As 2021 nears a conclusion, it’s an ideal time to look back at some of the highlights of the 2021 racing season in Thoroughbred racing. Here, we'll relive the six finalists for the Fan Choice Awards in the Favorite Race category.
This group features a mix of thrilling stretch duels, epic showdowns, unforgettable upsets, and even one incident so shocking we might never see anything like it again in a major race. Let’s take a look at these six terrific races, headlined by the Fan Choice Awards winner: the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets.
After tasting defeat for the first time in his career when fourth in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve, 2020 champion 2-year-old male Essential Quality took aim on the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets. At Belmont Park June 5, Essential Quality faced Derby third-place finisher Hot Rod Charlie and Preakness Stakes winner Rombauer in a much-anticipated showdown. Hot Rod Charlie set a grueling pace in the 1 1/2-mile “Test of the Champion” and fought gamely in the stretch, but Essential Quality proved too good on that day in a 1 ¼-length victory. Rombauer was another 11 ¼ lengths behind Hot Rod Charlie in third.
There have been quite a few elite international runners that failed to live up to expectations at the Breeders’ Cup World Championships, but that most certainly was not the case with Japanese invader Loves Only You in the 2021 Filly and Mare Turf. The 5-year-old Deep Impact mare used her explosive turn of foot to split rivals in deep stretch en route to an eye-catching half-length win that generated plenty of buzz Nov. 6 at Del Mar.
This race figured to be a strong contender for Favorite Race after social media lit up following an unforgettable stretch duel between winner Yaupon and runner-up Firenze Fire, in which the latter repeatedly tried to bite (or savage in racing parlance) the former in the final eighth of a mile. The duo locked up in a duel entering the stretch and, after it became clear that Yaupon would not back down, Firenze Fire took matters into his own hands, or mouth, and went on the attack. Yaupon held on to win by a head in what was probably the most unforgettable race of the 2021 racing season in the U.S.
When heavily favored pacesetter Jackie’s Warrior began to fade in early stretch, the Qatar Racing Sprint looked like a wide-open race. As they approached the eighth pole, Dr. Schivel spurted away to a clear advantage. He looked briefly like a sure-fire winner, but Aloha West had other plans. He passed five horses in the final furlong and nipped Dr. Schivel by a nose at the finish line in arguably the most exciting race at the 2021 Breeders’ Cup.
The 2021 Apple Blossom was a star-studded affair that featured two-time Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff winner Monomoy Girl and 2020 Preakness Stakes-winning filly Swiss Skydiver. The 1 1/16-mile race for older fillies and mares instead served as a coming-out party of sorts for rising star Letruska. She kick-started a five-race winning streak by setting the pace in the Apple Blossom then battling back after being headed in the stretch by Monomoy Girl. Letruska’s phenomenal display of tenacity propelled her to a nose win over the two-time champion.
The $490,000 H. Allen Jerkens Stakes, a seven-eighths of a mile sprint for 3-year-olds attracted a pair of blazing fast entrants in 0.95-to-1 favorite Life Is Good and 1.55-to-1 second betting choice Jackie’s Warrior. Life Is Good was unbeaten in two starts in 2021 entering the race and Jackie’s Warrior had won two of his last three races. Their showdown in the Jerkens did not disappoint as Jackie’s Warrior caught pacesetter Life Is Good in early stretch and held him off to win by a neck.