As everyone celebrates the holidays, it is time to bid farewell to 2016 and the exciting racing which we enjoyed. 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 2016 racing season.
California Chrome at Santa Anita
The big star of the 2016 racing year was California Chrome. The popular California-bred colt and 2014 Kentucky Derby winner had to miss most of last year due to various setbacks, so he never got to challenge Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, to the dismay of racing fans who wanted to see that showdown in the Breeders' Cup Classic. Chrome really blossomed in 2016, reeling off six straight wins including the Dubai World Cup (G1), Pacific Classic (G1), and Awesome Again Stakes (G1), before finishing second to Arrogate in the Breeders' Cup Classic (G1). He finished out the year with a win in the Winter Challenge Stakes at Los Alamitos to prep for the Pegasus World Cup invitational at Gulfstream Park in January. His Dubai World Cup win made him the all-time top money earning Thoroughbred, with a total purse money of $14,502,650 so far.
The first "big day" of racing of the year was the 21st renewal of the Dubai World Cup (G1) at Meydan, where once again the world's richest purses were up for grabs, but it will be the last time it could claim the title of world's richest horse race, which it will lose (possibly briefly) in January. Last year's runner-up California Chrome, racing under the colors of new ownership group California Chrome LLC, came back wih a vengeance, defeating last year's UAE Derby winner Mubtaahij by 3 3/4 lengths in track record time, with Hoppertunity third. In addition, locally trained Muarrab upset American X Y Jet in the Golden Shaheen (G1). One Man Band won the Godolphin Mile (G2), Buffering won the Al Quoz Sprint (G1), Vazirabad and Postponed won the Gold Cup (G2) and Sheema Classic (G1) respectively, Real Steel won the Dubai Turf (G1), and Japanese-trained Lani won the UAE Derby (G2) before shipping to America to compete in our Triple Crown.
Nyquist wins the Kentucky Derby
After several Triple Crown "near misses" and then American Pharoah's sweep last year, racing fans were disappointed this year. Undefeated juvenile champion and 2-1 Kentucky Derby (G1) favorite Nyquist defeated Exaggerator in the 142nd Run for the Roses under the Twin Spires of Churchill Downs. Two weeks later at Pimlico, Nyquist did not like the rain-soaked track as Exaggerator defeated Cherry Wine in the Preakness (G1) with Nyquist third. Nyquist, diagnosed with an elevated white blood cell count, did not ship to New York leaving Exaggerator as the clear favorite for the "Test of a Champion". In the Belmont Stakes, Exaggerator, either tired from the Triple Crown wars or the 1 1/2 mile distance, checked in 11th as 16-1 Creator nosed out Destin for the win, with Lani third.
Sir Dudley Digges 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 157th running as the oldest continuously-run stakes race in North America. Ken and Sarah Ramsey's homebred Sir Dudley Digges with Julien Leparoux rallied to win by 1/2 length over favorite Amis Gizmo. Three weeks later in the Prince of Wales, Amis Gizmo, again the favorite, romped by 5 1/2 lengths over Leavem in Malibu, meaning that 2003 winner Wando remains the last Canadian Triple Crown winner. Sir Dudley Digges failed to fire and was 6th. Longshot Camp Creek won the Breeders' Stakes on the turf for the third and final leg of the Triple Crown, with Sir Dudley Digges second.
Arrogate winning the Breeders' Cup Classic over California Chrome
The Breeders' Cup World Championships were back at Santa Anita for the 4th time in 5 years. On Friday, the Distaff may well have been the most exciting race of the entire weekend. Undefeated Songbird looked like she had the race won in mid stretch under Mike Smith but 2012 Juvenile Fillies and 2013 Distaff winner Beholder and Gary Stevens rallied to nail her in a tight photo. On Saturday, California Chrome, already the all-time leading earner in North American racing, looked to cap off an undefeated season and nail down Horse of the Year honors in the Classic, but 3-year-old Arrogate, winner of the Travers, outfinished Chrome in the last 1/16 mile to win by 1/2 a length, with Keen Ice third. Last year's Mile winner Tepin faild to repeat, finishing second behind Tourist, while Highland Reel went gate to wire to win the Turf over Flintshire. Classic Empire won the Juvenile, making him the early favorite for next year's Kentucky Derby, after Nyquist completed that double this season. This year it was announced that the 2018 Breeders' Cup will be hosted by Churchill Downs, after Del Mar hosts next year, which may suggest that Keeneland last year was a one-off.
The grandstand at Pimlico
Continuing with the theme of track closures that seems to haunt this space every year, media and fans were again buzzing at the Preakness about the possibility of the race moving across town to Laurel Park, given the poor condition of the Pimlico facility and the lack of space for any expansion. Pimlico has gradually reduced the number of dates it runs every year, with the vast majority of Maryland's racing conducted at Laurel. As if it was meant to distract from that discussion, The Stronach Group used Preakness Week to announce the "creation" of the Pegasus World Cup Invitational at Gulfstream (actually just a renaming of the Donn Handicap), which when run will pass the Dubai World Cup as the world's richest horse race, despite the fact that the $12 million purse is almost entirely covered by the entry fees, much like how the pot in a game of poker is fed by the players and not the casino hosting the game. The Pegasus is billed as an invitation, but the "invitees" are the 12 owners who purchased a share at $1 million each. It is expected that California Chrome (whose owners immediately purchased a share) will make the race his final career start before retiring to stud at Taylor Made Farm.
Similar discussions have come up at Woodbine in Canada, with management hinting that within a few years, harness racing will no longer be conducted at the Toronto oval, with Woodbine Entertainment racing the standardbreds year-round at Mohawk in Campbellville, half an hour west of the city. Mohawk is more conveniently located as many farms are nearby and horses generally ship in on race day, but the track will need massive renovations (it currently races from spring to fall with Woodbine used in the winter months) and some lament the removal of harness racing from the city, after years of running at the old Greenwood and then Woodbine for part of the year. The talk is that Woodbine's harness track will be replaced with turf, bringing back the old inner turf course that was used until 1994. It remains to be seen if either of these controversial moves (Preakness to Laurel and year-round racing at Mohawk) will become reality.
Almandin wins the Melbourne 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", Almandin rallied to defeat Heartbreak City, making Lloyd Williams the first owner to win the famous 3200 m (2 mile) race five times. The Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, run at Chantilly as Longchamp is being rebuilt, saw a Coolmore sweep with Found, Highland Reel, and Order of St George completing the trifecta for trainer Aidan O'Brien. The year closed out with the Hong Kong International Races at Sha Tin, with Maurice winning the Cup, Beauty Only taking the Mile, Aerovelicity winning the Sprint, and Japan's Satono Crown capturing the Vase, before a record 100,710 fans on hand.
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 2016, both human and equine, with links to articles about each. If I missed someone, please let me know.