I also love the end of a year because it allows me to wash off the stench of 365 day’s worth of failure. Get out the sandblaster .... Here it is: MY Top 10 Stakes Races of 2009.
No. 10 — Woodbine Mile
Ventura took on the boys in Canada, and, despite the exchange rate, clobbered this field under Garrett Gomez for the late Bobby Frankel. She made a year that was already one for the ladies even more so with this thrilling stretch drive. Inter-sex competition started with Rachel Alexandra and ended with Zenyatta, but Ventura was right there doing her thing.
No. 9 — The Kentucky Oaks
The coming out party for Rachel Alexandra. She was patiently ridden and then opened up so much daylight that three abreast cruise ships could sail through. Her 20 ¼-length win begged the question as to whether she should have run the following day against the boys in the Derby. Patience eager chaps, she will beat you another day.
Calvin Borel is known for skimming the fence on his way to victory, but even this race redefined what that meant. Turning for home Borel and Miss Isella looked to squeeze through on the rail but were bumped into the fence and bounced off of it. She came out of the hole with a head of steam and with heavy right-hand whipping, Borel took home this Grade 2 at Churchill.
No. 7 — The Vosburgh
Fabulous Strike, the classiest front-end sprinter of all-time, seemed to have yet another sprint locked up at Belmont Park in this four-horse field. Then Kodiak Kowboy, struggling to get his mojo working, finally kicked it into gear and collared Fabulous Strike to win by a head. The Vosburgh proved you don't need a big field to make for an excellent horse race.
No. 6 — The Wood Memorial
Before Zenyatta started her 2009 campaign and before Rachel Alexandra was asked to the prom, I Want Revenge was the talk of the town. After a terrible break in the Wood, Joe Talamo patiently took him back. He would then redefine the word patience when he moved into contention down the lane, then split horses to hit the wire running and solidify himself as the morning-line favorite to win the Kentucky Derby.
He was then scratched with a leg injury and his trainer, Jeff Mullens, was further proof that men with mustaches shouldn’t be trusted ... except for Magnum P.I.
No. 5 — The Preakness Stakes
The only time Rachel Alexandra was ever asked to run on two weeks rest, she did it by breaking from the far outside — Post 13 — against the boys in the Preakness. Calvin Borel said she didn’t like the track and she still took these sophomores to task with Mine That Bird breathing down her neck at the very end.
No. 4 — The Kentucky Derby
Mine That Bird won only one race all year, but he made it a good one on an off-track. The slight son of Birdstone was masterfully ridden by Calvin Borel, highlighting the rail and then skipping right past Join in the Dance for an improbable win over Pioneerof the Nile and Musket Man.
Since that race it was downhill, but because he’s not quite man and not quite woman, we’ll see him again.
No. 3 — The Breeders’ Cup Classic
The undefeated Zenyatta did what she always did, that was win. She’s not pretty when she does it, but she manages to grind it out and get her picture taken. She has never known a race that ended without a trip to the winner’s circle.
She became the first mare to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic and she did it while tackling a new distance and a new sex. She loped through eight furlongs, heated up in the ninth, and kicked clear in the tenth.
Her win here sparked a California-style heat wave over who should win Horse of the Year. She raced from the month of May to the month of November and was 5-for-5.
No. 2 — Woodward Stakes
Rachel Alexandra became the first three-year-old filly to win the Woodward against older males in the history of the race at Saratoga over Closing Weekend. She went straight to the lead and set uncanny, other-worldly fractions of 22 and 4 and 46 and 2. Bulls Bay, the Whitney winner, approached her on the turn and finished 9 ¾ lengths back of her. Past the Point came up to her with a quarter-mile to go and finished 20 ½ lengths back of her. Da’Tara and Cool Coal Man pressed her at one point or another and had no discernible defeat margin.
Rachel buried them and dug in in a race a that may very well have cemented her Horse of the Year, winning her eighth race in eight tries at seven different tracks from the month of February to the month of September.
No. 1 — Dubai World Cup
Remember this one? Well Armed looked like Spectacular Bid in the 1980 Woodward. The field spotted him daylight out of the gate and he just kept going and going. When they turned for home with 600 meters left, Well Armed widened under little urging. Next thing you know Aaron Gryder starts to hustle him and he wins by a pole. Cigar won the first and Well Armed book-ended Nad Al Sheba for the U.S.A. with his most impressive win.
That is a LOT of Calvin Borel, but what can you say? He was on the best horse in the country and rode in and won some of the most thrilling races of the year.
Let the debate begin.