With everyone celebrating the holidays, it is time to bid farewell to 2015 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 2015 racing season.
American Pharoah after the Belmont Stakes
The 2015 racing year will forever be remembered for one horse, American Pharoah. Despite the Ahmed Zayat homebred colt having to miss last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile due to injury, that scratch turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as he conveniently avoided the “Juvenile jinx” in the biggest way possible. We will discuss his memorable season further along.
Prince Bishop wins the Dubai World Cup
The first "big day" of racing of the year was the 20th renewal of the Dubai World Cup (G1) at Meydan, where once again the world's richest purses were up for grabs. This was the first Dubai Carnival contested over the new dirt surface, put in to try to attract American horses which had been a staple at Nad al Sheba, and it did exactly that as it attracted 2014 dual classic winner California Chrome as well as top handicap horse Lea. However, locally trained Prince Bishop held off California Chrome in the $10 million main event. In addition, American champion sprinter Secret Circle romped in the Golden Shaheen (G1). Tamarkuz won the Godolphin Mile (G2), Sole Power won the Al Quoz Sprint (G1), Brown Panther and Dolniya won the Gold Cup (G2) and Sheema Classic (G1) respectively, Solow won the Dubai Turf (G1, formerly run as the Duty Free), and Mubtaahij won the UAE Derby (G2) before shipping to America to compete in our Triple Crown.
American Pharoah wins the Kentucky Derby
Racing again went into the Triple Crown hoping for a horse to pull off the first sweep since Affirmed in 1978. When American Pharoah, who had already won the Rebel (G2) and Arkansas Derby (G1) for trainer Bob Baffert, won the Kentucky Derby (G1) over Firing Line and stablemate Dortmund, some were not convinced he was a candidate given his injury last year. The dream stayed alive two weeks later when American Pharoah, geared down in the stretch, won the Preakness (G1) by an impressive 7 lengths over Tale of Verve in a driving rainstorm. Given "Triple Crown fatigue" after so many near-misses in recent years, American Pharoah did not seem to get the same hype treatment at Belmont Park that were afforded California Chrome, Big Brown, and Smarty Jones. He got the last laugh, taking the lead right after the start of the Belmont Stakes and leaving the field 5 1/2 lengths behind at the finish. In the words of NYRA and NBC Sports announcer Larry Collmus, "And here it is! The 37 year wait is over! American Pharoah is finally the one! American Pharoah has won the Triple Crown!"
Shaman Ghost 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 156th running as the oldest continuously-run stakes race in North America. Frank Stronach's homebred Shaman Ghost with Rafael Hernandez rallied to win by 1 1/4 lengths over favorite Danish Dynaformer. Three weeks later, Breaking Lucky upset Shaman Ghost in the Prince of Wales Stakes, meaning that 2003 winner Wando remains the last Canadian Triple Crown winner. Danish Dynaformer came back to win the Breeders' Stakes 3 weeks later, with Conquest Boogaloo second.
American Pharoah winning the Breeders' Cup Classic
The Breeders' Cup World Championships, held at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington for the first time, determine most of the Eclipse Awards, and unlike some years, gave us a clear winner for Horse of the Year, silencing any remaining doubters. On Friday, Stopchargingmaria held off Stellar Wind to capture the Distaff while favorite Wedding Toast was 11th, and then on Saturday, the big showdown in the Classic had American Pharoah going for the newly created "Grand Slam" -- a Triple Crown followed by the Classic – and he did not disappoint the 50,155 on hand and the millions watching at home, romping by 6 1/2 lengths gate-to-wire over Effinex with Honor Code third. The Mile had three distaffers as the shortest prices on the board, with 4-year-old filly Tepin winning over Mondialiste and Grand Arch. In the Sprint, Runhappy completed his undefeated season, but the next day his trainer Maria Borell was suddenly dismissed by owner James "Mattress Mac" McIngvale for reasons unknown. More importantly, American Pharoah retired immediately after the Classic to take up stallion duties at nearby Ashford Stud.
Retired Woodbine track announcer Dan Loiselle
After the much-publicized retirement of NYRA track announcer Tom Durkin at the conclusion of last year's Saratoga meeting, this year two other legendary callers, contemporaries of Durkin, also stepped down. Dan Loiselle retired at the end of May from Woodbine, a move that had been known since the winter, while in December, Trevor Denman shocked Southern California racing fans by announcing his own retirement. Denman will not fully step away from the mic like Durkin and Loiselle; instead he will return to call Del Mar's prestigious summer race meetings. Robert Geller, formerly of Emerald Downs and Hong Kong, took over at Woodbine in May, while Michael Wrona and Frank Mirahmadi will share announcing duties during Santa Anita's winter-spring meet until a permanent replacement has been decided on.
Continuing with the theme of track closures that seems to haunt this space every year, media and fans were buzzing at the Preakness, not just about American Pharoah but also about the possibility of Pimlico's races, including the Preakness, being moved across town to Laurel. Pimlico has long been seen as the weakest link of the Triple Crown, a crumbling, aging facility with a leaky roof and no room for expansion, and not worth demolishing and rebuilding given its location. The rumor mill was in full swing that week, with some saying that the move would come in time for the 2016 running! At time of writing, the Preakness will be back at Pimlico on May 21, 2016 for its 141st renewal.
Prince of Penzance wins the Hong Kong Cup
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. In the Melbourne Cup, the "race that stops a nation", Prince of Penzance held off Max Dynamite and Criterion, with Michelle Payne the first female jockey to win the famous 3200 m (2 mile) race. At Longchamp in Paris, Golden Horn and jockey Frankie Dettori defeated Flintshire and New Bay, with Treve checking in fourth in her attempt to three-peat in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. The year closed out with the Hong Kong International Races at Sha Tin, with Irish jockey Ryan Moore winning the Vase aboard Highland Reel and the Mile aboard Maurice. Japan's A Shin Hikari took the Cup while Peniaphobia won the Sprint.
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 2015, both human and equine, with links to articles about each. If I missed someone, please let me know.