By Liane Crossley
The world of Thoroughbred racing was treated to an array of stars in 2016. Some were adding to past glory, some flickered and faded, and one rocketed from unknown to well known on championship day.
Here is a look back on some of the highlights:
The first of January is a pivotal day for Thoroughbreds because they officially turn a year older. The rising stars of the previous season transform into Triple Crown hopefuls and optimism known as Kentucky Derby fever spreads. Nyquist—champion two-year-old of 2015—carried hopes, dreams and an unbeaten record when he opened his season with two top-shelf victories in California and Florida early in the year. His connections opted to keep him out of competition until Derby Day and he trained at Keeneland throughout April.
Others capitalized on Nyquist’s absence by making names for themselves in key Derby prep races. At Keeneland, Brody’s Cause captured the Blue Grass Stakes, Exaggerator won the Santa Anita Derby in California, Creator won the Arkansas Derby and Outwork took the Wood Memorial Stakes in New York.
All gathered at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May for the Run for the Roses where Nyquist stretched his unbeaten streak to eight and Exaggerator finished second. Nyquist would go winless in his final three starts and retired in late October to Darley’s stallion division in Lexington.
In mid May, Exaggerator sailed across a muddy track to score in the Preakness Stakes while derailing third-place finisher Nyquist’s chance of a Triple Crown sweep. Exaggerator went on to win the upper level Haskell Invitational in New Jersey before retiring in autumn for breeding duty at WinStar Farm in Versailles.
Creator won the Belmont Stakes, third jewel of Triple Crown. After two subsequent losing efforts, he was sold to a breeding farm in Japan.
While most of the racing universe focused on the Triple Crown races, the 2014 Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome continued sparkling. He launched his five-year-old campaign early in January with a triumph at Santa Anita. He then ventured across the globe to the United Arab Emirates for a victory in the Dubai World Cup, the world’s richest horse race in which he was runner-up in 2015.
The triumph was part of his six-race winning string that included a score over the mighty Beholder, a six-year-old mare who owns Eclipse Awards as best in her division in thee separate years. California Chrome’s streak came to an end on Nov. 4 at Santa Anita when he lost the Breeders’ Cup Classic by a half-length to rising star Arrogate.
Earlier in the year, Arrogate was an unknown until he stormed to victory at Saratoga Race Course in the Travers’ Stakes—widely known as the Midsummer Derby. He strategically went to the sidelines to await the Breeders’ Cup, a plan that worked to perfection. A rematch between California Chrome and Arrogate is expected on Jan. 28 in the inaugural Pegasus World Cup at Florida’s Gulfstream Park.
Beholder and Songbird were brilliant among female racers. Three-year-old Songbird, champion the previous year, seemed to be unbeatable. She kept her record perfect in her first 11 races before losing by a nose to Beholder in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. Their spectacular stretch battle will be remembered as one of the greatest races of all time.
Songbird is expected to resume racing in 2017 while Beholder has retired.
Runhappy, America’s best sprinter in 2015, returned in search of past glory but was winless in two starts. The colt, based throughout his career at The Thoroughbred Center in Lexington, developed a strong presence on social media with pictures that often included barn cat Sancho. Runhappy has taken up stallion duty at Claiborne Farm in Paris.
The two-day Breeders’ Cup championships mark the unofficial end of the Thoroughbred racing season. In many ways the turning point is a beginning. For older horses, their races are the final chances at the track before embarking on new lives as breeding stallions and broodmares. For the younger set, the races separate contenders from pretenders for the marquee events of the following year.
The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile gives a glimpse of the future. Classic Empire stamped himself as an early favorite for the Kentucky Derby with his determined triumph in the Juvenile after winning Keeneland’s Breeders’ Futurity in October.
Newly minted three-year-olds will take their first steps to the Kentucky Derby in prep races in California and New York on Jan. 7. The picture gets clearer in March as prospects continue gaining qualifying points in races throughout the nation. In April, the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, Santa Anita Derby and Arkansas will produce contenders.
For older horses, the initial big event of 2017 is the inaugural Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park. The race becomes the world’s richest for Thoroughbreds with $12-million in prize money funded by the entrants themselves.
The calendar placement allows horses one final start before the breeding season begins in mid February and serves as a starting point for others continuing their careers.
The Breeders’ Cup event on Nov. 3-4 rolls into new territory in 2017 when Del Mar plays host for the first time. The iconic San Diego track is known as the place “where the surf meets the turf” because if the close proximity to the Pacific Ocean.
Liane Crossley is a freelance writer based in Lexington