2021 Horse Racing Year in Review: Superstar Horses, Records Broken, and History Made at the Breeders’ Cup

Knicks Go won the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 6 to cap off a season that will likely secure him the Eclipse Award as 2021’s Horse of the Year. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Fans returned to tracks with great enthusiasm after a year’s absence due to the pandemic. Business was brisk on all fronts as racing celebrated some sense of normalcy and looked hopefully to what shows every sign of being a bright future. Tom Pedulla recalls some of the year’s most significant moments:

A dominant season for Knicks Go. (Coady Photography)

WHAT A YEAR!: There will be no suspense when Horse of the Year is announced. It will be Knicks Go. And, like many of his races, it will not be close. The 5-year-old son of Paynter displayed brilliant early speed and the breathtaking ability to carry it during a campaign highlighted by triumphs in the Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic, Whitney Stakes and Pegasus World Cup Invitational. Trainer Brad Cox said after Joel Rosario snatched an uncontested early lead in the Classic and went on to score by 2 ¾ lengths, “He’s a tremendous horse. He’s a champion now.” Knicks Go won five of seven starts and banked more than $7.3 million for Korea Racing Authority in a dazzling season. He is set to conclude his fantastic career with a highly anticipated showdown against Life Is Good in the Jan. 29 Pegasus before beginning life as an in-demand stallion.

Post-Travers celebration for 'EQ.' (Amira Chichakly/NYRA Photo)

INDISPUTABLE QUALITY: Essential Quality made a strong case to win the Eclipse Award as the nation’s leading 3-year-old by capturing five of seven starts, highlighted by hard-fought successes in the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets and Runhappy Travers Stakes. He became only the 29th horse to complete that double. The Godolphin homebred showed how well he kept his form from 2 to 3. He became the first Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner to capture the Travers since Street Sense in 2007. The son of Tapit finished a solid third in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and banked more than $3.4 million for the season. Among other things, he will be remembered for his knack for prevailing in taut finishes. “He gets past the horse and he can stay there,” said regular rider Luis Saez. “He don’t waste energy.”

A future Hall of Famer, Monomoy Girl. (Coady Photography)

WHAT A GIRL!: Two-time champion Monomoy Girl suffered a non-displaced fracture of the sesamoid in her right front leg and was retired from racing to enhance an already distinguished broodmare band at Spendthrift Farm in Lexington, Ky. She was an authoritative winner of the 2018 Longines Kentucky Oaks and capped her first championship season by defeating older company in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. She missed all of 2019 with colic and a hamstring injury but went 4 for 4 the next year and again captured the Distaff to secure a second Eclipse Award. She delivered in 14 of 17 starts and was never worse than second with earnings of over $4.7 million. No wonder trainer Brad Cox said upon her retirement, “Monomoy Girl owes us nothing. She’s an unbelievable mare and will always hold a special place in my heart.”

Letruska in action at the Spa. (Eclipse Sportswire)

BIG-HEARTED LETRUSKA: Although Letruska faded to 10th of 11 in the Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff after becoming embroiled in a ruinous speed duel,  her 5-year-old campaign is worth saluting in any reputable Year In Review. The valiant daughter of 2010 Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver reached the winner’s circle in six of eight starts and banked almost $2 million for St. George Stable, which bred and owned her. Her successes included four Grade 1 triumphs at four different tracks: the April 17 Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park, the June 5 Ogden Phipps Stakes at Belmont Park, the Aug. 28 Personal Ensign Stakes Presented by Lia Infiniti at Saratoga and the Oct. 10 Juddmonte Spinster Stakes at Keeneland. The accomplishments loom all the larger because she opened her career at a small track in Mexico City. “She has ability, but more she has a special heart,” said trainer Fausto Gutierrez.

Medina Spirit, gone too soon. (Coady Photography)

UNFORGETTABLE SPIRIT: Medina Spirit, the colt that initially sold for $1,000 but went on to flash across the wire first in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve, will be remembered for many reasons. He tested positive for betamethasone after the Derby, a result trainer Bob Baffert blamed on use of an ointment used to treat a skin rash. He went on to run a valiant second in the Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic only to collapse and die of an apparent heart attack after a five-furlong workout at Santa Anita Park on Dec. 6. Whatever the mandated necropsy shows, Medina Spirit will always be celebrated for his spirit. He was one of the most courageous competitors the game has seen, winning half of his 10 starts and never failing to hit the board while earning more than $3.5 million for owner Amr Zedan.

Asmussen leads his record-setter to the Spa winner's circle. (Eclipse Sportswire)

ASMUSSEN’S RECORD: Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen broke a record he had ambitiously targeted years before when he registered his 9,446th victory to surpass the late Dale Baird for the all-time lead in North America. Asmussen snagged the mark when first-time starter Stellar Tap, a 2-year-old going seven furlongs, won the fifth race on the Whitney Stakes undercard at Saratoga. An emotional Asmussen said in the winner’s circle, “To be surrounded by people you love and who love you, and you have a common goal, it’s impossible to put into words what horse racing means to me and my whole family and to all the employees. They’re family and they know they are and they are treated as such.” The moment was made all the sweeter because top client Ron Winchell co-owns Stellar Tap.

Newly-minted HOF-er Pletcher at Del Mar. (Eclipse Sportswire)

WHAT A CLASS!: American Pharoah, Todd Pletcher and Jack Fisher comprised a superstar lineup when the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame enshrined its latest class. American Pharoah, of course, emphatically ended a record 37-year drought between Triple Crown champions in 2015. Pletcher has won an unprecedented seven Eclipse Awards as North America’s leading trainer to go with a pair of Kentucky Derby victories and three Belmont Stakes triumphs. Fisher ranks prominently among champion steeplechase trainers. “Training horses is all I ever wanted to do,” said Pletcher. “I remember being 11 or 12 and telling my mom and she said it was wonderful. From that point on, with her endorsement, I never thought about doing anything else.”

Breeders’ Cup celebration for Japanese connections. (Eclipse Sportswire)

JAPAN’S BREAKTHROUGH: When Loves Only You made Breeders’ Cup history by winning the Maker’s Mark Filly and Mare Turf and, even more notably, 49.90-1 Marche Lorraine followed with a shocking upset in the Longines Distaff, it almost certainly changed the international racing landscape forever. Japanese trainers had been reluctant to test their horses against the best of the best at the Breeders’ Cup and in Triple Crown races. Now, they have every reason to believe they should take a shot. Both winners were trained by Yoshito Yahagi and bred in Japan by Northern Farm. “I believe these Breeders’ Cup wins will open the door to some new prospects for Japanese horses. The Distaff showed that not only can our horses compete in the best races on turf, but on dirt as well against the best horses in the United States,” said Takahiro Uno, general manager of the New York region office for the Japan Racing Association, in an interview with BloodHorse.

Malathaat gets tender loving care at Del Mar. (Eclipse Sportswire)

THE WAY FORWARD: The Horse Racing Integrity and Safety Authority will have the strong leadership it needs when it officially begins work next July 1. Charles Scheeler, a highly regarded former federal prosecutor hailed for his work in helping to restore Major League Baseball to a level playing field, was elected chairman by the Board of Directors. Scheeler served as lead counsel to former Senator George Mitchell when Congress launched its investigation into the use of performance-enhancing drugs. The resulting Mitchell Report pulled no punches and stained some of the game’s most promising players. Scheeler has vowed to pursue cheaters in racing with the same vigor. “We believe it is imperative to not only have testing but robust investigative capability,” he said. “And we will have that.”

Breeders' Cup board chair Barbara Banke. (Coady Photography)

HISTORIC ELECTION: Barbara Banke became the first woman to chair the Board of Directors of Breeders’ Cup Ltd. when she was unanimously elected to a two-year term in September. She succeeds Fred Hertrich III. Banke owns Stonestreet Farms in Lexington and serves as chairman of Jackson Family Wines. “I look forward to working closely with stakeholders across the industry to ensure a bright future for Breeders’ Cup Ltd., the World Championships, and the sport of Thoroughbred racing,” Banke said.

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