By Ray Wallin
We were able to go back to the track in person. The Triple Crown returned to its proper spring rotation and the sports and racing world started to feel normal again.
But there were issues – topped by Medina Spirit’s victory in the Kentucky Derby followed by a post-race positive for a banned race-day medication with an official decision on the winner still undecided.
As usual, though, 2021 produced some great horse racing stories and some fantastic heart-pounding finishes. Here’s my top 10:
#10 Breeders’ Cup Mile (Space Blues Bests Smooth Like Strait)
Trainer Charles Appleby had Master of the Seas scratch at the gate, but his other entrant would be much the best running down Smooth Like Strait who set an uncontested pace. For Space Blues it was his first start over American turf. For trainer Charles Appleby it would be one of three wins in the 2021 Breeders’ Cup.
#9 Kentucky Derby (Medina Spirit Goes Wire To Wire, Holding Off Mandaloun)
Aside from the controversy surrounding his win, Medina Spirit ran a heck of race. Handicapping the Kentucky Derby is often a crapshoot. Up to 20 entrants leave the gate and bump into each other or force a horse W-I-D-E into the first turn. Medina Spirit broke well and set out for the lead. Once he had it, he set reasonable fractions while feeling the pressure from Soup and Sandwich and Mandaloun. Medina Spirit and Mandaloun would battle the entire stretch with Hot Rot Charlie and Essential Quality both make a late charge.
Chef Bobby Flay had the recipe for success with his juvenile filly Pizza Bianca. After getting bumped at the start she sat at the back of the pack as Cachet was cruising on the front end, even leading by a couple of lengths in the stretch. Cachet wouldn’t last though as a slew of horses made for an exciting finish and some delicious exotic payouts.
#7 Travers Stakes (Essential Quality by a Neck)
After winning the Belmont Stakes and the Jim Dandy, Essential Quality was the heavy favorite coming into the 2021 Travers. Midnight Bourbon was the lone real frontrunner in the field and if he could get free, he might be able to set a comfortable pace and take this one wire to wire. While he did get comfortable fractions, Essential Quality had other plans as he made his move at the top of the stretch. Surprisingly, Midnight Bourbon still had some gas in the tank and was only finally beaten in the stretch as Essential Quality was the better horse by a neck leading up to his final start of the 2021 season where he finished third in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
#6 Breeders’ Cup Sprint (Aloha West)
Jackie’s Warrior may have been the overwhelming favorite, but she was forced to set a hot pace as Special Reserve was on his heels from the start. Dr Schivel seemed to be ready to outlast the tiring front running pair only to have the Wayne Catalano trainee Aloha West charging down the center of the track to catch him by a nose at the wire.
#5 Breeders’ Cup Distaff (Bombs Away on Marche Lorraine by a Nose)
Marche Lorraine is a patriotic French song written in 1892 and is part of the official French military repertoire. Marche Lorraine is also the horse that took advantage of a hot pace in the Distaff to take the lead at the top of the stretch and then dueled with Dunbar Road to win in a dramatic finish at 50-1, returning $101.80 to win for the second victory for Japanese trainer Yoshito Yahagi in the 2021 Breeders’ Cup.
#4 Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf (Loves Only You with the Upset for Japan)
The Japanese did not have a Breeders’ Cup win entering this race. The Yoshito Yahagi trainee would change that with a nice stalking trip off the weak pacesetter Going to Vegas. As they hit the stretch, favorite War Like Goddess made a five-wide move and seemed to have the race in hand, holding My Sister Nat and Love at bay. That was until Loves Only You found another gear and split her rivals to get up for the win. She would follow up this effort by winning the Hong Kong Cup (G1) at Sha Tin a month later.
#3 Breeders’ Cup Turf (Yibir Sets Track Record in Big Win)
For a full field of 14 starters, this group stayed tight after the mile call with the entire field within about eight lengths. Two races prior trainer Charles Appleby and jockey William Buick teamed up for a thriller of a win with Spaces Blues. In this race Buick beautifully guided Yibir seven wide which set up for a strong run down the center of track. Not only did he win a close race, but he set the track record in the process.
#2 Preakness Stakes (Rombauer Ends Medina Spirit’s Triple Crown Hopes)
There was a lot of buzz going into the Preakness this year with Medina Spirit’s positive test for a banned race-day medication after winning the Kentucky Derby. Knowing that he liked the lead and with Midnight Bourbon as a threat to press him on the front end, this race was prime for a horse to win from off the pace. Rombauer was that horse. The pace was faster than Medina Spirit would have liked, and he is pressured the entire time by Midnight Bourbon, setting up exactly as my primary pace model had predicted. Rombauer returned a handsome $25.60 on the win as all eyes were on the controversial Baffert entry that day.
As the Kentucky Derby field was starting to shape up, it seemed that the Chad Brown entrants Crowded Trade and Risk Taking were well on their path to stardom. Instead, it would be Todd Pletcher’s day as he had the top two finishers in a pedestrian paced race which had a half mile call time of 50 seconds. Dynamic One at 15-1 would briefly hold the lead only to be nipped at the wire by the last-to-first run of Bourbonic at an astounding 72-1. While he would finish 13th in the Kentucky Derby, he never amounted to much more during his 2021 campaign with only a third-place finish in the West Virginia Derby (G3) at Mountaineer a few months later.
Hopefully your 2021 was memorable for all the right reasons. I hope you made a profit at the track and have set a resolution to make progress towards your dream of making your living playing the races. I hope you all have a happy, healthy, and profitable New Year.
Ray Wallin is a licensed civil engineer and part-time handicapper who has had a presence on the Web since 2000 for various sports and horse racing websites and through his personal blog. Introduced to the sport over the course of a misspent teenage summer at Monmouth Park by his Uncle Dutch, a professional gambler, he quickly fell in love with racing and has been handicapping for over 25 years.
Ray’s background in engineering, along with his meticulous nature and fascination with numbers, parlay into his ability to analyze data; keep records; notice emerging trends; and find new handicapping angles and figures. While specializing in thoroughbred racing, Ray also handicaps harness racing, Quarter Horse racing, baseball, football, hockey, and has been rumored to have calculated the speed and pace ratings on two squirrels running through his backyard.
Ray likes focusing on pace and angle plays while finding the middle ground between the art and science of handicapping. When he is not crunching numbers, Ray enjoys spending time with his family, cheering on his alma mater (Rutgers University), fishing, and playing golf.
Ray’s blog, which focuses on his quest to make it to the NHC Finals while trying to improve his handicapping abilities can be found at www.jerseycapper.blogspot.com Ray can also be found on Twitter (@rayw76) and can be reached via email at email@example.com.