As everyone celebrates the holidays, it is time to bid farewell to 2017 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 2017 racing season.
The 2017 racing year could be split into two halves, the first half belonging to Arrogate and the second belonging to Gun Runner. As we rang in the new year (a year ago), 2016 Breeders' Cup Classic winner Arrogate looked unbeatable and all set to run the table in 2017, but found Del Mar to be his "Waterloo". Kicking off the season, Arrogate and 2016 Horse of the Year California Chrome hooked up one last time, in the newly created Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park. Billed as the world's richest horse race (with its $12 million purse fully funded by the $1 million nomination fees), California Chrome looked to extend his lead as the all-time leading earner in his final start before retirement. However, racing's torch had already been passed at the Breeders' Cup, and Arrogate left no doubt of that by romping by 4 3/4 lengths over Shaman Ghost, while Chrome was never in it and finished 9th.
Arrogate after winning the Pegasus World Cup
Despite the "new" big race at Gulfstream, the first "big day" of racing in the world racing scene was the 22nd renewal of the Dubai World Cup at Meydan, where once again the world's richest purses were up for grabs. Despite the "desert" venue, rains downgraded the main track to muddy and the turf to yielding, which hadn't happened since 1997 when the race was postponed. The usually front-running Arrogate broke last of all and had to change his running style, but jockey Mike Smith rode him in a manner reminiscent of Zenyatta as Arrogate rallied to win by 2 1/4 lengths over Gun Runner. The win pushed him ahead of California Chrome on the earnings list. On the undercard, Vivlos won the Dubai Turf, Jack Hobbs won the Sheema Classic, Mind Your Biscuits won the Golden Shaheen, and Thunder Snow won the UAE Derby. Thunder Snow would ship to Louisville for the Kentucky Derby but spooked soon after the start and had to be pulled up after just 1/8 mile.
After his Dubai World Cup win in March, trainer Bob Baffert gave Arrogate a long layoff. Steve Asmussen-trained Gun Runner took over the summer headlines, winning the Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs followed by the Whitney and Woodward at Saratoga. Arrogate returned to the track in late July to make his last 3 career starts at Del Mar, and despite winning an allowance there last year, never took to the surface, finishing 4th in the San Diego Handicap and 2nd in the Pacific Classic. The colt that once looked invincible was anything but, going into the Breeders' Cup Classic.
Always Dreaming wins the Kentucky Derby
After several Triple Crown "near misses" and then American Pharoah's sweep in 2015, racing fans were disappointed yet again and are left wondering, will we have to wait another 37 years? The Kentucky Derby Championship Series may have eliminated no-hopers from the big dance, but it has also had an unwanted effect in the eyes of horseplayers: winning favorites. 9-2 favorite Always Dreaming didn't disappoint his backers, winning the Kentucky Derby by 2 3/4 lengths over Lookin at Lee and Battle of Midway. Two weeks later in Baltimore, Always Dreaming bounced in the worst way, finishing 8th in the Preakness beaten 14 lengths, as Cloud Computing defeated Classic Empire and Senior Investment. Arguably the weakest Belmont Stakes field in recent memory assembled 3 weeks later on Long Island, as Tapwrit defeated favorite Irish War Cry, with Patch in third, in a race passed on by both Derby and Preakness winners.
Holy Helena 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 158th running as the oldest continuously-run stakes race in North America. Frank Stronach's homebred filly and Woodbine Oaks winner Holy Helena romped by 3 1/2 lengths as the 2-1 favorite, over Tiz a Slam and Inflexibility. Holy Helena's connections opted to bypass the rest of the Triple Crown, leaving the rest of the series wide open. 14-1 longshot Cool Catomine defeated favorite Aurora Way in the Prince of Wales Stakes, and then switching to the turf for the Breeders' Stakes, favorite Channel Maker held off Final Copy in a photo finish, with King and His Court third.
Gun Runner winning the Breeders' Cup Classic
The Breeders' Cup World Championships were held at Del Mar for the first time, and the track called "Where the Turf meets the Surf" by founder Bing Crosby, proved to be a deserving, long-overdue host. On Friday, Personal Ensign winner Forever Unbridled held off Kentucky Oaks winner Abel Tasman in the Distaff, while favorite Elate was fourth. Saturday was highlighted by the Classic, where Gun Runner defeated Collected by 2 1/4 lengths, with West Coast third, and favorite Arrogate finishing in a dead heat for 5th with Gunnevera. Talismanic upset Beach Patrol and Highland Reel in the Turf, Woodbine Mile winner World Approval won the Mile, and local hero Roy H won the Sprint. The most exciting race all weekend arguably was the Filly and Mare Sprint, when 18-1 longshot and Canadian heroine Ami's Mesa was caught in the final strides by 66-1 outsider Bar of Gold, with 20-1 Carina Mia third. The 2018 Championships will be held at Churchill Downs, which also marks the debut of a slightly "updated" Breeders' Cup logo, the original cursive script replaced with all upper case Times Roman characters. At time of writing, no site has been announced for 2019 onward.
Down the stretch at Aqueduct in the Cigar Mile with Sharp Azteca in the lead
Change was definitely the theme at the New York Racing Association. After racing moved to Belmont Park this spring, the inner dirt track was replaced by a "new" outer turf course, returning The Big A to its original layout, while the existing main dirt track was "winterized" similar to the training track at Belmont Park. Later in the year, NYRA announced redevelopment plans for Belmont Park, including updates to the grandstand building, lights for night racing, possibly an inner dirt track inside the inner turf course, and a new home arena for the New York Islanders NHL team, to be built in the parking lot. The Islanders left Nassau County for Brooklyn's Barclays Center in 2015, but poor attendance at a venue far from their traditional fan base led team management to "return home".
Similar discussions have come up at Woodbine in Canada, and hints dropped last year were confirmed this year. The current Woodbine harness season will be the last time standardbreds will race in Toronto, as the move to Mohawk Racetrack (soon to be renamed "Woodbine at Mohawk Park") in the spring will mark the beginning of year-round racing at the Campbellville oval, home to the Pepsi North America Cup. Woodbine's 7f stonedust harness track will be converted back to turf during the summer of 2018. In addition, a new master plan was unveiled with much of the unused land surrounding the track being developed into gaming, residential, entertainment, and retail uses. However, this writer remains skeptical after the "Woodbine Live" plans unveiled over a decade ago failed to materialize. We continue to wait for the first holes to be dug...
Time Warp wins the Longines 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" stopped a different nation, Ireland. Rekindling, trained by Joseph O'Brien, defeated Johannes Vermeer, trained by Joseph's father Aidan, who this year won 27 Grade/Group 1 wins, breaking the late Bobby Frankel's old record. The Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, run at Chantilly one more time before returning home to the rebuilt Longchamp, was won by jockey Frankie Dettori aboard Enable for Juddmonte Farm. The year closed out with the Hong Kong International Races at Sha Tin, with local hero Time Warp winning the Cup, Beauty Generation taking the Mile, Mr Stunning winning the Sprint, and favorite Highland Reel capturing the Vase, before 94,560 fans on hand.
Screen capture from a YouTube video of the fire by Leo Tapia
Of course, with all the excitement and joy the sport brings, there are always losses each year. 2017 ended on the saddest of notes in the racing community, as the Lilac fire in San Diego County in early December spread much too quickly for the horses stabled at San Luis Rey Downs, engulfing the training center. Many horses were evacuated to Del Mar but unfortunately, 46 horses perished, either trapped in their barns or through smoke inhalation when let loose while some survivors suffered serious burns. Many horsemen and backstretch workers were injured and/or lost everything to the fire as well and are still recovering. You can watch a video from the backstretch during the fire here.
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 2017, both human and equine, with links to articles about each. If I missed someone, please let me know.