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)
- Few changes to the top 10 this week, with all adjustments in the second tier. Arkansas Derby winner Papa Clem, who’s been bumping around the lower third since February, moves to #6, replacing runner-up Old Fashioned, now off the Derby trail and likely done with racing due to a slab fracture of the knee. General Quarters appears at #8 following his win in the Blue Grass, making him the second to come out of the Tampa Bay Derby and take a stakes. I had trouble coming up with a tenth prospect, narrowing the possibles down to Chocolate Candy, Musket Man, and West Side Bernie, all on the cusp. Although Twitterverse sentiment was 4-to-1 for ‘Candy, I settled on Musket Man, who followed up on his Tampa win with another in last week’s Illinois Derby.
Top 10 for 4/14/09 PDI: 1. I Want Revenge 2. Quality Road 3. Pioneerof the Nile 4. Desert Party 5. Friesan Fire 6. Papa Clem 7. Dunkirk 8. General Quarters 9. Regal Ransom 10. Musket Man
- Chocolate Candy worked yesterday morning with new rider Mike Smith up, going five furlongs handily in :59.20 at Santa Anita. “I was happy with the work, said trainer Jerry Hollendorfer. Of course he was. Trainers are almost never quoted as anything but thrilled with their charges, especially three weeks before the biggest 3-year-old race of the year. The colt does look pretty good in this video of his Sunday move, though.
Dunkirk and Quality Road also worked over the weekend, with Dunkirk breezing four furlongs in :49.06 at Palm Meadows, and Quality Road doing the same in :48 at Belmont Park. He then galloped out five furlongs in 1:01.85 (according to DRF; Belmont clockers credited Quality’ with a five furlong breeze in 1:02.19). NYRA posted a short video of the work, showing the Jimmy Jerkens-trained colt going fine, apparently untroubled by the quarter crack found earlier in the week.
On the distaff side, watch mail brought notice that Music Note, third in her final 2008 start, the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Classic, is back in training. The 4-year-old filly breezed three furlongs in :37.40 at Keeneland on Saturday. No news yet on where she might debut this year. Possibly Belmont, in a race such as the June 13 G1 Ogden Phipps Handicap?
- It might be too early to start speculating on possible Derby pace scenarios, but with Old Fashioned and The Pamplemousse out, who goes to the front? There’s not a lot of early speed among the remaining probables.
99 101 (upgraded) for Papa Clem, 95 for General Quarters.
Barring any surprises in the Arkansas Derby or Blue Grass Stakes, my list of top 10 Kentucky Derby prospects is pretty much settled (although adjustments are likely over the next three weeks to accommodate changes in status, hoof issues, training problems). I Want Revenge is now #1, moving up from #3, off his stupendous Wood Memorial win, which only grew more impressive watching the replay. Something I failed to notice during the race was that Joe Talamo doesn’t go to the whip at any point — after patiently guiding IWR down the backstretch, saving ground and not hustling to make up for the poor start, then splitting horses to get out of traffic coming into the stretch, Talamo handrides IWR to the wire. Amazing.
Quality Road drops to #2, a move I made before hearing the colt has a quarter crack, which is being treated by Ian McKinlay. Imperial Council drops off completely, while Terrain creeps into #10. We’ll see how the under-the-radar colt, third in the Louisiana Derby, does in the Blue Grass on Saturday.
Top 10 for 4/7/09 PDI: 1. I Want Revenge 2. Quality Road 3. Pioneerof the Nile 4. Desert Party 5. Old Fashioned 6. Friesan Fire 7. Dunkirk 8. Regal Ransom 9. Papa Clem 10. Terrain
How about Rachel Alexandra in the Fantasy Stakes? The embodiment of easy:
Calvin Borel starts mugging on the backstretch, but I can’t blame him. She’s just galloping, the other four fillies totally at her mercy, lolling through unhurried fractions to a final time of 1:43.35, finishing more than eight lengths ahead of Afleet Deceit. On to the Kentucky Oaks …
Odds and ends: Old Fashioned worked five furlongs in 1:00.6 at Oaklawn on Monday. Trainer Larry Jones was pleased with how the colt went around the turn. “That was the big thing.” I’m nonchalantly ignoring Musket Man for now, even though he’s definitely heading to the Kentucky Derby after winning the Illinois. And The Pamplemousse is out, for at least six months, possibly longer. “Our goal is the Pacific Classic [at Del Mar] next year.”
Kentucky Oaks-bound Rachel Alexandra drops off my PDI Derby top 10, while Quality Road zips from #7 to #1 on the strength of his Florida Derby win. It wasn’t that long ago I would have dismissed Quality Road for the five-week layoff between his final prep and the Kentucky Derby and for being too lightly raced, but Big Brown and Barbaro have nullified those concerns, and the Jimmy Jerkens-trained colt does meet what I’ve come to consider the minimum-required historical criteria: He started as a 2-year-old, has made three starts as a 3-year-old, and has raced around two turns and in fields of more than 10 starters.
Dunkirk, an impressive second to Quality Road, moves from #8 to #7, a slight bump that reflects my dislike for how he’s being prepped, tempering my enthusiasm for his potential Derby ability. That he’s on the earnings bubble with $150,000 and may miss the Derby is a shame, but then, trainer Todd Pletcher shouldn’t have treated the Florida Derby as a Win and You’re In race for his talented gray. A little jiggering of the schedule could have had Dunkirk start in two graded stakes before May.*
I dropped Friesan Fire to #6 from #2 (and it’s possible he’ll fall further after the Santa Anita Derby and Wood) since trainer Larry Jones’ plan to train the colt up to the Derby seems a little out there the further away we get from the Louisiana Derby — I’m ready to concede a five week layoff is no longer a problem, but seven weeks off seems still too much.
Desert Party drops one spot, to #4, after finishing second to Regal Ransom, who reappears at #8, in the UAE Derby. I didn’t reverse the two, for reasons similar to Steve Haskin’s assessment:
If Desert Party had run the exact same race in one of the final preps in America, I would consider it a solid effort that should set him up for a peak performance on May 2…. Desert Party was the only non-speed horse to make up any ground late, and he finished 15 lengths ahead of the third horse …
Regal Ransom and Desert Party will ship to Churchill Downs early in April. Godolphin racing manager Simon Crisford said a decision would be made closer to the Derby as to whether both will start or whether one will be held back and pointed to the Preakness.
Top 10 for 3/31/09: 1. Quality Road 2. Pioneerof the Nile 3. I Want Revenge 4. Desert Party 5. Old Fashioned 6. Friesan Fire 7. Dunkirk 8. Regal Ransom 9. Imperial Council 10. Papa Clem
*The annual graded earnings debate flares anew, this year with a twist in Mafaaz scoring a guaranteed spot as the winner of the Kempton Kentucky Derby Challenge. “And so it has come to this,” Gary West fulminates,
The horse who won an insignificant stakes on an artificial surface at a minor racetrack in England has a reserved spot in the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby, and the horse who ran second in the Florida Derby may not even get a chance to race for the world’s most famous roses.
While I don’t agree with West that Mafaaz taking up a spot is a problem, I’m with him and almost every other observer in believing that using graded earnings to allocate precious Derby stalls is a flawed method. Dunkirk isn’t going to be squeezed out by a stunt winner, but by colts such as Square Eddie (#2 on the earning list with one start in 2009), West Side Bernie (#12 and showing no progression this year), or possibly Charitable Man (tied at #21 with Dunkirk and making his first and only pre-Derby start in the Blue Grass Stakes). A points system, such as the one Mike Watchmaker proposes in his latest DRF+ column (similar to Handride’s scheme), would not only have the benefit of weeding out the pretenders who racked up stakes monies as 2-year-olds or in winning minor stakes with inflated purses, but would discourage connections from making the sort of all-in gamble that Pletcher did with Dunkirk. It would give trainers reason to prep their charges through a series of races, making the Kentucky Derby more sporting all around.