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2013 was a pretty awesome year for horse racing fans – we were treated to some top-notch competition, serious displays of sportsmanship, some amazing comebacks and bittersweet moments as well. This sport is all about the drama, and 2013 definitely brought that in spades.

Fortunately, thanks to the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, fans get to vote on their favorite moment of the year from 12 pre- selected nominees; you can check them out and cast your ballot here:

NTRA Moment of the Year Voting

In my next two blogs, I’ll take a look at each of the NTRA Moment of the Year nominees and discuss my feelings on them. There will be photos and videos, as well; so let’s dive in and do this thing!

All photos are mine unless otherwise noted.

First up: Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens rides his first winner in North America since 2005 aboard Branding in the first race at Santa Anita. (Occurred Jan. 12)

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Image courtesy of Benoit Photo

OK, I am 32, in relatively good shape and a pretty darn good horseback rider (if I do say so myself!), and I could not last through one race on the back of a Thoroughbred in legitimate competition. Gary Stevens, on the other hand, returned to one of the most physically grueling sports in the world as a 50-year-old grandfather after a 7-year hiatus, and he quickly returned to the winner’s circle. Jan. 12 marked his first victory back after retirement, but certainly wouldn’t be his last of 2013: over the course of the year, Stevens would go on to win 65 more times through Dec. 12, and two of those victories were in Classics. Not too shabby, Grandpa Gary!

Here’s a video of Gary talking about his return to the track after his first ride back, in which he finished third:

Moment 2: Spicer Cub bolts around the parked starting gate along the outside rail and still nearly wins at Pimlico Race Course, losing by a nose. (April 13)

Oh, Spicer Cub. For kind of a random horse, you sure know how to get hearts pounding! This heretofore unknown Thoroughbred certainly got fans’ attention this year when he decided to take an alternative path to the finish line by bolting across the track in the homestretch, squeezing through a very narrow gap between the parked starting gate and the outside rail, and then hurrying home to nearly win despite his unorthodox route. Jockey Xavier Perez gets a million gold stars for hanging on in what must have been the craziest stretch drive of his life.

Jump to about the 4:50 mark to see the incident – it’s truly wild. 

Moment 3: Orb wins the Kentucky Derby for Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey and owners Stuart Janney III and Phipps Stable. (May 4)

This spring, Orb was the colt that seemed like he had it all: the looks, the family, the style, the speed and the connections. And on the first Saturday in May, he proved his supporters right with his win in the Kentucky Derby. If you’ve never been to Churchill Downs for the big show, I recommend you try it at least once. There is a pageantry and spectacle to the event unlike anything else in sports:

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And when Orb came barreling through the mud to win the Derby this year, the stands were shaking as his supporters - and bettors - cheered him home. It was a pretty awesome moment and one I won’t forget for a long, long time.

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Oh, yeah, and I don’t think Tom Brady will forget it, either: he was pretty stoked. Oh, yeah: and Wes Welker was in on the puppy-pile celebration, too.

Moment 4: Oxbow wins the Preakness Stakes, giving Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas his sixth win in the Triple Crown’s middle jewel and 50-year-old Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens his third. (May 18)

Remember how I mentioned before that Gary Stevens got a few more wins in this year? The Preakness was one of them. Oxbow took home the second leg of the Triple Crown in exhilarating style, giving veteran trainer D. Wayne Lukas and comeback kid Stevens a thrill of a lifetime.

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This moment also gave us what is certainly one of the greatest sports photobombs of all time: Preakness Screaming Guy. He is a national treasure.

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Image courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire

And Oxbow himself? He seemed a little surprised to find out that he wasn’t the favorite going into the race. (Actually, I just really like this photo of him.)

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Moment 5: Paynter, after battling back from life-threatening illness the year before, returns to the races to win an allowance at Betfair Hollywood Park. (June 14) 

The saga of Paynter is borderline miraculous: diagnosed with a debilitating and often fatal disease called colitis just days after winning the $1 million Haskell Invitational last year, Paynter defied logic and fought back to return to training. In the middle of June, he was finally ready to return to the races and he did it in thrilling style. I will never forget watching it on my computer over at a friend’s mom’s house and weeping as I watched him win. I’m sure I looked like a complete psychopath as I cheered him on with tears coursing down my cheeks, but I regret nothing. He was tremendous and courageous and he inspired so many people that day – and over the course of the last year – with his heart and drive to win against anything life threw at him. If you ever need to explain to someone why these Thoroughbreds are so special, you can just tell them Paynter’s story.

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Image courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire

Here’s Paynter just a little over two months later at Del Mar; he’s such a beautiful horse, and I can’t wait to see his first babies in 2015!

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Moment 6: Hall of Fame jockey Russell Baze becomes the first North American rider to reach the 12,000-win milestone aboard Handful of Pearls at the Alameda County Fair at Pleasanton. (July 7) 

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Image courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire

Jockey Russell Baze is a legend in this game, but he’s virtually unknown to people who aren’t super-involved in the sport. He’s an incredibly talented jockey, but he rides at smaller racetracks in California and rarely ventures out into racing’s big leagues these days. The kind, quiet man is a winning machine on his circuit, though, and he reached an unprecedented 12,000th victory this summer. I mean, I don’t think I’ve done anything that wasn’t an involuntary action 12,000 times, much less win competitions at that frequency! The man is remarkable, and his story is, too. If you have some time, please read the fascinating longform story below from The New York Times – it’s an amazing piece and really goes into Baze’s whole life and career. 

NYTimes The Jockey (Baze) 

That’s it for my review of the first half of the NTRA Moments of the Year – I’ll be back with my take on the final six nominees soon! Thank you for stopping by, and let me know in the comments if one of these moments is your pick for the year-end honors.

Image Description

Penelope Miller

I'm Penelope Miller and I'm the Senior Manager of Digital Media for America's Best Racing. I've been involved with the Thoroughbred industry for most of my life and I want to make sure that the great sport of horse racing is enjoyed by people all over the nation. Please share your thoughts and ideas with me in the comments section below!

Image Description

Penelope Miller

I'm Penelope Miller and I'm the Senior Manager of Digital Media for America's Best Racing. I've been involved with the Thoroughbred industry for most of my life and I want to make sure that the great sport of horse racing is enjoyed by people all over the nation. Please share your thoughts and ideas with me in the comments section below!

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