Almost famous: 2008's unsung heroes
You won't find any of these names when the Eclipse Awards are announced early next year, but each one had an outstanding year, whether anyone noticed or not. A look at some top performers who were under the radar in 2008:
Mike Maker: Maker probably gets the least publicity of any of the graduates from the D. Wayne Lukas School of Horse Training, but he's had a remarkable year. With 30 percent winners, he easily leads all Lukas grads in that category. He was the leading trainer at the Keeneland fall meet, beating, among others, Todd Pletcher. He is also well ahead in the current Churchill standings. He went out on his in 2003 own after 10 years with Lukas.
Commentator: He probably won't receive a single vote for Horse of the Year, but he was simply the fastest horse to race in 2008. With a 119, he's got the best Beyer number recorded this year by a sprinter and, with a 120, he's got the best Beyer in routes. He's apparently not the soundest thing around, so trainer Nick Zito had to race him sparingly and opted out of the Breeders' Cup. Under different circumstances, he may well have been Horse of the Year.
Scott Blasi: Steve Asmussen deserves a lot of credit for his handling of Curlin, but he was not the one doing the everyday, hands-on work. That was his main assistant, Scott Blasi, who was at Curlin's side throughout the year. To be a great trainer, you have to have a great team. In Blasi, Asmussen may have the best lieutenant in the business.
You Luckie Mann: He may only be a sprinter, but he's still a 2-year-old to watch. Trained by Marty Wolfson, he won the Oct. 18 Birdonthewire Stakes at Calder by 11 lengths, earning a Beyer figure of 107. That's the best number by any 2-year-old this year.
Robert L. Cole Jr.: The owner doesn't win many important races and he's unlikely to wind up on many Eclipse ballots, but what a year he has had. He leads the country with 215 victories, but the more remarkable number is his winning percentage. He's won with 40 percent of his starters this year.
Chickster: Trainer Justin Evans probably didn't have high expectations when he claimed a 7-year-old gelding back in March by the name of Chickster at Turf Paradise. Eight months later, Chickster is the only horse in the country to have won 10 races this year and might add to that total. Chickster romped by 7 ¼ lengths on Nov. 17 in a $3,200 claimer at Turf Paradise.
Quincy Welch: The king of Alberta racing, Welch won with 30 percent of his mounts this year. Only Russell Baze was better in the category. From Barbados, he's won six riding titles at Northlands Park and seven at Stampede Park. And there's still some value in betting on him. His mounts showed a flat bet profit, returning $2.05 for every $2 bet, which is all but unheard of for a leading rider at any track. By way of comparison, Baze shows a $1.71 return on investment on his mounts.
The People Running Louisiana Downs: With virtually every racetrack in the country getting hammered during these dreadful economic times, Louisiana Downs somehow was up in handle, showing a 2.5 percent increase over last year. The on-track handle was up a remarkable 6 percent.
Richard Fields: Track owner has not only kept Suffolk Downs alive, but instituted a policy whereby any owner or trainer caught sending a horse to slaughter would be evicted from the grounds. Suffolk management recently booted five people from the track under the zero-tolerance policy. Good riddance.
Jack Fisher: Bet you never heard of this guy, but he had an historic season as a trainer. The nation's premier jump trainer, he guided Good Night Shirt through an undefeated season that will result in his second straight Eclipse Award and he became the first trainer to eclipse the $1 million mark in a single year in the jump racing game.
Pat Reynolds: The forgotten figure in the Big Brown saga, Reynolds was Big Brown's original trainer before he was purchased by IEAH Stable and turned over to Rick Dutrow. He's the one who convinced owner Paul Pompa to buy the colt for a mere $190,000 at a 2007 Keeneland 2-year-old sale. Without Big Brown, Reynolds got off to an abysmal start in 2008, but started to put it together in the spring. One of the sport's more underrated trainers, he didn't win a race until March, but thus far has19 wins on the year. The list includes a win in the Grade I Garden City and a recent maiden win by 2-year-old Well Positioned, a horse to watch for next year's Classics.
Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact Bill at email@example.com.