But choosing from among the very best in Thoroughbred racing is a little like trying to pick the top three in the Miss Universe pageant. They’re all gorgeous, and whether Miss Sweden, Miss Venezuela or Miss India is the most breath-taking in a bikini usually comes down to the judges’ personal standard of beauty.
Since I was tasked with deciding who was best on the track, I could only rely upon my standards of equine excellence. As this is no beauty contest, even though Royal Delta is an especially good-looking mare, numbers don’t lie and neither do the PP’s. So here are my votes in each of the categories, and instead of winding up for the big finish with Horse of the Year, that’s where I’ll start. As you read through, you’ll see why.
HORSE OF THE YEAR: WISE DAN. I know, I know. He never ran on dirt and he’s a turf miler. But who ever decreed the best horse has to be a main track performer? Or win a route race? Wise Dan simply was The Man all year long.
He did everything asked of him, and brilliantly. He started six times and ran a triple digit Beyer in each, won five of those races, and as Daily Racing Form’s Jay Hovdey wrote in a recent column, he was only a head away from being flawless.
He didn’t just beat an international field that included Excelebration in the Breeders’ Cup Mile, he did it in stakes and course record time in a blazing 1:31.78. So what if the lawn at Santa Anita that day was- shall we say- super firm? He still ran faster than the glorious Goldikova, who three-peated in the Mile, and the exquisite dual winner, Miesque, And Lure, the best American turf miler of his day and another dual winner and the regal Royal Heroine. And all won Eclipse Awards.
Wise Dan also set a stakes record when he won the Ben Ali at Keeneland by 10 ½ lengths on Polytrack no less, crushed a tough international field in the Woodbine Mile and also took the Shadwell Turf Mile and the Fourstardave. He shipped everywhere and triumphed. He very nearly proved best in the Stephen Foster on Churchill’s main track, but gave weight to every other horse and had the trip from Hell.
Simply put, Wise Dan is one hell of a horse. If he were mine (apologies to Morton Fink) I’d formally adopt him.
2-YEAR-OLD MALE: SHANGHAI BOBBY. His resume reads 5-for-5 with a Grade 2 and two Grade 1’s, including that gutsy performance when he had to find another gear in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile without running on Lasix for the first time. Case closed. The tremendous work that Jack and Laurie Wolf of Starlight Stable do for Thoroughbred aftercare, a cause very dear to me, and other worthwhile industry charities didn’t even factor into the decision.
2-YEAR-OLD FILLY: BEHOLDER. She showed up on Breeders’ Cup Day while showing grit-in beating -without Lasix for the first time- EXECUTIVEPRIVILEGE. The latter’s clunker in the Hollywood Starlet five weeks later reinforced my decision.
3-YEAR-OLD MALE: I’LL HAVE ANOTHER. It’s not his fault he was hurt before the Belmont. If winning the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness in a year when no other sophomore stepped up isn’t good enough for you, there’s nothing else I can say.
3-YEAR-OLD FILLY: MY MISS AURELIA. I should have waited until after her LaBrea Stakes ho-hummer. But when I voted I figured her head victory over Questing in the Cotillion, which was one of the most exciting races in any division in 2012, and besting older girls to be second to Royal Delta in the Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic made her the choice.
OLDER MALE: WISE DAN. I repeat, nowhere is it carved in stone the best guy has to win on dirt. Honorable mention: FT. LARNED.
OLDER FEMALE: ROYAL DELTA. The choice could not have been easier or quicker, and it’s not because I still have my Delta Delta Delta sorority pin from college. Her Majesty rules this division. (GRACE HALL, who I have been absolutely in love with since I first got to pet her when she was 2, gets my personal special achievement award).
MALE SPRINTER: TRINNIBERG. As much as I adore The Shack, Trinniberg showed up on the day it counted. When you win the Breeders’ Cup Sprint and three other graded stakes, you get the trophy.
FEMALE SPRINTER: GROUPIE DOLL. Just because I got to rub her neck, kiss her nose and feed her peppermints on the Santa Anita backstretch during Breeders’ Cup week doesn’t mean she deserves this honor. She earned it, winning five graded stakes and three Grade 1 wins including her knock-out performance in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint--arguably the most dominating performance of the entire event. Indeed, she was still my second choice for Horse of the Year.
MALE TURF: WISE DAN. There was plenty of teeth grinding over this very tough choice because Little Mike was amazing all year with three major Grade 1 victories over a distance of ground. (I still think Point of Entry was the best horse going into that race, and it’s not just because I am a huge Shug McGaughey fan; the trip did him in). In the end, though, Wise Dan was the best overall guy on grass.
FEMALE TURF: ZAGORA. When you win three Grade 1’s and beat a tough international field in the Breeders’ Cup F&M Turf, you get to wear the crown. Parenthetically, if they got to go around again, MARKETING MIX might have won for my old friend, trainer Tommy Proctor, but I had to make her second best.
STEEPLECHASE: PIERROT LUNAIRE, DEMONSTRATIVE, ARCADIUS. (I’m just grateful they all got home safely after jumping over those hurdles).
TRAINER: DALE ROMANS. Let’s recap some of his grade 1 wins in 2012: Blue Grass, Woodford Reserve, Met Mile, Arlington Million, Pacific Classic, First Lady, Breeders’ Cup Turf and the Clark Handicap. If that isn’t good enough for you, you’re following the wrong sport. Speaking of sport, Dale also won the Turf Publicists Big Sport of Turfdom award this year. Great guy/great trainer gets my vote every time. TODD PLETCHER was our runnerup with BOB BAFFERT next.
JOCKEY: JOHN VELAZQUEZ. In the toughest category, you could make a compelling case for three guys who just killed it out there day after day and won the big races when it counted most. But they wouldn’t let me spilt my vote three ways so it’s Johnny V on the basis of most Grade 1 victories, in a photo over RAMON DOMINGUEZ and JAVIER CASTELLANO. That’s one pretty damn fine trifecta.
OWNER: GODOLPHN RACING, MIDWEST THOROUGHBREDS, and JOHN OXLEY, in that order, the latter getting a strong shout-out along with his trainer, MARK CASSE, for a sensational year. They are odds-on to win Sovereign Awards as Canada’s best; deservedly so.
BREEDER: DARLEY STABLE, BRERETON C. JONES, ADENA SPRINGS.
APPRENTICE JOCKEY: IRAD ORTIZ, JR., JOSE MONTANO, ANGEL SUAREZ.
No matter which horses and humans take home statues on Saturday night, all are winners. In retrospect, we didn’t get to see I’ll Have Another and his young jockey Mario Gutierrez win a Triple Crown, but 2012 was an extraordinary year of racing. Mazel Tov, one and all.