As challenging as 2020 has been due to the coronavirus pandemic, the hard work of many allowed horse racing to persevere, albeit with a shuffled calendar, and provide a welcome respite from life’s cares. Tom Pedulla recalls some of the year’s memorable moments:
UNFORGETTABLE PREAKNESS: Swiss Skydiver proved her mettle when she outslugged Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve victor Authentic in a scorching stretch duel to win the Preakness Stakes by a thrilling neck. A former $35,000 yearling, the latest diamond in the rough uncovered by trainer Ken McPeek, became the sixth filly to capture the Preakness in its 145-year history. Her time for the 1 3/16-mile contest – a fall classic that provided the final leg of the reworked Triple Crown – was 1:53.28. That trails only Secretariat’s 1:53. Jockey Robby Albarado gave Swiss Skydiver a jump on Authentic in the backstretch with what McPeek called a “genius” move up the rail. The hard-knocking filly’s immense heart allowed her to finish the job. “She’s just a real bull,” McPeek said. “She loves what she does every day.” The Preakness Stakes was voted both Favorite Race and Favorite Race Call (Dave Rodman) at America's Best Racing's second annual Fan Choice Awards.
REAL DEAL: Authentic dispelled any doubts about his quality with a front-running 2 ¼-length victory against stablemate Improbable in the $6 million Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland. He pounded out the mile and a quarter in a track-record 1:59.60 in becoming the fourth Kentucky Derby winner to capture the Classic in the same year. He joined the elite company of Sunday Silence (1989), Unbridled (1990) and American Pharoah (2015). Hall of Famer trainer Bob Baffert’s pre-race comments to jockey John Velazquez could not have been more reassuring. “The horse you’re riding this week is the horse you rode in the Derby,” he told him. “You can ride him with confidence. You can be aggressive. You can do what you want.” Velazquez, the all-time leading rider in earnings, went on to register his first victory in the Classic among 18 Breeders’ Cup victories. Authentic received the Secretariat Vox Populi Award as voted by fans and is also the leading candidate to win Horse of the Year at next month's Eclipse Awards. John Velazquez was voted Favorite Jockey in America's Best Racing's Fan Choice Awards.
COMEBACK GIRL: Monomoy Girl, sidelined last season by a bout of colic followed by a gluteal strain, capped her dramatic comeback with a win in the Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff that evoked memories of her success in that race in 2018. The 5-year-old daughter of Tapizar was perfect through all four starts this year as trainer Brad Cox gradually brought her along, leading to a convincing 1 ¾-length decision against Valiance in the Distaff for regular rider Florent Geroux. “She’s a mare of a lifetime, very rare,” Geroux said. “It’s like finding a diamond.”
HUGE WEEKEND: Cox, who grew up in the neighborhood surrounding Churchill Downs, turned Keeneland into a personal playground of sorts by winning four Breeders’ Cup races. Cox reached the winner’s circle with Essential Quality (TVG Juvenile Presented by Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance), Aunt Pearl (Juvenile Fillies Turf), Knicks Go (Big Ass Fans Dirt Mile) and Monomoy Girl (Distaff). He matched the four wins recorded by Hall of Famer Richard Mandella at Mandella’s home track of Santa Anita Park in 1993. The Breeders’ Cup was a one-day event at that time and offered fewer races. Cox, 40, made it clear that Monomoy Girl’s Distaff led the parade. “She’s meant so much for so many people’s lives. She’s an amazing creature,” he said. “I love her to pieces.”
FIRST SATURDAY IN SEPTEMBER: A major change in schedule from the first Saturday in May to the first Saturday in September and injuries to top prospects did not keep Baffert from asserting himself in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve. After injuries knocked well-regarded Nadal and Charlatan off the Derby trail, pace-setting Authentic stepped up to give him his sixth Derby triumph. That tied the legendary Ben Jones for the all-time lead. “It’s been a rollercoaster year,” Baffert said after his third Derby win in six years. “But, thankfully, it's the love of the horses that keeps me going. They’re the best therapy a human can have.”
SALUTING SACKATOGA: Sackatoga Stable locks in on New York-breds and operates conservatively due to its relatively limited means when it comes to buying racing prospects. That formula would not seem to lend itself to success in Triple Crown races, and yet the upstate New York operation has defied the odds by winning all three. Jack Knowlton was the managing partner when his friends and fellow investors clambered off a yellow school bus to watch New York-bred gelding Funny Cide deliver the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 2003. He secured the missing piece this year when Tiz the Law rolled in the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets, run at 1 1/8 miles at Belmont Park to open the Triple Crown. Knowlton was justifiably proud of the accomplishment. “To win Triple Crown races in two different years, not many people can say that,” he noted.
BREATHTAKING SPRINTER: Michael Lund Petersen lavished $1.8 million on Gamine, a daughter of white-hot stallion Into Mischief, when he purchased her for $1.8 million at the Ocala Breeders’ Sale as a 2-year-old in training. For that, he got blinding speed. Never was that dazzling turn of foot more evident than in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint, when Gamine blew past Serengeti Empress for a dominant victory in which set smashed the Keeneland track record for seven furlongs by stopping the teletimer in 1:20.20. Taris had set the previous mark of 1:21.32 six years ago. Trainer Bob Baffert paid Gamine the highest compliment when he said, “She is the fastest filly going one turn I’ve ever trained.”
FOURTH TRY A CHARM: Whitmore needed four cracks at the Breeders’ Cup Sprint to win it – but win it he did. After finishing eighth, second and third in the previous three years, the popular gelding broke through at the age of 7 when he spurted away by 3 ¼ lengths for trainer Ron Moquett and jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr. Whitmore’s finest hour came in his 38th start and raised his bankroll to $4,247,850. “We do everything we can to try to get the most out of him and to make his job easier to perform well,” Moquett said. “But we’re so grateful that the horse found us.” Moquett obtained the son of Pleasantly Perfect for approximately $35,000.
WHAT A BARGAIN!: Owner Mark Schwartz said he was in search of a “decent horse” when he paid $5,000 for Brooklyn Strong. He instead acquired a 2021 Kentucky Derby contender when the juvenile prevailed by a neck in the Dec. 5 Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct. The Remsen marked the third victory in four starts for the New York-bred son of Wicked Strong and jumped his earnings to $195,000 while placing him on the Churchill Downs leaderboard with 10 Derby qualifying points. “It’s like you’re dreaming. It really is,” Schwartz said. “I never thought I would be in this position.” Brooklyn Strong is trained by up-and-coming Daniel Velazquez, 36, who used the Remsen to record his first graded stakes win.
BETTER DAYS AHEAD: If the bipartisan Horseracing Safety and Integrity Act works as well as many industry leaders believe it will, better days are ahead for racing. It allows for the formation of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority to oversee areas such as testing for performance-enhancing drugs. The move looks to be the most promising step yet to ensure a level playing field and instill confidence in handicappers. Stuart S. Janney III, chairman of The Jockey Club, hailed the development, saying, “With the passage of this bill, we restore confidence with our fans that the competition is clean, the game is fair and the horse and rider are protected.” Drew Fleming, president and chief executive officer of Breeders’ Cup Ltd., called it “the single most significant safety and integrity development in the history of Thoroughbred racing.”