The quietest week of the racing year as well as the last few days before we welcome 2020 is a perfect opportunity to look back at the decade that’s in the shadow of the wire. In the spirit of the holidays, I’ll de-emphasize the negative, the depressing developments off track, and accentuate the positive, the great performers of the past 10 years.
This is about appreciation, not argument, so I’ll list my Top 10 in alphabetical order.
American Pharoah—The son of Pioneer of the Nile gave America a thrill it had not experienced in 37 years. He not only ended the draught between Triple Crown winners, he proved the elusive series could be conquered under the conditions that have been prevailing for decades. This ended–at least temporarily–debate on whether the Derby, Preakness and Belmont needed lengthier spacing or even changes in distance. The single most heartening event of the decade, perhaps several decades, came when 15,000 people showed up right after dawn to see him merely gallop around the Saratoga track. Ironically, he came up short in the Travers but closed out his career like the champion he was with a decisive victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Arrogate—Relatively unknown until midway through his 3-year-old season, he accomplished something that except for the tradition of the Triple Crown might be the most impressive feat of the decade. We might see several more Triple Crowns won before a horse replicates his grandslam of consecutive wins in the Travers, Breeders’ Cup Classic, Pegasus and Dubai World Cup. In the latter, he broke badly and was so far back Bob Baffert gave up on him. But he accelerated like a Jaguar when the light turns yellow to pass ‘em all.
Beholder—She was a winner of Grade 1 stakes in five consecutive years, an accomplishment matched only by John Henry. She won the Breeders Cup Juvenile Fillies and the Distaff both as a 3- and 6-year-old and was a four-time Eclipse winner as the best of her gender. She crushed males in the Pacific Classic and closed her career by nosing out Songbird in the Distaff in one of the most stirring stretch duels in Breeders’ Cup history. The only blemish on her record is she was unable to win a race outside Southern California.
California Chrome—The 2014 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner broke many hearts, including his owners, the colorful blue collar Dumb Ass Stable, when he couldn’t complete the Triple Crown in the Belmont. He more than made up for it with subsequent scores in the Pacific Classic and Dubai World Cup, among many stakes, earning Horse of the Year honors twice. His modest breeding—by sprinter Lucky Pulpit, who had a $2K stud fee, out of $8K claimer Love the Chase—endeared him to fans, who voted him the Vox Populi Award twice.
Gun Runner—He showed a hint of serious ability as a 3-year-old, taking the Risen Star and Louisiana Derby and running third in the Kentucky Derby, second in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile and capturing his first Grade 1 in the Clark Handicap. He really blossomed as an older horse, winning five of six, including the Foster, Whitney, Woodward and Breeders’ Cup Classic to clinch Horse of the Year. He ended his career with a win in the Dubai World Cup, his only start as a 5-year-old.
Justify—Bob Baffert broke the 37-year Triple Crown draught with American Pharoah than snapped the Curse of Apollo when Justify became the first horse in 136 years to win the Kentucky Derby despite not running as a 2-year-old. He did not debut until Feb. 18 of his 3-year-old season, winning a MSW at Santa Anita. He followed with an allowance win then a triumph in the Santa Anita Derby. By winning the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont, he became only the second horse to sweep the Triple Crown while undefeated. (Seattle Slew was the other.) He was retired immediately after the Belmont as the only undefeated Triple Crown winner. A muck-raking piece in the New York Times a year and a half after the fact reported he had a positive after the Santa Anita Derby, which should have rendered him ineligible under the Kentucky Derby points system.But the California Horse Racing Board ruled the forbidden substance was probably the result of feed contamination and the result of the Santa Anita Derby and Justify’s undefeated record was allowed to stand.
Royal Delta—She wasn’t as flashy as 21st century champion females Rachel Alexandra, Songbird and Beholder but she was a rock solid race horse, a back-to-back winner of the Breeders’ Cup Ladies/Distaff in and three-times an Eclipse winner as best of her generation.
Songbird—Arguably the most dynamic filly since Ruffian, she won 13 of 15 starts with a pair of seconds. Her undefeated four-start 2-year-old campaign was capped by a win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Keeneland, which clinched the first of two Eclipse Awards. She kept the streak going as a 3-year-old, winning her first seven starts, most with ridiculous ease. She finally tasted defeat in the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Distaff, beaten in a photo after a heart-stopping stretch duel by the older Beholder. She picked up where she left off as a 4-year-old, winning a pair of Grade 1’s before running second in the Grade 1 Personal Ensign in the final start of her career.
Wise Dan—The grass specialist’s Eclipse wins in three categories—Horse of the Year, Older Horse and Turf champion—in consecutive years, 2012 and 2013, was influential in the Eclipse committee creating another category, Best Older Dirt Horse. He started his career on dirt and synthetics (when the fake stuff was the temporary rage in California and Kentucky). He had some success but once switched to the infield he became almost unbeatable. His breakthrough came in the 2011 Firecracker. The following year he was four-for-four on the grass, including his first Breeders’ Cup Mile. Demonstrating he wasn’t a one trick pony, he also scored in the Grade 1 Clark on Churchill Downs main course. Back on grass, he was six-for-seven in 2013, including his second Breeders’ Cup Mile. He finished his career four-for-four in 2014.
Zenyatta—Last alphabetically but first in many hearts and minds Zenyatta won 19 of 20 starts, missing by a head in her final start in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic. Racing characteristically from well behind the pack, she came from 18 lengths back to miss running down Blame by a head. A jump or two after the wire she was in front. Despite her first defeat, she was voted Horse of the Year. Among her 17 graded victories were 13 Grade 1’s. Her fame and popularity transcended the race track. She was second twice in the Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year vote. 60 Minutes did a segment on her. Stories were done on her in “O” and “W” magazines.
This might not have been the Decade of Champions, as the ‘70s were dubbed, but it wasn’t far behind.