2021 Year in Review
Medina Spirit and his trainer
Bob Baffert were probably the
biggest newsmakers this year.
As everyone celebrates the holidays, it is time to bid farewell to 2021 and the exciting racing which we enjoyed, however much like at the end of 2020, many of us are glad to be done with 2021. 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 2021 racing season.
After professional sports, horse racing included, was severely disrupted in 2020, we hoped for business as usual in 2021 but unfortunately that was not the case. Attendance restrictions and public health precautions were still in effect at many venues, including major events such as the Triple Crown and Breeders' Cup, but thankfully racing was not conducted behind closed doors with empty grandstands.
The first big day of racing in 2021 is the Pegasus World Cup Invitational, run at Gulfstream Park for a $3 million purse, reduced in 2020 and remaining there for 2021. Favorite Knicks Go romped by 2 3/4 lengths over Jesus' Team with longshot Independence Hall third. The co-feature saw lukewarm favorite Colonel Liam defeat Largent in the $1 million Pegasus World Cup Turf, with Cross Border third.
Mystic Guide after winning the Dubai World Cup
The $20 million Saudi Cup on February 20 is world's richest horse race, contested at 1 1/8 miles on dirt. Mishriff pulled off a mild upset defeating heavy favorite Charlatan with Great Scot third. On the undercard, Gifts of Gold won the $2.5 million Red Sea Turf Handicap, Copano Kicking won the $1.5 million Saudi Arabian Airlined Riyadh Dirt Sprint, Space Blues won the $1 million STC 1351 Cup, True Self won the $1 million Neom Turf Cup, and Pink Kamehameha took the $1.5 million Al Rajhi Bank Saudi Derby.
After the 2020 event was cancelled as air travel shut down worldwide, the Dubai World Cup at Meydan finally got to celebrate its 25th running. Mystic Guide won the headliner with Luis Saez aboard for trainer Mike Stidham and Godolphin Racing. On the undercard, Lord North won the Dubai Turf, Mishriff won the Sheema Classic, and Rebel's Romance won the UAE Derby. Sadly, just after crossing the line first in the Golden Shaheen, Zenden broke down, unseating jockey Antonio Fresu. Having sustained a fracture to his left foreleg Zenden was euthanized on the track.
After the series was disrupted and the order changed in 2020, the Triple Crown was back to its traditional schedule and with fans in attendance, albeit in reduced numbers. At the Kentucky Derby, 12-1 Medina Spirit, winner of the Haskell, went gate to wire holding off Mandaloun, with Hot Rod Charlie third and favorite Essential Quality fourth. Three weeks later at the Preakness, Medina Spirit checked in third behind 12-1 Rombauer (with Flavien Prat riding for trainer Mike McCarthy) and second choice Midnight Bourbon, denying a Triple Crown possibility, but probably was a sigh of relief for many in the sport for all the wrong reasons, which will be explained below. Favorite Essential Quality took the Belmont Stakes with Luis Saez aboard for trainer Brad Cox, with Hot Rod Charlie second and Rombauer third.
Medina Spirit wins the Kentucky Derby
The Canadian Triple Crown usually begins soon after the American version ends, but officials delayed the Queen's Plate to August in hopes of having fans in attendance, and this time got their wish, but also with limited numbers. Favorite Safe Conduct with Jose Ortiz Jr. aboard took the Plate for trainer Phil Serpe over Riptide Rock and H C Holiday. Safe Conduct's connections opted to skip the Prince of Wales Stakes as 13-2 shot Hadassah and jockey Gary Boulanger defeated Harlan Estate and Keep Grinding for trainer Kevin Attard, with favorite Curlin's Catch 5th. With no Triple Crown on the line, 24-1 longshot British Royalty won the Breeders' Stakes for jockey Patrick Husbands and owner-trainer Barb Minshall, with Riptide Rock second and Collective Force third. That could well have been Husbands' final win in a Canadian Triple Crown race, as he announced at the end of the season that he is considering retirement. The longtime first call rider for perennial champion trainer Mark Casse, who also rode Canada's last Triple Crown winner Wando in 2003, is all but guaranteed induction into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame.
Safe Conduct wins the Queen's Plate
The Breeders' Cup World Championships were held at Del Mar in San Diego County for the second time, with a limited number of fans in attendance. Lasix was prohibited for all competitors, in line with recent changes where the major U.S. racing operators (NYRA, Stronach Group, Churchill Downs Inc., Keeneland, and Del Mar) have all prohibited its use in stakes races. "Future Stars Friday" featured all the 2-year-old races, starting with the Juvenile Turf Sprint won by Twilight Gleaming with Irad Ortiz Jr. in the irons. Corniche won the feature, the Juvenile, making him an early choice for the 2022 Kentucky Derby. Saturday was highlighted by the Classic, where Knicks Go and jockey Joel Rosario led at every call to defeat Medina Spirit and favorite Essential Quality. Yibir won the Turf with jockey William Buick, defeating Broome and Teona, with defending champ Tarnawa 11th. Japanese invader Marche Lorraine lit up the toteboard in the Distaff with new rider Oisin Murphy, as favorite Letruska checked in 10th. Earlier on the card, Marche Lorraine's stablemate Loves Only You was the first Japanese-trained runner to win a Breeders' Cup race when she won the Filly and Mare Turf over My Sister Nat and favorite War Like Goddess. Aloha West won the Sprint as favorite Jackie's Warrior checked in 6th. The Championships will return to Keeneland in 2022 (after hosting last year without spectators), while at time of writing, no hosts have been announced for 2023 onward.
Knicks Go winning the Breeders' Cup Classic
The 2021 racing season, much like almost every business, continued to suffer due to public health restrictions imposed due to COVID-19, but unlike 2020, the pandemic did not dominate the headlines as race meetings were conducted, just with reduced attendance. However, the subject of illegal medications came back in the worst possible way as, just a week after the Kentucky Derby, it was announced that winner Medina Spirit tested positive for the banned steroid betamethasone. The split sample also tested positive, as trainer Bob Baffert claimed the drug came from an ointment, not via injection. The New York Racing Association and Churchill Downs Inc. banned Baffert from racing at their tracks, but through legal challenges, he was allowed to run at Saratoga and Belmont Park. Churchill Downs disqualified all Baffert runners from scoring points in the 2022 Road to the Kentucky Derby, as those points are used to determine the field. Officials in California did not ban Baffert, allowing him to run Medina Spirit in the Classic. Sadly, Medina Spirit collapsed and died after a workout at Santa Anita on December 6 as he prepared for the Saudi Cup, and at time of writing Kentucky officials have still not ruled on whether he will be disqualified in the Derby. Trainer Jorge Navarro, who was featured in this space a year ago, was sentenced to 5 years in prison after pleading guilty in a doping scandal. After serving his sentence he will likely be deported to his native Panama. Co-defendants Jason Servis and Seth Fishman submitted not guilty pleas and will face trial in the new year.
Mishriff winning the Saudi Cup.
Foreign racing 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", 14-1 mare Verry Elleegant won by 3 1/4 lengths over Incentivise and favorite Spanish Mission with James McDonald aboard for trainer Chris Waller. The year closed out with the Hong Kong International Races at Sha Tin. Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf winner Loves Only You defeated Hishi Iguazi and Russian Emperor to take the Cup giving jockey Yuga Kawada and trainer Yoshito Yahagi their first HKIR wins. Glory Vase took the Vase for jockey Joao Moreira and trainer Tomohito Ozeki. Sky Field won the Sprint for local trainer Caspar Fownes and jockey Blake Shinn, in a race that was marred by a four horse spill that resulted in Amazing Star and Naboo Attack euthanized on the track. Golden Sixty won the Mile for the second year in a row for trainer Francis Lui and jockey Vincent Ho. Like most race meetings worldwide, both the Melbourne Cup and Hong Kong Internationals were run with their usually packed grandstands at reduced capacity, and winner's circle ceremonies were more subdued for the Sprint and for the balance of the card.
Loves Only You wins the Longines Hong Kong Cup
Of course, with all the excitement and joy the sport brings, there are always losses each year. Many horses lost their lives due to injury while others succumbed to illness or old age. Here are some of the notable losses in 2021, both human and equine, with links to articles about each. If I missed someone, please let me know.
As other places put their year end recaps online, I will add links to them here.
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