Stars of Yesterday: Looking Back at Best Arkansas Derby Winners
Tom Pedulla of America’s Best Racing offers his view of the top 10 stories of 2017, a year marked by loss, a heartwarming response to adversity, and signature triumphs.
1. Loss of a Legend
The sport mourned the loss of Helen “Penny” Chenery, who died on Sept. 16 from complications of a stroke. She was 95. Chenery will be remembered as far more than the owner of 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat. She was one of the first women admitted into The Jockey Club and served as the first female president of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association. She received an Eclipse Award of Merit for lifetime contributions to racing in 2006, an honor that says it all.
2. Refuge at Del Mar
Wildfires in Southern California, including the devastating Dec. 7 blaze at the San Luis Rey Training Center in Bonsall, Calif., led to an overwhelming response from the community as hundreds of horses were evacuated to Del Mar. Del Mar’s call for volunteers prompted a massive response, ensuring that there was more than enough personnel to care for and comfort the traumatized evacuees. Donations of apples and carrots poured in, a comforting scene even as the horses that could not be saved were mourned.
3. Heartening Response
Hurricane Harvey in Texas and then Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, where more than 800 Thoroughbreds were stabled at Hipodromo Camarero, tested the resources and resourcefulness of a large number of organizations. Many groups banded together to see that much-needed hay and veterinary supplies were sent where they were needed most. Even nature’s fury could not break the human spirit.
4. Staying on Track
When Winchell Thoroughbreds and Three Chimneys Farm decided to campaign well-bred Gun Runner as a 4-year-old, everyone won big. The Candy Ride colt rattled off four successive Grade 1 victories to close the season – Stephen Foster, Whitney, Woodward, and Breeders’ Cup Classic – and stamp himself as the runaway leader for Horse of the Year honors. Gun Runner, trained by Steve Asmussen and ridden by Florent Geroux, swept five of six starts while banking $6,950,700.
5. Smashing Performance
Arrogate dealt Gun Runner his lone defeat in the $10 million Dubai World Cup on March 25 at Meydan Racecourse in what has to be recorded as a race for the ages. He faced a seemingly impossible task when an awful start left him last. But he gradually worked his way back into the contest for jockey Mike Smith and surged past Gun Runner by 2 ¼ lengths. “It was like something you see in a movie, 20 lengths back, no chance, and here he comes and wins,” said Bob Baffert, his Hall of Fame trainer.
6. Inaugural Pegasus
The inaugural running of the Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 28, won by Arrogate by 4 ¾ authoritative lengths, was hailed for many reasons. Racing needs big thinking and, with a $12 million purse for the first edition that was then bumped to $16 million for 2018, the Stronach Group is certainly thinking big. The timing of the event is such that it allows one last hurrah before some of the brightest stars are retired to head to the breeding shed. Beyond that, what fan wouldn’t want to flee northern climes for Florida in late January?
7. Late-Blooming West Coast
For the second consecutive year, Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert had a late-blooming 3-year-old steal the show from the rest of the class. West Coast followed in the footsteps of Arrogate when he was not quite ready for the Triple Crown races only to make up for lost time. West Coast responded to his first Grade 1 test by ruling the Travers by 3 ¼ lengths. He romped by 7 ¼ lengths in the Pennsylvania Derby before he ran a solid third in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
8. Dream Come True
Anthony Bonomo and Vinny Viola, stickball-playing pals who grew up two blocks apart in Brooklyn, N.Y., were small-time horseplayers as teenagers. But they celebrated on racing’s grandest stage as owners when Always Dreaming, trained by Todd Pletcher and ridden by John Velazquez, fulfilled their seemingly impossible dream of a Kentucky Derby victory. It was perhaps only appropriate that their private post-race celebration at a Louisville hotel included approximately 350 White Castle hamburgers while text messages poured in from their old neighborhood.
9. Breakthrough Triumph
Chad Brown, known primarily for developing turf stars, wants to be recognized for his ability to train horses that can excel on any surface at any distance. He took a major step in that direction – and enhanced his bid for a second consecutive Eclipse Award as North America’s leading trainer – when Cloud Computing presented him with his first Triple Crown triumph in the Preakness. Seth Klarman, one of Cloud Computing’s owners, said of Brown, “There is nothing in the sport he can’t do.”
10. Del Mar Debut
The Breeders’ Cup World Championships ventured to Del Mar for the first time, and the move to the picturesque venue “where the turf meets the surf” had to be viewed as an unqualified success. The two-day handle of $25,181,317 represented a 21.4 percent increase over the previous year at Santa Anita. The total handle of $166,077,486 was the highest since 2010 at Churchill Downs. The Del Mar experience gives the Breeders’ Cup an attractive second West Coast option to Santa Anita, which is well-established in the rotation.