Turf Writer Claire Novak looks back on the highpoints of yet another season. From A-Z, a collection of writing on Thoroughbred Racing in 2010.
Al Stall Jr. -- If any trainer's career could be defined by a season, his was. This for obvious reasons -- Stall's brilliant campaign of Claiborne Farm's and Adele Dilschneider's Blame placed the colt in perfect position to beat Zenyatta in the Breeders' Cup Classic -- but he also impressed with his common sense approach, his forthright dealings with all parties, his genuine nature, and, of course, his extremely nice string of runners.
"Stall is a soft-spoken horseman from Louisiana who runs his stable in a calm and confident manner. There are no pre-race shenanigans, no overly anxious approaches. His philosophy is simple: 'just trying to stay out of the horse's way, using common sense.' It's easy. If the runners need something, they get it." -- Stall set to live Breeders' Cup dreams, ESPN.com (Oct. 28, 2010)
Best Racing Fans EVER! -- Since Blame got a nod in the above-mention of his trainer, let's not forget the Best Racing Fans EVER! These people love horse racing and the sport would do well to appoint them official ambassadors. They're passionate, articulate, enthusiastic, and devoted. Writing about them was a pleasure.
"Meet a group of guys who go to all the races, don't really care about gambling, take thousands of pictures, talk to everyone and wish the dying industry they support would get its act together and give them all jobs as ambassadors to the sport. In the past three years, Heeley and his five friends (The Best Racing Fans EVER!) have taken in the action at Suffolk Downs, Saratoga Race Course, Belmont Park, Aqueduct Race Track, Gulfstream Park, Tampa Bay Downs, Oaklawn Park, Santa Anita Race Course, Los Alamitos, El Comandante (in Puerto Rico), Philadelphia Park, Fair Grounds Race Course, Pimlico Race Course, Arlington Park, and Monmouth Park in general moods of frivolity wherever major racing events can be found."-- The best racing fans EVER! ESPN.com (Oct. 4, 2010)
Churchill Downs -- I spent a lot of time there this season, thanks to the Derby, Breeders' Cup, Clark and closing day. My first visit ever was made at the age of 16; recalled that while taking the last morning of the season to show a young friend around. Peppermints for Brass Hat, breakfast in the track kitchen, something a 13-year-old kid doesn't get to do every day. There's a feeling of belonging, of well-being. It's comfortable and familiar. Memories made at Churchill never fade away.
"These are the leisurely activities of a cloudy morning at Churchill Downs, two days of the autumn meet remaining. It's the lingering pace of a season's end. Snow is in the air. First, breakfast in the track kitchen, unparalleled view of morning works from railside windows. A stalwart bay twist-gallops past, fighting his pilot's expert hold. A striking grey moves up the outside rail, business-like jog. Tails swish. Ears prick. Lines of unspoken communication pass between horses and riders. Chill wind rattles the flags in the infield, stray leaves drift across the track." -- The Brass Ring, NTRA.com (Nov. 27, 2010)
Dirt -- What a relief to write about the installation of a new dirt track at Santa Anita after several years of the synthetic drainage debacle, and with pouring rain in California over the past several days, it's been even better to see the surface holding up. In Kentucky, it was also interesting to watch the 2-year-old winners of the "Stars of Tomorrow II" features relish their transitions from synthetic and turf to the traditional surface at Churchill Downs. And in Saratoga, the value of a legendary dirt oval still rings true.
"The stable areas at Santa Anita are vacant now, silence broken only by the occasional pounding of hammers and the rumble of heavy machinery. Maintenance is being done to the barns on the backside, but the real repairs began Monday morning as skip loaders rolled out onto the wide old oval and the synthetic surface was piled up, ready to be loaded into dump trucks and carried away." -- Old as dirt, ESPN.com (Oct 13, 2010)
Eclipse Awards -- Choosing this year between a classic racehorse and an outstanding mare was no easier than last year's selection between two outstanding fillies. A decision for Zenyatta was reached, but not before the suggestion was made that serious guidelines for Horse of the Year should be presented to voters.
" it is the opinion here that a vote for Zenyatta is, simply put, a vote for horse racing. To recognize this kind of runner as vital to the sport's survival is common sense, not emotional gibberish as some would choose to believe. The assumption that rational, fact-based voters are those who choose Blame while those who pick Zenyatta are somehow less professional or lack understanding of the game is absurd." -- A Vote for horse racing, ESPN.com (Dec. 23, 2010)
Franny Freud -- While summer mornings on the Saratoga backside blend together in a pleasant blur, memories of one stand out above the rest -- Franny Freud circling the walking ring outside of trainer John Terranova's barn, the admiration and love expressed by owner/breeder Tony Grey, and the filly's pricked ears, greedy snuffling of peppermints. I loved her story and her connections. Wish we'd seen more of her this season.
"She's a small-framed filly but stocky, with a twisted sort of whitish blaze and the muscles of a quarter horse sprinter. She wasn't supposed to win against open company, and she wasn't supposed to beat the boys. But she did." -- N.Y. Success Story Franny Freud Retired, ESPN.com (Aug. 5, 2010)
Goldikova -- On the morning after the Breeders' Cup, hundreds of fans turned out to see Zenyatta. After a few hours, Goldikova's connections brought her out to graze as well. The dynamic European racemare dragged her groom all over the yard to find the choicest grass. The pep in her step hadn't diminished in spite of a brilliant victory over the boys and a recently-earned place in history. Go figure, due to other assignments (namely Blame and Zenyatta), the only horse to ever win triple editions of the Breeders' Cup Mile was one of the few not covered by this party. Her impact upon the season must be acknowledged nevertheless.
Hollendorfer -- Jerry Hollendorfer brought Blind Luck to the Kentucky Oaks, won it, and continued on a cross-country campaign that resulted in five graded stakes scores and a runner-up effort in the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic. In the meantime, he managed to wind up fourth in the nation by earnings and third by wins, with 282 victories and more than $9 million in purses. Not bad at all.
"They presented Jerry Hollendorfer with a silver trophy almost as big as he was, and the trainer from Southern California said thank you very much, and it was great to win a race at Saratoga, and yes, sure, it seems like we have the top 3-year-old filly in the country right now." -- No Worries, ESPN.com (Aug. 21, 2010)
Investigation -- Who would have known Candy and Eddie DeBartolo's Life At Ten would become the center of a drawn-out investigation that is yet to be concluded by the Kentucky Horse Racing Board? A few days before the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic, the well-known sports figure and his wife talked happily about their hopes for the runner. No one imagined the situation about to occur.
"Eddie DeBartolo Jr. wore a smile that stretched from ear to ear. The former owner of the San Francisco 49ers paused briefly to acknowledge his wife's winnings, but barely lost momentum from reflections upon his love for horses, remembrances of his father, and the reason he was getting back into the racing game. His birthday was Saturday and they were running a horse, Life At Ten, in the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic on Friday. Speaking of life, it felt pretty darn good." -- Debartolo brings life to Breeders' Cup, ESPN.com (Nov. 5, 2010)
Jockeys -- While it is not the habit of this party to sing the praises of any general industry demographic, it must be remembered that the riders, more than anyone else, put their lives on the line. Their concerns should be heeded. Immediate care and adept attention to on-track injuries should be given. Great progress in these areas has been made in the past 10 years. That progress must continue.
"(Gomez is an) extremely strong stretch rider, known for getting that extra run from tiring horses in the final moments of a race " -- Jockeys take center stage, ESPN.com (Nov. 3, 2010)
Kentucky Derby -- This is it, the pageantry, the emotion, the highest hopes and dreams. Sloshing through pouring rain on the morning of the race to do barn checks with the Louisville Courier-Journal's Jody Demling, one was inclined to wonder exactly why. As the sun burst through the clouds and Super Saver came skipping across the muddy oval under a grinning Calvin Borel hours later, we remembered.
"By the time the week before the Derby rolls around, we've familiarized ourselves with the storylines and running styles of potential contenders. We know who belongs and who could spring the potential upset… the final preps have been run, and most of the works are finished. The horses are now in front of us. We watch them prancing to and from the track, and we seek something inherent, inexplicable. The way a Thoroughbred carries himself -- the length of his stride, arch of his neck, look in his eye -- the essence that says, 'I'm a winner!'" -- Setting the scene at Churchill Downs, ESPN.com (May 7, 2010)
Lookin At Lucky -- The 2-year-old champ of 2009 came back with a solid season in 2010. Although his chances at a Derby victory were marred by traffic troubles, he proved with Preakness, Haskell, and Indiana Derby scores that he was undoubtedly the best 3-year-old of the season. This colt had heart, and that's what we loved about him.
"This was a different kind of win," (Baffert) said. "This was a redemption win. This horse is such a warrior. He wants to win. He tries so hard. So I wanted to win it for the horse, you know, because he tries so hard every time. It's easy to lose a little faith in him I heard people say he gets in trouble because maybe he's not that good. So today, when I saw Martin hit that wire, I was so happy for that horse." -- Baffert's impact ever-expanding, ESPN.com (May 15, 2010)
The Mig -- Former jockey Richard Migliore announced his retirement during a press conference at the Belmont Stakes post position draw. It was an emotional moment for "The Mig," as he's affectionately known. His contributions to the racing industry were vast and varied, especially in New York. Fortunately, those contributions continue on another level as he transitions into work as a racing analyst and as an advocate for thoroughbred retirement.
"He still wakes up at 4:30 a.m., habit born from 30 years of experience. Doesn't really know why he does it, except for the fact that it's hard to sleep with a brace strapped around your neck. He walks a couple miles, and that's all. Can't pick up anything heavier than five pounds. Has to turn his entire body to see beyond his peripheral vision. And if jockey Richard Migliore could tell you one thing, it's that he didn't want to go out this way." -- Eminent, beloved rider "Mig" retires, ESPN.com (June 2, 2010)
Nick Zito -- Nick, you have to love him. He was the king of tough beats and second-place finishes this season, and while his runners couldn't quite get there, covering those marquee races wouldn't have been the same without him.
"All Nick Zito wanted this season was a little peace. He could find it, he figured, by winning these big races -- the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness or the Belmont Stakes -- because that's what all great horsemen aim for. The raspy-voiced Hall of Fame trainer got something else; same pronunciation, different spelling: a piece of each Triple Crown classic so far." -- Third time's the charm? ESPN.com (May 17, 2010)
Oaklawn Park -- Our first visit to "the Saratoga of the South" was a memorable one, mostly due to the fanfare surrounding Zenyatta's start in the Apple Blossom. The track itself was a quaint but attractive facility, thoroughly enjoyable. An interview with the track's owner, Charles Cella, won't soon be forgotten, as it yielded the best quote of the year -- "If you have no heart and you have no backbone, you might as well not even be in the damn sport!"
" The success of a racetrack makes perfect sense in Hot Springs, where retirees spend their days tending the lawn and garden, maintaining memberships to local country clubs, and walking down to the post office and the American Legion. To them, horse racing is as easily recognizable as the other things that are gradually fading to extinction: hand-written letters and Friday evening dinner parties and cash carried in your wallet and hard vinyl 78 records with the shiny center labels -- Glenn Miller Masterpieces! The Fabulous King Sisters! The Tommy Dorsey Band!" -- Falling in love with Zenyatta, ESPN.com (April 8, 2010)
Preakness -- The woes of the Maryland racing industry always cast a shadow over the second jewel in the Triple Crown. We ask ourselves, "Will this year be the last?" Somehow, the Preakness lives on.
"In a way, our view of Pimlico and the Preakness mirrors our opinion of the entire racing industry. This track, this race, this day, survives because of profit-making powers, because of prominence. That's pretty much how the sport continues, buoyed by three classics and a handful of other important events and the occasional appearance of phenomenally talented runners. Year after year we keep showing up, amazed that we've made it, amazed that the game has made it. We stand, as the Preakness stands: bolstered by tradition, alternately helped and hindered by politics, up or down depending on the economy, drifting along in life's ebb and flow." -- Drama, festivity saturate Preakness, ESPN.com (May 12, 2010)
Quality Road -- The big bay speedster failed to impress this party as much as others this year, but we will acquiesce, he had his moments of brilliance. Also, the exemplary work done by NYRA gateman Bob Duncan in schooling the runner should not go without mention. Lastly, somebody please give a good horse a name that starts with the letter "Q" for the 2011 year in review. Thank you very much.
"If there's anything Quality Road's romp proved, it's that you don't write off a horse when he struggles a little. With patience, true talent may emerge. And there is almost always an explanation for a racehorse's reactive behavior -- and generally a solution, whether off the track or on." -- Just a little patience, ESPN.com (Feb. 7, 2010)
Rachel Alexandra -- We wished for her 2010 season to be as brilliant as 2009. And the fact that she went sulking away into retirement without a proper sendoff from her fans simply screams "poor loser" on the part of majority owner Jess Jackson. The Rachel of last year was a champion. By the end of this year, we just wanted the chance to say good-bye.
"The thing about a racehorse is, it can't tell you what's wrong. You won't get the Favre admission of occasional aches and pains, the Agassi realization that a good run is finally over. Instead you get physical symptoms, performances not up to par. You head back to the barn and evaluate the replay and you hope for a clean veterinary examination, but you also hope that something might explain the reason for losing." -- Expectations of a champion, ESPN.com (Aug. 29, 2010)
Successful Dan -- You'll hear his name more next season. The same was said of Blame last year.
"In the chilly twilight at Churchill Downs on Nov. 26, two horses circled before the winner's circle. Successful Dan, technical victor in the $564,000 Clark Handicap, was dirt-speckled and restless. His tongue worked the bit in frustration at the unusual delay. Giant Oak, who hadn't won since May 23 of 2009, tossed his head and pulled at the leadshank. The objection sign flashed on and on." -- Chaos at the Clark, ESPN.com (Nov. 26, 2010)
Tom McCarthy -- In a cozy old country home surrounded by subdivisions, while rain pattered the windowpanes and a miniature pony grazed in an overgrown paddock, the one-horse man expressed love for his runner and for the game. It was the only time this year when the magic of the sport did not seem such a fairy tale, and although General Quarters did not get his third Grade 1 win, the sentiments shared in the resulting article will never change. The interview with the old trainer will always be recalled with fondness, one of this reporter's all-time favorites.
"This is the story of a man whose best days could have been behind him, and of the runner who made sure they weren't. It is a story of long odds and longer hours of hard work rewarded by the fulfillment of dreams. Most of all it is a story of the bond between horses and humans, and of the way that bond enables both to do great things." -- McCarthy, 'General' go for 3rd Grade 1, ESPN.com (June 12, 2010)
Uncle Mo -- A few days before the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, a composed colt got a bath outside trainer Todd Pletcher's barn. Then, he was a promising 2-year-old, lightly-raced but unbeaten. Now he's the 2011 Kentucky Derby favorite and one of the most impressive Juvenile winners in recent history. What do we like about him most -- aside from his facebook page and twitter account, @unclemohorse? His steady demeanor presence of a champion? His talented turn of foot? His great potential?
"Uncle Mo, a son of Indian Charlie, is the likely favorite against a field that will include the prohibitive Hopeful Stakes winner Boys At Tosconova. 'Uncle Mo is like in fifth grade,' Repole says. 'He's the kid that's a natural athlete, easy to spot. Everything comes easy to him, it's that God-given ability. You can just tell this is a special horse and when you hear Todd, who literally trains hundreds of 2-year-olds, say 'The sky's the limit,' there couldn't be a more impressive horse after two starts than him.'" -- Repole brings energy to horse racing, ESPN.com (Nov. 3, 2010)
Velazquez -- Johnny V, earnest and hard-working, got the fourth Saratoga riding title of his career this summer at the Spa, wrapped up the year as second-leading rider in the nation, and tirelessly advocates for the best interests of his fellow riders. He's one of the good guys.
"John Velazquez sat outside the jockey's room at Saratoga Race Course, reliving his place in the standings of 2009. 'How many winners did I have? 26? Oh, my God,' he said. 'Well, this is a nice jump from last year."' -- Velazquez bounces back for jockey title, Albany Times Union (Sept. 7, 2010)
WinStar -- The Kentucky-based thoroughbred operation bookended Triple Crown races with victories in the Kentucky Derby (Super Saver) and Belmont Stakes (Drosselmeyer). The best part of this feat? Seeing trainers Todd Pletcher and Bill Mott get their first respective Derby and Belmont scores. Respect goes to majority owners Bill and Susan Casner for their behind-the-scenes work for racing-related charities -- and for the integrity with which their organization is run.
"For WinStar Farm, the best decision was not to press Drosselmeyer toward graded earnings in an attempt to make the Kentucky Derby field. Coming off seven weeks of rest and a runner-up finish in the May 8 Dwyer Stakes here in New York instead, the son of Distorted Humor gave his owners their second Triple Crown Classic score this season in the Belmont Stakes after their runner Super Saver won the Kentucky Derby." -- Foresight yields glory for Drosselmeyer, ESPN.com (June 6, 2010)
XRated -- Ah, jockey fight. Not one of the sport's finest moments, but defining nonetheless. If one thing came out of the aftermath of the violent exchange, it was a heightened awareness of the lax penalties for dangerous riding. The political appeals process which allows riders to take their penalty days whenever it suits them should be changed.
"When jockeys Calvin Borel and Javier Castellano got things off to a rousing start on Friday with their scuffle in the winner's circle following the Breeders' Cup Marathon, the perpetrators were almost more shocking than their public brawl. To see the affable Borel, usually spotted at Churchill with an ear-to-ear grin, go after the soft-spoken Castellano, whose squeaky-clean reputation gets him top mounts in New York, stunned racing pundits and fans alike." -- Fights and Lights, ESPN.com (Nov. 16, 2010)
Year Ahead -- Concerns over the sport's well-being are real and justified. Hopes for resolution of the problems in New York, New Jersey, Maryland, California, and Kentucky (to name a few troubled locations) seem far-fetched. But 2011 holds a new generation of equine stars to discover, more stories to be told. And as long as there's good racing, this reporter will strive to provide good coverage.
"That kind of interview is why I do what I do. It's my job. To put into words what people feel. To describe the indescribable, or at least to make an attempt of doing it justice. To bring you where you couldn't go, to show you what you couldn't see. And this kind of runner, this kind of story, is exactly what I live for." -- What I live for, ESPN.com (Nov. 17, 2010)
Zenyatta -- Fittingly, she ends the list once more. In a season of ups and downs, the show-stopping racemare embodied everything good about the sport we love. For that, we thank her. What a year!
"Zenyatta may have lost by a heartbreak, but that just made her fans love her more. And now it seems as if all of them have come to console themselves by consoling her. They bring peppermints (a favorite treat) and carrots and praise. 'Hello, big girl!' they say. 'You're so beautiful.' 'What a race you ran.' 'We love you!' In the end, Zenyatta was 19-1 -- not quite perfect, but every innocent child and wizened track regular wants to celebrate her " -- Zenyatta heads for home, ESPN The Magazine (Nov. 22, 2010)
Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the Thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets, including The Blood-Horse magazine, the Times Union (Albany, N.Y.) and NTRA.com. She lives in Lexington, Ky.