By Richard Rosenblatt
The thoroughbred racing world lost too many champions in 2021, most recently the collapse and death of Kentucky Derby (G1) winner Medina Spirit on Dec. 6. The tragedy occurred two months after popular jockey Miguel Mena died after being hit by a car near Churchill Downs, where he ranked among the track’s top riders. Mena was 34.
Innovative breeders/owners B. Wayne Hughes, Rick Porter, and Bert Firestone also passed away in 2021, and we also lost sportscaster Bob Neumeier and Marshall Cassidy, a former voice of New York racing in the 1980s.
Internationally, racing also lost prominent breeders/owners Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum of Dubai (Shadwell Racing) and Prince Khalid bin Abdullah Al Saud of Saudi Arabia (Juddmonte Farms).
Among star horses of yesteryear who died were 1982 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Arazi (age, 32), 2006 Preakness winner and successful sire Bernardini (18), three-time BC Mile winner Goldikova (16), and champion runner and sire Galileo (18).
Horses who died young included 3-year-old filly Santa Barbara, a two-time Grade 1 winner; 5-year-old Zenden, winner of the 2021 Dubai Golden Shaheen (G1); and 5-year-old Owendale, a three-time graded stakes winner with earnings of $1.5 million for trainer Brad Cox.
Kentucky Derby winners who died included Big Drama (15), English Channel (19), Boston Harbor (27), Caressing (23), Elmhurst (31), and Gilded Time (31).
We also lost Harvey Pack (94), the popular New York-based racing broadcaster; Len Ragozin (92), who started a handicapping revolution with his Ragozin sheets; Donald (Donnie) Richardson (75), former VP of racing for Churchill Downs; Hall of Fame jockeys John Rotz (86) and Sam Boulmetis, Sr. (94); Canadian Hall of Fame jockey Hugo Dittfach (85); and jockeys Larry Melancon (65) and Todd Kabel (55); trainers Bruce Headley (86); Harry Benson (88), Julio Canani (83), John Forbes (73), and John T. Ward, Jr. (76); Sam Huff (87), NFL Hall of Famer and horse breeder/co-founder of the West Virginia Breeders Classics; longtime turf writers Ron Parker (80) and David Schmitz (70); and Sam Spear (72), a former media relations director at Golden Gate and Bay Meadows and host of radio and TV horse racing shows in northern California.
The death of Medina Spirit was a shocker. He became a racing sensation after winning the Derby on May 1, giving Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert a record seventh victory in the Run for the Roses. A week later, the 3-year-old colt’s post-race drug test came back positive for a banned race-day medication, and Medina Spirit could be disqualified pending a final decision by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission.
While still in training after running second in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) on Nov. 5, Medina Spirit breezed 5 furlongs at Santa Anita on Dec. 6. Afterward, he collapsed and died, with the cause being called a “heart attack.” Results of a necropsy have yet to be announced.
“My entire barn is devastated by this news,” Baffert said. “Medina Spirit was a great champion, a member of our family who was loved by all, and we are deeply mourning his loss. I will always cherish the proud and personal memories of Medina Spirit and his tremendous spirit.”
On Oct. 31, Mena died after being struck by a vehicle as a pedestrian on I-64 in Louisville. The Jefferson County Coroners Office said the cause of death was blunt force injuries and was ruled an accident.
Mena, born in Lima, Peru, began riding in the U.S. in 2003. He won 2,079 races, many at Churchill Downs, and his mounts earned more than $72 million. Among his winners were Pool Play in the 2011 Stephen Foster (G1); Champagne d’Oro in the 2010 Test Stakes (G1); and International Star and Bravazo in the 2015 and 2018 Risen Star Stakes (G2), respectively. He also was aboard International Star in winning the 2015 Louisiana Derby (G2).
“He was a guy everyone liked,” said Jose Santos, Jr., who was Mena’s agent at times over his career. “He was one of the most liked guys on the track, I’d say. Everyone felt really strongly about him because he had a hell of a personality. Whether you were riding him or not, he was a guy you could sit and talk to for a long time. He was just a good person. Real sad stuff, that’s for sure.”
Terry Meyocks, president and CEO of the Jockeys’ Guild, said: “He was an inspiration to many as he courageously overcame serious injuries to return to riding. He will be greatly missed by his fellow riders, his friends, and family.”
Bert Firestone, who campaigned 1980 Kentucky Derby winning filly Genuine Risk, died July 12 in West Palm Beach, Florida. He was 89.
Firestone, along with his wife, Diana, had breeding operations in Virginia and Ireland. The couple owned several international champions in the 1970s and 1980s, among them Blue Wind and April Run. Firestone also owned Calder Race Course and Gulfstream Park from 1989-91.
It was Genuine Risk that brought them racing glory. She became only the second filly win the Derby, the first since Regret in 1915. Genuine Risk ran second in the Preakness and in the Belmont Stakes (G1). She was voted 3-year-old filly champion and the Firestones were voted top owners.
The Firestones had other Eclipse Awards winners: Honest Pleasure was the 2-year-old colt champion in 1975; and What a Summer was the 1977 sprint champion.
He also owned Theatrical, a six-time Grade 1 winner and 1987 Eclipse champion grass horse trained by Bill Mott.
“I had a private job with them for about five years, and I could not have been treated any better,” Mott said. “They were the ones who got me to New York full-time. They gave me a huge opportunity, and they sent Theatrical to me. He did more for my career than any other single horse.”
One of racing’s most respected and successful owners, Rick Porter died on June 7 following a lengthy battle with cancer. He was 80.
Porter, who campaigned three Eclipse Award winners (Kodiak Kowboy, 2009 sprinter; Songbird, 2015 2-year-old filly and 2016 3-year-old filly; and Havre de Grace, 2011 older mare and Horse of the Year), got into racing in 1994. Even with a stable (Fox Hill Farms) of 25-30 horses, Porter’s horses provided some of racing’s most memorable moments.
Among them was the two-year run of Songbird from mid-2015 to mid-2017. The two-time champion won 13 of 15 career races – nine of them Grade 1s. Her losses were second by a nose to Beholder in the 2016 BC Distaff and second by a neck to Forever Unbridled in her final start, the 2017 Personal Ensign (G1).
He also campaigned the ill-fated filly Eight Belles, who finished second in the 2008 Kentucky Derby and was injured in the gallop out and had to be euthanized.
Trainer Larry Jones, who began working for Porter in 2006, said: “We lost a gem in horse racing. He treated horse racing like a business, but he also treated it like a love affair. He’s going to be sorely missed.”
Among other horses owned by Porter were Round Pond, 2006 BC Distaff winner and Hard Spun, the 2007 Derby runner-up. When his stars finished racing, Porter sold them: Havre de Grace went for $10 million; Songbird went for $9.5 million; and Round Pond went for $5.75 million.
Hughes, the billionaire owner of Spendthrift Farm in Lexington, Kentucky, died at home on Aug. 18. Hughes, a co-founder of Public Storage, purchased Spendthrift in 2004, relocated from southern California, and returned the farm to prominence. He finally enjoyed a Kentucky Derby win in 2020 with Authentic, who was co-owned by Spendthrift Farm.
Just a year ago, Hughes partnered with an online ownership group called Myracehorse.com, which offered anyone who paid $206 a micro share ownership interest in Authentic. Over 5,300 people bought in, allowing casual fans the chance to become owners.
In addition to owning six Breeders’ Cup winners, including three-time winner and champion Beholder (2021 Juvenile Fillies, 2013 BC Distaff, and 2016 BC Distaff), Spendthrift houses stallions Authentic, 2017 Preakness winner Cloud Computing and top North American sire Into Mischief.
After being honored as the 2020 Galbreath Award winner by the University of Louisville, Hughes said:
“Thoroughbred horse racing has been a tremendous passion of mine ever since my father took me to the races as a young boy. It’s something he and I got to share together, and I’ve been fortunate to be able to make it a large part of my life and share it with so many that are dear to me.”
Sheikh Hamdan, the finance minister and deputy ruler of Dubai who created globally successful Shadwell Stables, died on March 24. He was 75.
He became an influential breeder and owner in the 1980s when he opened Shadwell Racing in England. Shadwell has produced more than 50 Group 1 wins in Europe and has won three Breeders’ Cup races.
Among his champions were Nashwan, Dayjur, and Battaash. He won the 1986 Melbourne Cup (G1) with At Talaq in 1986 and Jeune in 1994; the BC Classic with Invasor in 2006; the Belmont with Jazil in 2006; and the Dubai World Cup (G2) twice, with Almutawakal in 1999 and Invasor in 2007.
Sheikh Hamdan owned eight stud farms in England, Kentucky and Ireland.
Prince Khalid, a member of the Saudi royal family who built Juddmonte Farms into one of the world’s top racing and breeding operations, died on Jan. 31. He was 85.
His Juddmonte horses, among them Frankel, Arrogate, Empire Maker, and Enable, won over 500 stakes races around the world, mostly with homebreds. Juddmonte produced 118 Grade 1/Group 1 winners.
Perhaps his best horse to race in the U.S. was Arrogate, who won the Travers (G1), the Breeders’ Cup Classic, the Pegasus World Cup (G1) and the Dubai World Cup (G1) to retire as racing’s highest earner. Arrogate died in 2020 at age 7.
Prince Khalid’s only Triple Crown race win came in the 2003 Belmont with Empire Maker. His horses brought home seven Breeders’ Cup victories. In Europe, he won classics in England, France, and Ireland, and won the Prix de Arc de Triomphe a record-tying six times (Enable won it twice).
Juddmonte also has four Eclipse Awards as outstanding owner and five as outstanding breeder.
Prince Khalid also bred and raced the great Frankel, two-time European Horse of the Year who posted an undefeated record in 14 starts, including two win at Royal Ascot, the British 2,000 Guineas and the British Champion Stakes.
Neumeier, whose career included covering horse racing for NBC, passed away on Oct. 23. “Neumy” suffered from congestive heart failure and heart disease. He was 70.
“Bob was a big part of the NBC Breeders’ Cup World Championships broadcasts for many years as a handicapper, reporter, and analyst,’’ the Breeders’ Cup said in a statement. “Bob brought his expertise of thoroughbred racing and a great sense of humor to every show.”
Neumeier called hockey games and hosted several sports radio shows in Boston. He also helped with TV coverage at the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics, football and the Tour de France.
Cassidy died at his home in Saratoga Springs, New York. He was 75. He was the track announcer for the New York Racing Association from 1979-1990. He was known for his precise diction and accuracy, and perhaps most famously for his stretch call in the 1979 Belmont Stakes: “New York’s Eeeeeasy Goer … in front,” as Easy Goer spiled the Triple Crown bid by the California-based Sunday Silence.
“Marshall had a voice that belonged in the Hall of Fame,” Tom Durkin, who took over for Cassidy in 1990 and retired in 2014, said. “He had a resonant baritone, and his timbre was perfect. In terms of New York announcers – and this is the highest praise – he was on an even par with Fred Capossela. The most important thing for a racetrack announcer to be is accurate. And for that, Marshall was peerless.”
Let us also note that every year, horses are fatally injured at the racetrack. In 2021, according to horseracingwrongs.org, nearly 600 racehorses died from injuries, ailments, or accidents from racing, training, or in their stall.
Over the years while working at The Associated Press, Rich Rosenblatt became a familiar name to legions of the horse racing fans and industry insiders with his award-winning articles on horse racing and his stories from the backstretch.
In addition to being an astute observer of sports, Rosenblatt is the co-author of The All-American Chili Cookbook. His work has been seen in just about every publication in the world, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and Time Magazine.