As 2004 draws to a close, we look back on the year that was one of the most exciting in recent memory. Despite not having a movie like last year's Seabiscuit to draw mainstream attention to the sport, this was more than made up for by the current group of equine superstars.
The richest race in the world is the $6 million Dubai World Cup, run at Nad al Sheba under floodlights in late March. Many thought that Medaglia d'Oro would avenge his loss to Pleasantly Perfect in the 2003 Breeders' Cup Classic. But Pleasantly Perfect would not be denied, turning away the popular Bobby Frankel trainee one last time, in a thrilling stretch duel.
The big story of the spring was the Triple Crown trail. Smarty Jones, a relatively unknown horse bred in Pennsylvania and based out of Philadelphia Park, with locally based trainer John Servis and jockey Stewart Elliott, quietly made history at Oaklawn Park in the spring. By capturing the Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby, he was in position to capture Oaklawn's Centennial bonus of $5 million for owner Roy Chapman of Someday Farm, should he win the Kentucky Derby. Going to Churchill Downs undefeated, he stalked the early pace of Lion Heart and then drew away through the muddy homestretch. The Preakness was all but an afterthought, as he stretched his streak to 8 wins in 8 starts over 8 different distances and at 5 different racetracks. A record crowd of over 120,000 converged on Belmont Park to join the "Smarty Party" as he attempted to sweep the Triple Crown and become racing's all time leading money winner. But Birdstone, trained by Nick Zito, galloped past the tiring Smarty Jones in the final 1/16 of a mile, quieting the once boisterous crowd. Sadly, Smarty Jones was injured in the race and was retired to stud several months after.
After the Canadian Triple Crown, Woodbine hosts two very important Grade 1 events on the turf. In the Atto Mile, local horse Soaring Free impressed the crowd with a stakes record performance and, off that tightener, went to the Breeders' Cup where he led most of the way finishing a close fourth. Off this and several other victories in Canada earlier in the year, Soaring Free was named Canada's Horse of the Year. The Canadian International lived up to its name, as European horses swept the first three places, with Godolphin stable star Sulamani taking the winner's share of the purse, in what was his final career start before retiring to stud.
The action shifts from the resorts to the traditional year-end "championship meets", Belmont Park in the fall and Oak Tree at Santa Anita, as horses and their connections make their final preparations for the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships. It was in one of these prep races that the battle for sprinting supremacy came to a head. Eugene Melnyk's Speightstown took on Brazilian-bred Pico Central in the Vosburgh, with Pico Central in front at the finish. Pico Central is not Breeders' Cup eligible, so Speightstown was able to win the Breeders' Cup Sprint easily. This will definitely be one of the closest votes in the Eclipse Award polling for 2004.
Late in the year, the situation over jockey health insurance came to a head with several jockeys walking out at Churchill Downs and being banned from racing at the CDSN tracks. The issue still isn't resolved with the jockeys demanding full insurance covereage along with a share of simulcast money. This will probably take a long time to sort out, so expect to hear more in the new year.
Trainer Steve Asmussen brought some excitement to the end of the year as he set a new record for wins in a single season, passing Jack Van Berg's record of 496 over a month still left to race. It will be interesting to see just how many wins he can rack up before the end of the year.
Of course, with all the excitement and joy the sport brings, there are always losses each year. Here are some of the notable losses in 2004, both human and equine, with links to articles about each.
Trainer P.G. Johnson and his wife Mary Kay
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