As everyone celebrates the holidays, it is time to bid farewell to 2018 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 2018 racing season.
The 2018 racing year could be split into two halves, the first half belonging to Justify and the second belonging to Accelerate. Shortly after we rang in the new year (a year ago), 2017 Breeders' Cup Classic winner and Horse of the Year Gun Runner made his final career start in the Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park. Billed as the world's richest horse race (with its $16.3 million purse mostly funded by the $1 million nomination fees), Gun Runner did not disappoint, winning by 2 1/2 lengths over West Coast. Gun Runner retired to Three Chimneys Farm with a stallion fee of $70,000.
Gun Runner 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. It turned out to be Godolphin's night, culminating in Thunder Snow's victory in the headliner with Christophe Soumillon aboard for Saeed bin Suroor. On the undercard, Benbatl won the Dubai Turf, Hawkbill won the Sheema Classic, Mind Your Biscuits won the Golden Shaheen for the second year in a row, and Mendelssohn won the UAE Derby. Mendelssohn would ship to Louisville for the Kentucky Derby but was bumped at the start, could not handle the very wet track and finished last.
After American Pharoah's Triple Crown sweep in 2015, this decade is starting to look like the 1970's with the feat suddenly looking easy. 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, and that trend showed no sign of ending this year. After winning the Santa Anita Derby in just his 3rd lifetime start, earning him the needed points to get in, Bob Baffert trainee Justify won the Kentucky Derby by 2 1/2 lengths over Good Magic and Audible, breaking the "Curse of Apollo" by being the first unraced juvenile to win the Roses since 1882. Despite this, he did go off as the lukewarm 11-4 favorite. Two weeks later in Baltimore, Justify showed that his Derby win was no fluke, holding off Bravazo late to win the Preakness gate-to-wire by 1/2 a length in heavy rain and fog. In what would be his sixth and final career start, Justify, with regular rider Mike Smith sitting still, was given an uncontested lead of as many as 2 lengths by the other 9 entrants, and led every step of the way in the Belmont Stakes, finishing up 1 3/4 lengths ahead of Gronkowski to become the 13th Triple Crown winner. Justify retired to Coolmore America's Ashford Stud in Kentucky, commanding a $150,000 fee in 2019.
Wonder Gadot 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 159th running as the oldest continuously-run stakes race in North America. Wonder Gadot, who finished 2nd in the Kentucky Oaks, romped in the Plate by 4 3/4 lengths over Aheadbyacentury and Cooler Mike, with jockey John Velazquez in the irons for owner Gary Barber and trainer Mark Casse. She scored again in the Prince of Wales Stakes, winning over a very sloppy track (after torrential rains fell earlier in the card) by 5 3/4 lengths over Aheadbyacentury and Cooler Mike, the same trifecta as in the Plate. Her connections opted to skip the Breeders' Stakes, the turf event won by Neepawa over Say the Word and Flight Deck.
Accelerate winning the Breeders' Cup Classic
The Breeders' Cup World Championships were held at Churchill Downs for the ninth time. New this year was "Future Stars Friday" with all the 2-year-old races including the inaugural Juvenile Turf Sprint (won by Bulletin) on the same day. Game Winner won the feature, the Juvenile, making him an early choice for the 2019 Kentucky Derby. Saturday was highlighted by the Classic, where Accelerate held off Gunnevera, giving trainer John Sadler his first Breeders' Cup winner, and set off a debate as to whether Accelerate or Triple Crown winner Justify deserves Horse of the Year honors. This year's superstar horse was dual Arc winning filly Enable, who rallied under Frankie Dettori to become the first horse to win the Turf in the same year as the Arc. Dettori also won the Mile aboard Expert Eye, and Roy H successfully defended the Sprint title. Similarly, Stormy Liberal won the Turf Sprint for the second year in a row. Longshots lit up the tote in the Filly and Mare Sprint, when 26-1 longshot Shamrock Rose defeated 14-1 Chalon and 32-1 Anonymity. Monomoy Girl won the Distaff, capping off what should be a unanimous vote for Eclipse champion 3-year-old filly. The Championships will be contested in 2019 at Santa Anita, then Keeneland in 2020, and Del Mar in 2021.
Patternrecognition winning the Cigar Mile at Aqueduct on December 1st.
As the year drew to a close, redevelopment plans for Pimlico in Baltimore were revealed. It is no secret that owner Stronach Group wishes to move the race to Laurel Park, but the Maryland Stadium Authority proposed leveling the entire Pimlico facility, building all new structures including a 4 level clubhouse called the Palio, as well as reducing the main track to a 7 1/2 furlong oval. Much of the plan includes non-racing uses, in hopes of revitalizing the nearby neighborhoods. The study did not recommend who would foot the bill for this $400 million project. Making matters worse, the Stronach family is in a "family feud" in the courts, as both Frank Stronach and son Andy are suing daughter Belinda in a now public power struggle and spending dispute. Belmont Park is also in need of renovation, with NYRA intending to work on the grandstand building and turf courses, but keeping the 1 1/2 mile main track as is, while the new arena for the New York Islanders is built in the parking lot. In addition there was talk of lengthening the Saratoga meeting, running from July 11 thru Labor Day but only running five days a week instead of the current six.
After years of waiting to see shovels into the ground, we finally saw exactly that happen at Woodbine Racetrack this year. After the Queen's Plate, some of the parking lots were closed for construction, where eventually additional gaming, retail, and parking garages will be built, the first phase of a multi-year redevelopment project. The large hospitality tent at the top of the stretch was taken down for good, as that area will eventually be home to a hotel overlooking the track. As mentioned in this space last year, the final harness race at Woodbine was run on April 9, fittingly through heavy snow flurries on an unusually cold night. As if to make absolutely sure the standardbreds never return (ending 150 consecutive years of harness racing within Toronto city limits), the very next day work crews began digging up the stonedust track, and by Queen's Plate day, the homestretch had sod on it allowing access to the infield winner's circle. By the Canadian International the inner turf course was complete, and will be ready for racing once weather permits it in spring of 2019.
Glorious Forever 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", English-trained horses completed the trifecta as Godolphin runner Cross Counter held off Marmelo with A Prince of Arran third. The race was marred by tragedy as Cliffs of Moher, trained by Aidan O'Brien, fractured his right shoulder first time past the finish line and had to be euthanized. Australian superstar Winx drew the eyes of racing fans around the world as she won her 4th Cox Plate (2015-2018) in October, extending her winning streak to 29. She is expected to race in 2019, but her connections said they will play it by ear and not commit (at time of writing) to a 5th Cox Plate. The year closed out with the Hong Kong International Races at Sha Tin, with Glorious Forever winning the Cup, Beauty Generation repeating in the Mile, Mr Stunning winning the Sprint for the second year in a row, and Exultant capturing the Vase. The 96,388 fans in the stands were treated to the first ever home team sweep, with all four Group 1 events won by locally trained horses.
Of course, with all the excitement and joy the sport brings, there are always losses each year. 2018 ended on the saddest of notes for the racing community in these parts, as 5 standardbreds lost their lives in a fire in a barn at the First Line Training Centre in Milton. The outcome could have been worse, as 30 horses were successfully rescued and moved to other facilities.
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 2018, both human and equine, with links to articles about each. If I missed someone, please let me know.