As everyone celebrates the holidays, it is time to bid farewell to 2019 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 2019 racing season.
Although as always the racing was exciting, many in the industry are glad to be done with 2019 as this was a year we would rather forget. This will always be remembered as the year of the fatal breakdown, as 38 racehorses perished over the Santa Anita track, either in races or in training, with the breakdown of Mongolian Groom in the Breeders' Cup Classic seen live by an international TV audience. The unusual rate of fatalities became obvious during the winter-spring meeting, leading to frequent protests by PETA and others, and the track closing for almost all of March as the racing surfaces were repeatedly inspected and tested for safety. Citing an unusually high breakdown rate from his barn, Santa Anita owner The Stronach Group banned trainer Jerry Hollendorfer from the grounds. No one factor was ever determined to be the root cause of the breakdowns; many argued it was poor weather earlier in the meet. To that end Stronach Group president Belinda Stronach reopened the idea of switching the main track back to synthetics, given Tapeta's superior safety record.
City of Light after winning the Pegasus World Cup
The first big day of racing in 2019 is the Pegasus World Cup Invitational, run at a rain-soaked Gulfstream Park for a reduced purse of $9 million. City of Light defeated Seeking the Soul and 2018 Breeders' Cup Classic winner Accelerate. Bricks and Mortar won the new $7 million Pegasus World Cup Turf over Magic Wand and Delta Prince. The Stronach Group's signature races will have their purses cut again in 2020, and move down the list of world's richest races when the newly announced $20 million Saudi Cup debuts in Riyadh in late February.
Despite the "new" big race at Gulfstream, the first "big day" of racing in the world racing scene was the 24th renewal of the Dubai World Cup at Meydan, where once again the world's richest purses were up for grabs. Thunder Snow became the first 2-time winner of the headliner with Christophe Soumillon aboard for Saeed bin Suroor. On the undercard, Almond Eye won the Dubai Turf, Old Persian won the Sheema Classic, X Y Jet won the Golden Shaheen, and Plus Que Parfait won the UAE Derby. Plus Que Parfait would ship to Louisville for the Kentucky Derby but failed to rally over the sloppy track and finished 9th, continuing the winless streak of UAE Derby winners.
Country House wins the Kentucky Derby on a DQ
After American Pharoah's Triple Crown sweep in 2015 quickly followed by Justify in 2018, this decade was looking like the 1970's with the feat suddenly looking easy, and the Kentucky Derby Championship Series had the undesired effect of a string of winning favorites in the big race. Both those ideas were struck down at the close of the decade, but it took some unusual circumstances. Improbable was the favorite despite finishing second in his last 2 starts, but Maximum Security, the 9-2 second choice, passed the finish post 1 3/4 lengths ahead of 65-1 longshot Country House. However, 2 jockeys claimed foul against Maximum Security's jockey Luis Saez, and after a lengthy inquiry the stewards disqualified him and placed him 17th behind Long Range Toddy, which moved up Country House as the second-longest shot to win the Roses after 91-1 Donerail in 1913. Maximum Security is the only horse in Derby history to be disqualified from win on race day. The first two finishers sat out the Preakness, ending the Triple Crown threat. War of Will, who was interfered with by Maximum Security in the Derby but whose connections did not claim foul, came back to win at Pimlico over new shooters Everfast and Owendale. The 2019 Triple Crown series mercifully ended at the poorly-attended Belmont Stakes. Sir Winston defeated favorite Tacitus and Joevia in the "Test of a Champion", with his stablemate War of Will checking in 9th.
One Bad Boy 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 160th running as the oldest continuously-run stakes race in North America. California invader One Bad Boy romped by 3 1/2 lengths over Avie's Flatter with jockey Flavien Prat in the irons for owner Sayjay Racing and trainer Richard Baltas. Favorite Skywire was a disappointing 11th. Three weeks later in the Prince of Wales Stakes, Plate 3rd place finisher Tone Broke defeated Avie's Flatter by 2 lengths, with One Bad Boy third. One Bad Boy went home to California as Tone Broke won 2/3 of the Triple Crown by taking the Breeders' Stakes over He's a Macho Man and Avie's Flatter.
Vino Rosso winning the Breeders' Cup Classic
The Breeders' Cup World Championships were held at Santa Anita for a record 10th time, under the ominous dark cloud of the year's fatalities. In June there was talk of the event being moved, but the Breeders' Cup board unanimously decided to remain. "Future Stars Friday" featured all the 2-year-old races, starting with the Juvenile Turf Sprint won by Four Wheel Drive with Irad Ortiz Jr. in the irons. Storm the Court won the feature, the Juvenile, making him an early choice for the 2019 Kentucky Derby. Saturday was highlighted by the Classic, where Vino Rosso and jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. drew off to defeat favorite McKinzie, giving Todd Pletcher his first win in the event. Defending champion Enable sat out the Turf as American-trained Bricks and Mortar held off United for the win, with Ortiz Jr. aboard. Ortiz Jr. won 4 Championship races over the weekend, the other being aboard Spun to Run in the Dirt Mile. Blue Prize won the Distaff over favorite Midnight Bisou, giving jockey Joe Bravo his first Breeders' Cup title. "Big Money" Mike Smith, known for his Breeders' Cup success, was inexplicably shut out, finishing 2nd aboard heavy favorites Midnight Bisou (Distaff) and Omaha Beach (Dirt Mile). After 13 of the 14 Championship races over two days ran without incident in ideal weather conditions, the Classic ended in tragedy as Mongolian Groom broke down in the stretch with an injured left hind ankle, which proved irreparable and he was euthanized in the evening. The Championships will be contested at Keeneland in 2020, and then Del Mar in 2021.
Maximum Security winning the Cigar Mile at Aqueduct on December 7th.
A year ago in this space, we mentioned talk of redeveloping Pimlico as a 7 1/2 furlong dirt oval with mixed uses. That discussion did not end, and a possible deal was reached where the Stronach Group would rebuild the track and lease it back to the city of Baltimore, with newly freed parcels of land sold off to private development. Training and stabling would move year-round to Laurel Park, as the Pimlico property would be used for other purposes outside of Preakness week. It is worth noting that the legal dispute between founder Frank Stronach and his daughter Belinda also has not been resolved. Construction continues in Belmont Park's parking lot for the new home of the NHL New York Islanders, expected to open for the 2021-22 hockey season. Woodbine Racetrack's redevelopment is also well underway, with half its original parking lot closed off as new gaming, entertainment, retail, and hotel buildings are constructed. In addition, the new inner turf course hosted its first race the day before the Queen's Plate. Also in its commitment to safety, Woodbine introduced new whip regulations in mid-October, limiting urging to underhand use of the crop only, prohibiting contact with the horse with the crop in the cocked position, and prohibiting hits to the belly or surrounding area. The tail end of the 2019 season was intended as a test period, with further rule revisions possible before racing resumes in April 2020.
Win Bright 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", local trainee Vow and Declare held off invaders Prince of Arran and Il Paradiso, with defending champion Cross Counter checking in 8th. Australian superstar Winx ended her racing career with her 3rd win in the Queen Elizabeth Stakes, her 33rd win in a row and 25th Group 1. The year closed out with the Hong Kong International Races at Sha Tin, with Win Bright winning the Cup, Admire Mars winning the Mile, Beat the Clock winning the Sprint, and Glory Vase capturing the Vase. It was the first time Japanese trainees won 3 of the 4 races (Beat the Clock was the lone local horse to win). The grandstand and apron were not packed to capacity unlike most years, with many fans staying away due to the ongoing protests in Hong Kong.
Of course, with all the excitement and joy the sport brings, there are always losses each year. After all the fatalities on track earlier in the year, 2019 ended on the saddest of notes for the racing community, after 4 stallions were killed by intruders at Haras Barlovento in Peru on December 21, including The Lieutenant, a half brother to Triple Crown winner Justify, and butchered for their meat. In addition, 20 horses were found shot to death inside a strip mine in Floyd County, Kentucky
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 2019, both human and equine, with links to articles about each. If I missed someone, please let me know.