- Bill Finley
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My colleague, Mr. Jeremy Plonk, just penned a column lauding the best of 2008 in horse racing. To find so many positives during a year that has been abysmally bleak, he must be a gifted writer or, perhaps, on some serious happy drugs. Not me. The year 2008 can't end soon enough and I wish to send it on its way with a truly appropriate column, The Worst of 2008:
WORST PERFORMANCE: Big Brown in the Belmont, hands down. We'll never know why or how a horse who was so brilliant in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness could turn into a $2,500 claimer on the biggest day of his life. He just did. There has been no bigger dud in the sport's history.
WORST HORSE TO WIN A BIG RACE: Da'Tara. Regardless of the Big Brown fiasco, how did this animal win a Triple Crown race? He's 0-for-4 since capturing the Belmont, losing those races by a combined 54 ¾ lengths. When last seen, he plodded home third in an allowance race at Churchill Downs.
WORST HORSE OF THE YEAR: Fort Delaware. According to Equibase, he set the ignominious record of having had the most starts this year without a win by going 0-for-26. In the irony of ironies, he is trained by Felix Monserrate. That would be the same Felix Monseratte who gave us the infamous Zippy Chippy, who raced 100 times without winning. Fort Delaware is a mere 0-for-43 in his career, but he's only 4. There's plenty of time.
WORST PROGNOSTICATOR: Rick Dutrow. "I feel like it's a foregone conclusion," he said of Big Brown's chances of winning the Belmont. Oops.
WORST RACING SURFACE: There's never been anything like Santa Anita's Cushion Track, the supposedly waterproof surface that couldn't get rid of any water. The thing was such a mess that Santa Anita had to cancel 11 days of racing and when they could actually run on the track it was a disaster. Who will ever forget Sunshine Millions Day when Bob Black Jack, not exactly Hall of Fame material, ran six furlongs in 1:06 2/5 on the fastest racing surface in history.
WORST DECISION: The NTRA's move to withdrawal its support of a U.S. House of Representatives bill that would criminalize transportation of horses with the intention they be slaughtered for human consumption. Here the sport is under fire from animal rights activists and fighting for its life in a court of public opinion ready to declare it guilty of animal cruelty and one of the industry's most visible organizations declares that it has to decided to officially take a neutral stand on horse slaughter. The NTRA should be leading the fight to end slaughter because it's the right thing to do morally and ethically and it's in the sport's best interests.
WORST RIDE: Johnny Murtagh aboard Soldier of Fortune in the Breeders' Cup Turf. Coming off a third-place finish in the Arc de Triomphe, Soldier of Fortune looked like the horse to beat in the Turf, but Murtagh made a mess of things. He got into a speed duel with a horse named Red Rock Canyon, was finished by the top of the stretch and finished fourth. Red Rock Canyon was entered in the race as a rabbit ... a rabbit for Soldier of Fortune.
WORST TIMING: Owner Bob McNair decided to get out of racing so that he could spend more time on his football team, the Houston Texans. So McNair sold his racing operation in September to Sheik Mohammed. Perhaps he should have waited. Once owned by McNair, Midshipman won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and will be named 2-year-old champion.
WORST, MOST UNFAIR CRITICISM: The hue and cry from the yahoos about Larry Jones and Gabriel Saez being at fault for the Eight Belles tragedy in the Kentucky Derby. The death of Eight Belles in the Derby was awful and it shed some needed light on some of the sport's most pressing problems. But anybody blaming her trainer or jockey for anything that happened to her or the way she was handled either has an agenda or is an idiot.
WORST BIG RACE: The Travers. It may have been exciting, but it was the most nothing Travers on paper in many years. With Big Brown sitting out, it didn't have any star power. Colonel John, who beat Mambo in Seattle by a nose, came back to run sixth in the Breeders' Cup Classic. Mambo in Seattle went 0-for-3 after it was over. After Big Brown, this was truly a bad crop of 3-year-olds.
Of course, this crummy year is almost over and the holidays are just ahead. To all, and Plonk especially, I close with a holiday thought: Bah, humbug.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.