2020 Year in Review
After the Covid-19 pandemic arrived in March, empty grandstands became the norm for most tracks.
As everyone celebrates the holidays, it is time to bid farewell to 2020 and the exciting racing which we enjoyed, however it goes without saying, most of us are glad to be done with 2020. 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 2020 racing season.
Some readers may recall how 2019 was an annus horribilis due to safety issues plaguing several tracks especially in California. Thankfully that aspect did not carry over to 2020, however, the sudden spread of the coronavirus COVID-19 disrupted professional sports worldwide, and horse racing was no exception. For much of the year, tracks were either closed down or operated without spectators, with only essential horsemen, owners, and very limited numbers of credentialed media allowed to attend. So, sadly we were treated to another annus horribilis but for very different reasons.
The first big day of racing in 2020 is the Pegasus World Cup, run at Gulfstream Park for a reduced purse of $3 million. Mucho Gusto defeated Mr Freeze and War Story, while the favorite Higher Power was last of 10. Mucho Gusto was unable to repeat that form, finishing 4th in his 2 other starts this year. The co-feature saw Zulu Alpha defeat Magic Wand in the $1 million Pegasus World Cup Turf, with Instilled Regard third and favorite Without Parole 11th of 12.
Mucho Gusto after winning the Pegasus World Cup
As if to upstage the neighboring United Arab Emirates, the Saudi Arabian ruling family introduced the new $20 million Saudi Cup on Leap Day, February 29, a 1 1/8 mile dirt race for older horses, taking over the title of world's richest horse race. Favorite Maximum Security, best known for being disqualified from the win in the 2019 Kentucky Derby, held off late-closing filly Midnight Bisou and Benbatl, with Mucho Gusto fourth. On the undercard, Call the Wind won the $2.5 million Longines Turf Handicap, New York Central won the $1.5 million Saudia Sprint, Dark Power won the $1 million STC 1351 Cup, Port Lions won the $1 million Mohamed Yousuf Motors Cup, and Full Flat took the $800,000 Saudi Derby.
In mid-March, after NBA player Rudy Gobert and others tested positive for COVID-19, many pro sports immediately paused their seasons, or in some cases, cancelled the remaining games completely. As usual, late March marks the Dubai World Cup, with the 25th anniversary celebrations scheduled. Horses from Europe, Asia, and North America shipped in to Meydan over a week in advance, however, on Sunday March 22 after morning training and just 6 days before race night, the event was scrapped. Originally the event was to be run behind closed doors without spectators (which would be the "new normal" for the rest of the year at most tracks). Given that the UAE's airspace was to be shut down effective Tuesday the 24th, this meant that all horses, horsemen, and media who had travelled in had to quickly leave or risk being stranded. HRN's staff photographer Vanessa Ng faced this situation first-hand, flying home Monday on the last Emirates flight back to New York, after just arriving there on Saturday evening. For over 2 weeks the entire Emirates Airline fleet was grounded, and to this day many of their planes still sit in storage at Dubai World Central and Dubai International airports.
By early April, almost every racetrack in North America was closed, with the length of disruption unknown, but most reopened by June. Officials scrambled to adjust their stakes schedules with the expectation of being allowed to reopen, hopefully with fans. The American Triple Crown was affected the most, with the Kentucky Derby moved to September 5th and the Preakness to October 3, however the Belmont was only delayed 2 weeks and was run on June 20. In addition, because the Belmont was now the first race of the Triple Crown, and with many horses unable to follow their prep race schedules due to track closures in the spring, the usually 1 1/2 mile "Test of a Champion" was shortened to just 1 1/8 miles. Florida Derby winner and heavy favorite Tiz the Law won the Belmont Stakes with Manny Franco riding for trainer Barclay Tagg and owners Sackatoga Stable, defeating Dr Post and Max Player. Due to the scheduling, Tiz the Law also won the Travers between the Belmont and the Derby. At the Kentucky Derby, 8-1 Authentic, winner of the Haskell, went gate to wire holding off favorite Tiz the Law, with Mr. Big News third. Four weeks later at the Preakness, the filly Swiss Skydiver pulled off a mild 11-1 upset over favorite Authentic and Jesus' Team, with Tiz the Law not in the race.
Authentic wins the Kentucky Derby
The Canadian Triple Crown usually begins after the American version ends, but this year the series were concurrent as, although Canadian racing resumed in June, officials delayed the Queen's Plate to September 12 in hopes of having fans in attendance, but this proved impossible. 13-1 longshot and one-eyed colt Mighty Heart went gate to wire in the Plate, defeating Belichick and Clayton, with favorite and Woodbine Oaks winner Curlin's Voyage third. 17 days later, Mighty Heart with jockey Daisuke Fukomoto again went gate to wire to take the Prince of Wales Stakes over Clayton and Dotted Line. This set up a chance for the first Canadian Triple Crown sweep since Wando in 2003. However it was not to be as Mighty Heart tired to finish 7th in the Breeders' Stakes beaten 20 lengths, as his stablemate Belichick defeated Meyer and English Conqueror. Josie Carroll became the first female trainer to sweep the Canadian Triple Crown (but with 2 different horses). The Woodbine racing season was slated to end on December 13 but due to the provincial government's lockdown in Ontario, the meeting was cut short to November 22, having also started 2 months later than usual.
Mighty Heart wins the Queen's Plate
The Breeders' Cup World Championships were held at Keeneland for the second time, with no paying spectators in attendance, however the stands and apron appeared quite full and not "socially distanced" what with all the owners, sponsors, officials, and other VIP guests who were allowed to attend. "Future Stars Friday" featured all the 2-year-old races (with Lasix prohibited), starting with the Juvenile Turf Sprint won by Golden Pal with Irad Ortiz Jr. in the irons. Essential Quality won the feature, the Juvenile, making him an early choice for the 2021 Kentucky Derby. Saturday was highlighted by the Classic, where Authentic and jockey John Velazquez drew off to defeat Improbable and Global Campaign, with favorite Tiz the Law 6th. French invader Tarnawa with new rider Colin Keane beat the boys in the Turf defeating fellow distaffer Magical and Channel Maker. Monomoy Girl repeated in the Distaff with jockey Florent Geroux, over Valiance and Dunbar Road. Whitmore finally reached the Sprint winner's circle, having raced in 4 straight editions. "Big Money" Mike Smith, known for his Breeders' Cup success despite going winless last year, remained in California due to restrictions on jockeys shipping into different tracks. French jockey Christophe Soumillon tested positive for COVID-19 on arrival and was forced to sit out the event, only to watch all three of his scheduled mounts go on to win, Tarnawa, longshot Order of Australia in the Mile, and Audarya in the Filly and Mare Turf. The Championships will be contested at Del Mar in 2021, and then back to Keeneland in 2022.
Authentic winning the Breeders' Cup Classic
The 2020 racing season will mostly be remembered for all the difficulties caused by the global pandemic, but the sport suffered a huge black eye in March when trainers Jason Servis and Jorge Navarro and numerous other horsemen were arrested and indicted on federal charges involving performance enhancing drugs and race fixing. Maximum Security, who was disqualified from the 2019 Kentucky Derby due to interference, could retroactively be disqualified from all his starts while trained by Servis, including the winner's share of the Saudi Cup purse. Owner Gary West immediately shipped Maximum Security from Servis' barn at Monmouth Park to Bob Baffert's barn at Santa Anita. Navarro's stable star X Y Jet died of a heart attack in early January. Maybe racing can turn the page at the New Year with the passing of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, signed into law by President Donald Trump on December 27, requiring training and racing safety standards consistent with the humane treatment of horses, a system to maintain track surface quality, programs for injury and fatality analysis, investigation and disciplinary procedures, and an evaluation and accreditation program. In addition, Lasix was banned for use by juveniles in 2020 at tracks operated by NYRA, Stronach Group, Del Mar, Keeneland (including the Breeders' Cup), Lone Star Park, Oaklawn, Los Alamitos, Oaklawn, and Tampa Bay Downs, and then in 2021, the medication will be prohibited in all stakes races at those tracks, including the 2021 Triple Crown races. Sadly, our home track Woodbine in Toronto has not yet joined this coalition as of time of writing.
Maximum Security "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", Twilight Payment gave trainer Joseph O'Brien his second win in the race, defeating Tiger Moth and Prince of Arran gate-to-wire. Sadly, 2019 Epsom Derby winner Anthony Van Dyck, trained by Joseph's father Aidan, broke down at the 5/16 pole and had to be euthanized. The year closed out with the Hong Kong International Races at Sha Tin. Local heroine Normcore defeated Win Bright and Magical to take the Cup giving jockey Zac Purton a record 9th International Race win. Mogul took the Vase for Coolmore, jockey Ryan Moore and trainer Aidan O'Brien representing Ireland. Danon Smash won the Sprint for Japan and trainer Takayaki Yasuda with Ryan Moore also aboard, and Golden Sixty gave local trainer Francis Lui and jockey Vincent Ho their first International Race win in the Mile. Like most race meetings worldwide, both the Melbourne Cup and Hong Kong Internationals were run with their usually packed grandstands empty.
Win Bright wins the Longines Hong Kong Cup
Of course, with all the excitement and joy the sport brings, there are always losses each year. The Saratoga meeting started on the saddest of notes as ten horses trained by Christophe Clement died when their trailer caught fire as they were being shipped from Belmont Park.
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 2020, 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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