By Tom Pedulla
America’s Best Racing
Here are the 10 stories I will most remember from 2012. I would welcome receiving your list and comparing notes. My e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Smelling the roses: Owner J. Paul Reddam said it best after I’ll Have Another and unflappable Mario Gutierrez ran down valiant Bodemeister by a length and a half in the 138th Kentucky Derby (G1) to become the first starter to win from post 19. “I don’t know how, at this point, anything could be bigger than the Kentucky Derby,” Reddam said. “If you hear of something, let me know.”
Scintillating Preakness: I’ll Have Another showed his tactical speed by laying closer to the front to compensate for the shorter distance in the Preakness Stakes (G1), then was all grit and determination when he made a dramatic charge to nail Bodemeister by a neck. “It seemed like the stretch never ends, thank God,” trainer Doug O’Neill said after the unforgettable middle leg of the Triple Crown.
Another miss: A sport renowned for extreme highs and lows endured a heartbreaking setback when I’ll Have Another was scratched on the eve of the Belmont Stakes (G1) with tendinitis in his left front leg. Just when it seemed as though racing might have its first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978, how demoralizing it was to learn that this latest bid would not reach the starting gate. “I really thought he was going to run off,” said a downcast Reddam.
Record performance: Wise Dan stamped himself the leading Horse of the Year candidate when he topped a deep field in the Breeders’ Cup Mile by setting a track record of 1:31.78 and finishing a length and a half in front of late-charging Animal Kingdom. It was the fifth victory in six 2012 starts for Wise Dan, who closed his rousing campaign with three successive Grade 1 triumphs.
Royal repeat: Although the opening day of the Breeders’ Cup featured one upset after another, there was no toppling heavily favored Royal Delta as she took command early and was unyielding late in repeating in the Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic (G1). In turning back previously undefeated My Miss Aurelia, classy Royal Delta pushed jockey Mike Smith past Jerry Bailey for the all-time lead with his 16th Breeders’ Cup victory.
All even: There was no separating favored Alpha and 33-1 longshot Golden Ticket in a pulsating finish that provided the first dead hit in the 143-year history of the Travers Stakes (G1). Atilla and Acrobat also crossed the finish line together in 1874, but Atilla won a runoff. The Golden Ticket connections did not mind sharing the glory. The “Mid-Summer Derby” was never part of their original plan.
Beating the odds: Paynter, who became ill before the Travers, appeared to have two strikes against him as he battled colitis and laminitis. But superb veterinary care and his spirit allowed him to overcome long odds to the delight of the many fans who followed his struggle for survival. “He was such a brave warrior throughout and is a rare kind of Thoroughbred,” owner Ahmed Zayat said of his Haskell Invitational Stakes (G1) winner.
Up in time: Union Rags never fired in the Florida Derby (G1). He lost all hope when he was squeezed back at the start of the Kentucky Derby (G1). But he ultimately demonstrated his quality in the Belmont Stakes (G1) when he capitalized on a narrow opening inside and surged past Paynter by a neck for new rider John Velazquez and a trainer, Michael Matz, who never doubted his talent.
Classic surprise: Jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. went from being kicked in the rear on his first visit to the Santa Anita Park stable area to kicking butt aboard Fort Larned in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) to celebrate his 27th birthday. They withstood the hot pursuit of Mucho Macho Man by half a length for trainer Ian Wilkes, who learned during his years beside Hall of Famer Carl Nafzger what it means to have a horse trained to the minute.
Frankel!: While it is disappointing that Frankel was never displayed on the grand Breeders’ Cup stage, his accomplishments would have made his namesake, the late Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel, proud. His perfection through a 14-race career was highlighted by an unprecedented nine successive Group 1 triumphs. The racing world eagerly awaits the offspring of the son of Galileo.