he bought a modestly bred horse from a friend named Don Hunt, Tim Snyder took a moment to reflect. He had no money, no horse trailer to get his new acquisition to where he needed to go and a filly that had been rejected by nearly everyone else who had come in contact with her. The horse had a clubfoot, a bad shoulder, a reputation for being slow and was blind in one eye, reason enough for Snyder to second-guess what he had just done.”
Who Really Invented Race Charts? (Kevin Martin/Colin’s Ghost)
“Whatever the case might be, it was Brunell who had the foresight to put race charts and later past performances into a daily publication dedicated to racing. While the above puts his role as ‘originator’ in doubt, no one can deny that he popularized the tools that all horseplayers have been dependent on for more than a century.” [See also, Martin's follow-up post.]
Rachel’s Place in History (Gary West/West Points)
“Most of us had never seen anything like Rachel Alexandra, and for having seen her, I’m grateful.”
Frankel’s Rise No Romantic Dream (Chris McGrath/Independent)
“Despite the present, witless tendency to treat them as characters in search of an author, men such as Frankie Dettori and Henry Cecil could never be adequately prefigured by a script.”
A Vote for Horse Racing (Claire Novak/ESPN)
“For now, suffice it to say it is the opinion here that a vote for Zenyatta is, simply put, a vote for horse racing. To recognize this kind of runner as vital to the sport’s survival is common sense, not emotional gibberish as some would choose to believe.”
What’s missing? Add your must-reads from the year past in the comments …
The year almost past was rich in surprises and storylines, making 2009 not only a superb year in racing, but a good year in turf writing, a reminder that although the industry may be struggling and there may be fewer correspondents on the beat, greatness remains as possible on track as keen reporting does in print (even if only online). Amid the abundance of the last 12 months, here are 10 pieces that shouldn’t be missed:
Balance’s Little Sister (Steve Andersen/DRF Inside Post)
“Her career will end soon. She may not start again. Shirreffs knows that.”
Death of a Horseman (Bill Christine/Horserace Insider)
“You got it wrong … I’ve never fired Frankel. He’s always firing me. We don’t call him George Steinbrenner for nothing.”
Rubin Recalls Her Tough Ride to the Finish Line (Bill Finley/New York Times)
“I think they felt there would be a stigma if a woman rode, that if a woman could ride, how hard could it possibly be?”
Where Calvin Learned to Ride (Matthew Futterman/Wall Street Journal)
“At the bush tracks in Cajun country where Calvin Borel learned to ride horses for $4 a mount, standards weren’t much higher than the pay.” [A fine complement last spring to Maryjean Wall's reminiscence, "Calvin Borel: The Early Years," which appeared on May 15 and is unfortunately no longer online. "Long before Borel became the go-to jockey of this Triple Crown season, I came across him quite by happenstance at the bush races in Louisiana. He was not yet a licensed jockey. He was 14 years old."]
On Zenyatta, Rachel Alexandra, and Memory (Lisa Grimm/Superfecta)
“… our collective memory will do them a better sort of justice …”
A Glorious Reminder (Paul Hayward/Guardian)
“This was not a bloodstock deal, a betting coup or a prize-money grab. It was flesh and blood and beauty.”
Horse Slaughter: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (Matt Hegarty/Daily Racing Form)
“On the issue of horse slaughter, few people take the middle ground …”
High Noon for the Gunslingers (Chris McGrath/The Independent)
“Sheikh Mohammed must have looked at these deadpan men, up from the banks of the Rio Grande, and pondered his own, unrequited craving for this prize. Who are those guys?”
Old School (Claire Novak/ESPN)
“The legend schools the rookie on a cloudy day at Churchill Downs.”
The Final Furlong (Seth Wickersham/ESPN Magazine)
“She took off on foot, walking the track with her medical tool kit, squinting through the mist until she saw a shadowy figure, already a ghost …”
Do you have a favorite piece of turf writing from 2009 not included above? Please share: Leave a comment (and a link, if available) below.
Final update 1/1/10.
The Year in Review
Final 2009 Standings/Money Leaders (Paulick Report)
The Grade 1 Winners of 2009 (Steven Crist)
2009 Turf Awards (Brisnet) [Excellent review of turf runners]
Beyond Rachel and Zenyatta (Fillies First)
Two Special Ladies Shared the Limelight (Jay Privman)
Best Performances of 2009 (Jon White)
2009: A to Z (Claire Novak)
A Year in Images (Hoof Blog)
An Academic Look at Racing in 2009 (Brock Talk)
2009 Not So Good for Business (Paul Moran)
Looking Back at 2009 (Horses and the Law)
The Year in Review (Superfecta)
A Memorable Year at the Race Track (Duke Hunt)
Praying for Memory Loss (Not to the Swift)
Top Five Races of 2009 (They Are Off)
Racing Memories, 2009 (Brooklyn Backstretch)
Photo of the Year (Michigan-Bred Claimer)
Highlights from the Prairie (Quinella Queen)
The Year in Review (Jeremy Ponk)
The Year That Was (Paulick Report)
Readers Choose Zenyatta as Best of ’09 (Thoroughbred Times)
HANA 2009 Year in Review (Horseplayers Association)
Top 10 Newsmakers of the Year (Thoroughbred Times)
The Deciders: The Best Decisions of 2009 (Jay Hovdey)
My Moments of the Year (Claire Novak)
Top 10 Stakes Races of the Year (Brendan O’Meara)
Zenyatta’s Classic an NTRA Moment of the Year Cinch (John Pricci)
Play of the Day Year in Review (Power Cap)
They’re Off: 2009 Offy Awards (Steve Haskin, Lenny Shulman)
A Weak 2009 Derby Field (Jon White)
The Best of a Big Year (John Asher)
The Decade in Review
The Best of the 2000s (Bob Ehalt)
The Best of the Decade, from A to Zenyatta (Art Wilson)
Horse Racing in the Noughties (Greg Wood)
Best and Worst of the Decade (Dan Illman)
The Top Five of the Top 10s (Vic Zast)
Memorable Horses of the Decade (Nick Kling)
A Troubling Decade (Gary West)
Horses of the Decade (Farewell to Kings)
Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra Cap Quite a Run (Joe Drape)
Best of the Decade: A Series (Steve Haskin)
The Best Flat Races of the Decade (Chris Cook)
Racing’s Cruel Decade (Nick Kling)
The Decade in Racing (Sports Illustrated)
2000s Generous to Delaware Racing (Jack Ireland)
Most Influential Horses of the Decade (Jeremy Plonk)
Deck the Halls with the Passing Decade (Bill Christine)
Top 10 Racehorses I Shot this Decade (Sarah K. Andrew)
The Best of the Decade (Zipse at the Track)
Mentions of Racing in General/Sports Year/Decade Lists
Five Memorable Moments in Sports: Mine That Bird (The National)
LA Year in Review: #6 Zenyatta (Daily News)
2009 Top Sports Stories: #3 Rachel Alexandra (Times-Union)
Top 10 Sports Stories of the Decade: Barbaro, ‘Rachel’ (Baltimore Sun)
AP Female Athlete of the Year: #2 Zenyatta (Associated Press)
Decade’s Top Sports Stories: Funny Cide, ‘Rachel’ (Mark McGuire)
Ten Best Stories of 2009: Rachel Alexandra (Don Hunsberger)
Decade Retrospective: 2007: Barbaro (Deadspin)
Top Sports Breakouts Since 2000: Funny Cide (USA Today)
The Year Ahead, Predictions and Advice
Salutations for 2010 (Horse Racing Business)
Things We Don’t Need to See in 2010 (Jay Cronley)
Wishes for the Decade Ahead (Alex Waldrop)
Racing Wish List, 2010 (TrackMaster)
Dos and Don’ts for Racing in 2010 (Alicia Wincze)