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. –from Mike Curry’s series introduction
I cannot add any more to Mike’s well-put perspective when thinking back to my favorite races, the ones that really sparked a passion for the sport. I did not become a deeply invested fan in horse racing until my mid-thirties, but I was soon hooked after I cashed a few big tickets. By then, I had come to realize that racehorses were no different than other professional athletes, each of them having their own unique strengths and career arcs. It wasn’t long before I started to follow a group of horses that, time after time it seemed, always showed up and gave their all in major races. Here are five of my favorites:
2005 Belmont Stakes
I had gradually started to follow horse racing’s biggest events through the first half of the 2000s while working as a seasonal parimutuel clerk at Keeneland. Somewhere along the line, I began keeping tabs on Kentucky Derby contenders and other stakes-caliber horses and learned the basics of handicapping. My growing interest paid off with Afleet Alex, who was clearly the most talented racehorse in his age group during 2004-’05 even though it wasn’t always acknowledged by horseplayers. I jumped on board for his dominant eight-length Arkansas Derby win at gift odds of 2.40-1, which came after he had a lung infection and lost as the heavy favorite in his prior start, and stuck with him through his unlucky Kentucky Derby third and his sensational, disaster-averting win in the Preakness Stakes. In the Belmont Stakes, Afleet Alex somehow still went off at 1.15-1 odds, mainly due to the presence of Derby winner Giacomo, I suppose. Even now, I can’t help but smile at Tom Durkin’s call of Afleet Alex’s push-button domination of his Derby rival and the rest of the field at the top of Belmont’s long stretch.
2006 Stephen Foster Handicap
Perfect Drift was one of the most popular racehorses of the 2000s in Kentucky, a throwback type who always tried hard, even in the final three years of his eight-year campaign when he was past his prime. I had been at Churchill Downs in 2003 with my dad and some friends when he bested eventual Horse of the Year Mineshaft in the Stephen Foster Handicap (with Churchill legend Pat Day in the irons) and also in 2005 with my dad and sister when he checked in third behind another soon-to-be Horse of the Year, Saint Liam. By 2006, I had started working at the Thoroughbred Times on Saturdays but drove the short distance to Keeneland during a late lunch to watch the Foster via simulcast and make my customary win bet on “the Drift,” – a bet I made every time he raced at Churchill. That year’s Foster drew a competitive field, and since Perfect Drift had not won in nearly a year (while still running competitively), he went off at 10.90-1 odds. I still remember the excitement when he wrested the lead from Brass Hat (another favorite of many Kentucky fans, including myself) and opened up by two lengths in midstretch. I can also, even more acutely, remember the shock when late-running 91.70-1 shot Seek Gold, with Churchill maestro Calvin Borel aboard, appeared on the simulcast TV at the very last instant and nipped Perfect Drift by a nose. I wailed something along the lines of “How could that happen?” amidst a cacophony of curses and cheers in the simulcast room – but in horse racing, of course, anything can happen. That’s what makes it so fun, even when you’re on the losing end. (After retiring, Perfect Drift stayed in the hearts and minds of racing fans for years as a popular stable pony, most notably for California Chrome.)
2007 Pattison Canadian International Stakes
One of my all-time favorites, Cloudy’s Knight was a true Rodney Dangerfield of his era. For those of you under age 40, that means he got “no respect” from bettors. Routinely, he would go off at overlaid odds even after he had emerged as a consistent, stakes-caliber horse from 2004 through 2006. I jumped on board in early 2007 when he ran in four consecutive turf stakes races at Fair Grounds, winning a Grade 3 and hitting the board in the other three, including a close second to another horse I loved, Einstein. I followed “Cloudy” from there on out, and stuck with him even after he took a year-long break from September 2008 to September 2009 and returned with a new trainer (Hall of Famer Jonathan Sheppard) to resume his winning ways. Perhaps his best streak occurred in summer and fall 2007 under Frank Kirby’s tutelage. Then, Cloudy’s Knight competed in three consecutive graded stakes at Woodbine, finishing a close second in the first and winning the second. Nevertheless, he was sent off at 18.35-1 odds in the Grade 1 Pattison Canadian International facing a stellar field topped by European Group 1 winner Ask. Jockey Ramsey Zimmerman kept him out of trouble all the way through the far turn, and then Cloudy’s fighting spirit took over. I haven’t yelled much louder in a simulcast setting than I did that day at Keeneland, suffice to say, and later on I was thrilled to see this tough gelding race in person at Kentucky Downs twice, including his last career start.
2009 Haskell Invitational Stakes
I thought about putting a video replay of Rachel Alexandra’s maiden win at Churchill Downs in 2008 on this list, but the replays available online are overlaid with annoying melodramatic music. I happened to be at Churchill that Friday the 13th of June, and made a check mark in Daily Racing Form next to the striking 2-year-old Medaglia d’Oro filly making her second start as one to follow while she was led around the paddock before the race (I foolishly did not bet on her at 12.50-1 odds, however). By the following summer, Rachel was building a season that would take its place alongside those of the sport’s all-time greats, culminating with a win against older males in the Woodward Stakes at Saratoga that, in my view, is the most thrilling race so far of the 21st century (read Mike Curry’s remembrance here). One race prior to the Woodward, Rachel Alexandra put on an absolute clinic against 3-year-old males in the Haskell Invitational Stakes at Monmouth Park, romping by six lengths over Belmont Stakes winner Summer Bird. It was just one of many memorable races from a filly who I was privileged to watch compete from almost the very beginning.
2011 Breeders’ Cup Mile
This race shows up in a lot of “best of” lists, and no wonder. The 2011 Mile at Churchill Downs featured a) a beloved favorite with a chance to make history; b) a full field of accomplished horses from all corners of North America as well as overseas; c) a tightly-packed group heading into the stretch with about a half-dozen having a chance to win; d) moments of pure suspense for the favorite before she took a brief lead; and e) an exhilarating dash to the finish by two outsiders to set up f) a razor-thin margin. Future Hall of Famer Goldikova, attempting to win the Mile for the fourth year in a row, bullied her way out from a stalking trip along the hedge to get clear running room, but the Europe-based superstar filly was surpassed in deep stretch by 64.80-1 shot Court Vision (a horse with considerable back class who was ignored by most bettors, including me) and 11-1 Turallure. As with Rachel Alexandra, I had been fortunate enough to see Turallure break his maiden, this time at Ellis Park in 2010, and followed him over the next 10 months as he matured into a Grade 1 winner. In the Breeders’ Cup Mile, he rallied from last to catch Court Vision at the finish line … or so I thought. Truthfully, every time I watch this race I see Turallure get up in time, but maybe that’s just what I (still) want to see. At any rate, replays of this race, the 2010 Blame-Zenyatta Breeders’ Cup Classic, and Rachel’s 2009 Woodward win are what I pull up to show any person who’s interested in the sport just what the excitement of Thoroughbred horse racing is all about.