With everyone celebrating the holidays, it is time to bid farewell to 2009 and the exciting racing we were treated to. This year had some outstanding horses and great feats by both equine and human athletes, but we also had some sad losses to mourn. Here's a look back at the best and worst of the 2009 racing season.
Rachel Alexandra wins the 2009 Preakness
Without question, the ongoing theme in 2009 was "girls beating the boys", with several high-profile examples throughout the year. Ventura won the Woodbine Mile, Goldikova won the Breeders' Cup Mile for the second year in a row, Vodka won the Japan Cup, and Daryakana won the Hong Kong Vase. However, two names made the headlines all year: Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta. 3-year-old filly Rachel Alexandra won the Kentucky Oaks and then, after being sold to Stonestreet Stables, defeated males three times, in the Preakness and Haskell against 3-year-olds, and the Woodward against older horses. Zenyatta, last year's champion older female, ran a conservative campaign for owner Jerry Moss but stepped up to become the first distaffer to win the Breeders' Cup Classic in a trouble-filled trip where she missed the break, was far back early, and had to go very wide on the far turn to nail Gio Ponti late, capping off an undefeated career. At time of writing, the two are in a virtual dead-heat for Horse of the Year honors. Female trainers also made headlines, as Linda Rice became the first of her sex to lead the Saratoga meeting in wins, Carla Gaines won the Breeders' Cup Sprint with Dancing in Silks, and on the harness side, this is the first year that the leading trainer vote will be between two women, Canadian Casie Coleman and American Tracy Brainard.
The first "big day" of racing of the year was the 6th annual Sunshine Millions, Frank Stronach's Florida vs. California breeder war. It's a Bird won the Classic, Leah's Secret won the Distaff, Soldier's Dancer won the Turf, and Wild Promises won the Filly and Mare Turf. As well, Georgie Boy won the Sprint, High Resolve won the Filly and Mare Sprint, The Ones for Phil won the Dash, and Beltene won the Oaks. Then in March, the eyes of the racing world were on Nad al Sheba Racecourse in Dubai for the $6 million Dubai World Cup, the world's richest horse race. Well Armed, a son of Tiznow, shipped all the way from California to win gate-to-wire by a record 14 lengths under Aaron Gryder over Gloria de Campeao and Paris Perfect. On the undercard, Eastern Anthem won the Sheema Classic, Gladiatorus won the Duty Free, Big City Man won the Golden Shaheen, and Two Step Salsa won the Godolphin Mile. It was the last ever card of racing to be run at Nad al Sheba, as the 2010 card will be run at the new Meydan racecourse.
Summer Bird wins the Jockey Club Gold Cup
The Triple Crown was disappointing for many as there were three different winners, each heading down a different path. 50-1 longshot Mine That Bird upset the Kentucky Derby under new jockey Calvin Borel, giving trainer Chip Woolley, nursing a broken leg, his biggest moment in racing. Two weeks later in the Preakness, Rachel Alexandra, with Borel up, held off the late-running Mine That Bird for the win, and then in the Belmont Stakes, Summer Bird and new jockey Kent Desormeaux passed Dunkirk and Mine That Bird in the stretch. Mine That Bird has yet to win another race since wearing the Roses, including losses in the West Virginia Derby and the Goodwood, while Summer Bird went on to win the Travers and the Jockey Club Gold Cup, as one of only 10 horses to accomplish that elusive triple, all but guaranteeing him the 3-year-old male Eclipse Award.
Eye of the Leopard wins the Queen's Plate
With the American Triple Crown completed, our focus moved north of the border for the Canadian Triple Crown, with the Queen's Plate celebrating its 150th running as the oldest continuously-run stakes race in North America. Eye of the Leopard won the Woodbine classic over Mr. Foricos Two U and Woodbine Oaks winner Milwaukee Appeal to capture the famed 50 guineas for Sam Son Farm, trainer Mark Frostad, and jockey Eurico Rosa da Silva. Three weeks later at Fort Erie, 16-1 longshot Gallant nosed out Milwaukee Appeal in the Prince of Wales Stakes. In the Breeders' Stakes three weeks later at Woodbine, 47-1 longshot Perfect Shower closed down the center of the course to win, while Eye of the Leopard disappointed in 11th.
Fort Erie has been in financial difficulty for several years with many wondering how many Prince of Wales Stakes will continue to be run there, but at the end of the year a deal was reached with a local non-profit consortium leasing the track from its current owners, so racing should continue at the 110-year-old "border oval". By comparison, Woodbine reported increased handle and record purses over last year, primarily aided by a television deal with TVG allowing more U.S. bettors to watch and wager on the Toronto track.
Zenyatta wins the Breeders' Cup Classic
The Breeders' Cup World Championships, hosted for the second year in a row by Oak Tree at Santa Anita, determine most of the Eclipse Awards but with some key upsets, this may not be so certain this year. Along with Zenyatta, Goldikova, and Dancing in Silks mentioned above, Conduit repeated as the Turf champion passing the front-running Presious Passion in the final strides. Life is Sweet, Zenyatta's stablemate in John Shirreffs' barn, finally had her day in the Ladies' Classic, and Midday won the Filly and Mare Turf. The Juvenile, usually regarded as a preview of next year's Triple Crown, saw European invader and 30-1 longshot Vale of York upset Lookin at Lucky. Again the synthetic surface made headlines, in that like last year, no horse had to be vanned off or put down, but also, every horse that prepped on a conventional dirt surface in his or her last start, failed to win, angering bettors and horsemen alike. Many of them will be glad to leave Santa Anita and return to the friendly confines of Churchill Downs in 2010. As for future hosts, in October it was reported that the Breeders' Cup was considering a 10-year-rotation of tracks, having inspected several including Woodbine, but two months later, suddenly they changed their tune and are considering a single, permanent host site instead.
The New York Racing Association continued to make headlines for the wrong reasons. The Aqueduct casino has yet to be opened, and at the end of the year, NYRA only announced a 2010 stakes schedule through Wood Memorial day, citing that they will run out of cash by that time and may not even be able to host the Belmont Stakes. Maryland racing, despite winning a key vote last year approving slot machines at their tracks, still has yet to see any relief, as MJC owner Magna Entertainment failed to pay the state the application fee, and then later declared bankruptcy. At year's end, slots were approved for a shopping mall instead of at nearby Laurel Park, possibly sealing the fate of racing at that venue.
Good Ba Ba wins the Hong Kong Mile for the third straight year.
Foreign racing, besides the Dubai World Cup, continues to attract more and more attention in North America with increased availability of betting outlets and TV coverage. Europe's superstar horse Sea the Stars won the 2000 Guineas, Epsom Derby, Eclipse, International, and Irish Champion, before closing out his career with a 2 length win over Youmzain in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. Unfortunately, by not entering the St. Leger he was not given a chance to become the first English Triple Crown winner since Nijinsky II in 1970. In Australia, Shocking won the Melbourne Cup, the world's most famous 2-mile race, while in the final big race day of the international calendar, Vision d'Etat won the Cathay Pacific Hong Kong Cup, Daryakana won the Vase, Good Ba Ba won the Mile for the 3rd year in a row, while Sacred Kingdom won the Sprint having won the same race in 2007.
Of course, with all the excitement and joy the sport brings, there are always losses each year. Once again many horses lost their lives due to injury while others succumbed to illness or old age. Here are some of the notable losses in 2009, both human and equine, with links to articles about each. If I missed someone, please let me know.