I’d wager every racing fan I know has four or five races that helped spark and/or cement their passion for the sport.
For some, these races might be memorable Triple Crown or Breeders’ Cup races or maybe an international event that opened your eyes to the remarkable athletes outside the U.S. In other cases, these races might be the ones that resulted in huge scores at the betting window.
My guess is for most dedicated fans it’s some combination of the above plus myriad other reasons like incredible displays of tenacity and/or goose-bump-inducing acceleration by the winning horse. But those races are always there in the back of our minds and we go back to them often to relive the excitement.
Below are the five races that shaped my passion for horse racing, and please feel free to comment on social media with your own.
Just missing the cut were Personal Ensign’s 1988 Breeders’ Cup Distaff, Holy Bull’s win in the 1994 Travers (I was in college and missed the race live, cue the shame bells), and Smarty Jones' 2004 Preakness Stakes win.
1989 Preakness Stakes
When I was in high school, my friends and I were out playing basketball on Kentucky Derby day in 1989 but I sat in the car with a friend of mine and listened to the race on the radio. I was a big Easy Goer fan, but I also really liked Sunday Silence. I was 15 and didn’t know at the time I was supposed to choose a side. Two weeks later, I was glued to the TV for the rematch in the Preakness and what an epic battle it turned out to be. In my opinion, it’s the greatest stretch battle in the history of the Triple Crown between two incredible 3-year-olds who might have been Triple Crown winners in different years. Instead, we were gifted with one of the great rivalries in horse racing history. I’d estimate I watch this race an average of 25-30 times a year. When people visit and ask me why I love horse racing, I show them this race. A photo of Sunday Silence and Easy Goer in lockstep dueling through the Pimlico stretch hangs above the sofa in the family room.
2004 Breeders’ Cup Turf
Ever since I started going to the racetrack, I’ve been a sucker for closers. I love the pulse-pounding excitement of a horse rallying from way back with ground-devouring strides to win a race in the shadow of the finish line. My favorite closer of all time is Better Talk Now. Michael Matz at Fair Hill Training Center gave me the tip that Graham Motion had three nice runners for the 2004 Breeders’ Cup, so I reached out to Motion to do a story for the local newspaper I worked at, the Cecil Whig. In covering sports sometimes you interview incredibly gracious people, sometimes you meet flat-out jerks, and most of the time people fall somewhere in between. Motion was undoubtedly the first type – he welcomed me and two photographers into his barn, gave me as much time as I needed to ask all of the important questions (and a few moronic ones, too, I’m sure), and picked up every time I called back with follow-up questions. I wrote profiles of Juvenile Fillies contender Dance Away Capote, Filly and Mare Turf runner Film Maker, and Turf hopeful Better Talk Now. When Film Maker brought home the second half of the exacta in the Filly and Mare Turf, I had a little extra money in my pocket at Delaware Park and placed a nice win bet on Better Talk Now at 27.90-1 and boxed him in the exacta with heavily favored Kitten’s Joy. Better Talk Now closed from last with a sweeping (and controversial) rally to overhaul Kitten’s Joy for a decisive win. Many people cried foul after the race, but needless to say I didn’t see it that way and became a huge Better Talk Now fan. He posted six subsequent graded stakes wins and ran second in the 2006 Breeders’ Cup Turf. As I sat there watching the winner’s circle scene after the race, it dawned on me that for the first time in my life I actually had an in-person connection with a winner of a marquee race … and also a damn-good follow-up story to write.
2005 Preakness Stakes
My home racetrack growing up was Delaware Park, so when a 2-year-old star named Afleet Alex emerged from the Stanton, Del., racetrack in 2004, well, I was all in. Afleet Alex had a terrific personality, a DelPark jockey-trainer tandem, and a gregarious personality in Chuck Zacney heading up Cash is King stable. I considered including here his Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes win, when he ducked out toward the roaring Saratoga crowd (my wife and I always assumed he thought they were all cheering for him) and then miraculously recovered to win, but there is no doubt his most inspirational performance came on May 21, 2005, in the Preakness. The athleticism he displayed (not to mention jockey Jeremy Rose) to stay on his feet when Scrappy T ducked out into his path was absolutely remarkable, and then the way he just went about his business in finishing off the win was absolutely stunning. I watched this race on the lone small TV in the Thoroughbred Times office with a group of co-workers and almost vomited on the table when Afleet Alex got sideswiped. Re-watching this race now while knowing the outcome is far more enjoyable.
2006 Kentucky Derby
Whereas I watch the 1989 Preakness dozens of times a year, I watch replays of the 2006 Derby only occasionally. It’s hard to find the right balance of reliving an unforgettable victory on the first Saturday in May versus the weight of remembering what might have been for my all-time favorite racehorse Barbaro, who suffered a catastrophic injury two weeks later in the Preakness. I was lucky enough to write many stories about him for Thoroughbred Times, where I worked at the time, and I recently shared a slideshow of my fondest memory of Barbaro at Keeneland in spring 2006, so this race felt personal and satisfying at the time. What strikes me when re-watching the race was the natural cruising speed this strapping Dynaformer colt possessed to stalk a :46.07 half-mile and barely break a sweat … and then close with a final quarter-mile in :24.34. Barbaro was so much the best at Churchill Downs on May 6, 2006. Tom Durkin called it a “sublime performance.” Indeed.
2009 Woodward Stakes
When I think about the most naturally talented U.S.-based racehorses since the turn of the century, I think of Rachel Alexandra. Sure, you could make a case for quite a few others – Point Given, Ghostzapper, Barbaro, Zenyatta, and American Pharoah to name a few – but Rachel Alexandra was positively electric. I felt like a giant goosebump watching her win the 2009 Kentucky Oaks and her Preakness win 15 days later was likewise unforgettable, but in my mind when Rachel Alexandra defeated older males as a 3-year-old filly on Sept. 5, 2009, she cemented her status as one of the sport’s all-time greats. She set a wicked pace and fought gamely in the final strides to hold off Bullsbay and Macho Again in a determined victory that gave her eight wins in as many starts for the season.
BONUS RANDOM RACE
2005 American Oaks
When I moved to Lexington in March 2005 to join the staff at Thoroughbred Times, I had a particular fondness for pedigrees. One of the most interesting pedigree stories, to me, was the profound impact Sunday Silence had on Japanese racing as a sire. I dove headfirst into Japanese racing in the new job and became a massive fan of Japanese Triple Crown winner Deep Impact, by Sunday Silence, but there was at the time quite a bit of skepticism from other racing jurisdictions that the best Japanese horses could compete with the elite in Europe and the U.S. Cesario, whose sire, Special Week, was also a son of Sunday Silence, shipped over to the U.S. for the American Oaks at Hollywood Park in July 2005 and absolutely dusted our top 3-year-old grass fillies. Cesario won the American Oaks with, as a former Thoroughbred Times colleague liked to say, contemptuous ease.