By Richard Rosenblatt
Through the pandemic, quarantines, strict health and safety protocols, scheduling changes, and empty grandstands, the sport of thoroughbred racing was able to carry on and create so many memorable results in 2020.
A 73-1 long shot won at the Breeders’ Cup, international champions put on dazzling performances in Europe and Japan, a 3-year-old filly beat the boys in a Triple Crown race in October; and, of course, trainer Bob Baffert made headlines good and not so good.
We also saw the final races for some of our brightest stars in recent years, including 2019 champion older mare Midnight Bisou, the mighty 6-year-old mare Enable, Japan champion Almond Eye, 2019, star-crossed champion Maximum Security, and, of course, so many horses trained by Baffert – Authentic, Charlatan, Nadal, Improbable, etc.!
The racing schedule was reshuffled to the point that the running of the Triple Crown occurred in a most unusual order over 15 weeks rather than the traditional five weeks from the first Saturday in May to the first Saturday in June. This year, it was a shortened Belmont Stakes (1 1/8 miles from 1 ½ miles)-Derby-Preakness rather than Derby-Preakness-Belmont.
But the races went on, and the two-day, 14-race, $30 million Breeders’ Cup took place as scheduled on Nov. 6-7 at Keeneland. And so here we are are at the end of the year. Time to look back at the best races during one of the most unique years in racing history.
We asked our contributors at usracing.com to chime in with their Top 10 list of races, added up the totals, and now present the results of the balloting with comments from our voters (Lynne Snierson, Noel Michaels, Mike Farrell, Ed McNamara, Ray Wallin, Margaret Ransom, Jenny Kellner, and Richard Rosenblatt)
Dismissed at odds of 17-1, France-based 4-year-old Audarya wore down a talented field of fillies and mares to edge 5-2 favorite Rushing Fall by a neck in the $2 million, 1 1/16-mile Filly & Mare Turf.
It was quite an accomplishment for English trainer James Fanshaw, who was saddling his first Breeders’ Cup starter, and even more amazing for jockey Pierre-Charles Boudot, aboard his first Breeders’ Cup mount because fellow Frenchman Ioritz Mendizabal had tested positive for COVID-19.
Among the more well-known horses beaten by Audarya were Grade 1 winners Rushing Fall and Sistercharlie, both trained by Chad Brown, as well Harvey’s Lil Goil, Mean Mary, and Starship Jubilee, who stumbled at the start and unseated her rider. Audarya ($37.60) came into the race with the least money earned of all starters $189,046. The win was worth $1,040,000 for owner Mrs. A.M. Swinburn.
“She handled the travel from Europe during the pandemic and the world-class field in this race. She rallied from seventh to upset multiple Grade 1-winning Rushing Fall in a thrilling finish in record time,’’ commented usracing.com contributor Lynne Snierson.
Added Mike Farrell: “A personal favorite as Pierre-Charles Boudot brilliantly maneuvered his filly into winning position from an outside draw to pull off an upset, one of my biggest scores of the year!”
This was the race that catapulted Authentic into a serious racehorse, even though barely holding off fast-closing Ny Traffic by a neck. With Mike Smith aboard, it seemed as if Authentic was a lock to pick up his first Grade 1 win. Then the margin began disappearing and Ny Traffic, perhaps with another stride or two, may have pulled out the win.
While there were all kinds of questions whether Bob Baffert-trained Authentic could win at the Kentucky Derby distance of 1 ¼ miles (the Haskell was 1 1/8 miles), Baffert assured us he could.
“This victory would propel the now retired Authentic to wins in the Kentucky Derby (G1) and the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) over older horses and nail down what are sure to be Eclipse Awards as 3-Year-Old Male and Horse of the Year,’’ commented Lynne Snierson.
Added Margaret Ransom: “Back in July he was a lightly raced Derby hopeful shipping for the first time. It’s hard to criticize a Hall of Fame jockey like Mike Smith, but he gave a lot for Authentic to do in the stretch after an over-confident ride and the colt responded and held on to the win. It was a bizarre race, but also a good and memorable one.”
The Belmont became the first leg instead of the last leg of the Triple Crown in 2020, and the 1 ½-mile distance was reduced to 1 1/8 miles. No matter. When June 20 came along, the popular New York bred Tiz the Law came through with a dazzling 3 ¾-length victory under Manny Franco for trainer Barclay Tagg and owners Sackatoga Stable – the same group that brought us Derby and Preakness winner Funny Cide back in 2003. It gave Tagg that elusive Belmont win, and propelled Tiz the Law to the top of the 3-year-old class – temporarily as it turned out. Tiz the Law would go on to win the Travers (G1), but finished second to Authentic in the Kentucky Derby.
“Call me sentimental but it was great to see Barclay Tagg finally get the Belmont win that eluded him with Funny Cide,’’ commented Mike Farrell.
Noel Michaels listed Tiz the Law’s wins in the Florida Derby, Belmont and Travers among his choices. “The Belmont, Travers, Florida Derby … it was a great pleasure all year to watch Tiz the Law perform at the top of his game,’’ Michaels said.
On Belmont Stakes day, it was the 3-year-old filly Gamine who put on a remarkable display, rolling to an 18 ¾-length victory in a record time of 1:32.55 for the mile.
The filly trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert had won her two previous starts by 6 ½ lengths and 6 ¼ lengths, but even without being at race, watching her open up and extend her lead throughout the stretch was a thing of beauty. She went on to win the Test (G1) by seven lengths, ran third in the Kentucky Oaks (G1), and then defeated Serengeti Empress in the BC Filly & Mare Sprint by 6 ¼ lengths.
“Gamine throwing down the gauntlet and blowing her competition off the Belmont Park track in the Acorn by 18¾ lengths?’’ commented Lynne Snierson. “What more is there to say?”
“She did a Ruffian impersonation by wiring the Acorn Stakes by 18 lengths on Belmont Stakes day,’’ commented Ed McNamara.
Not one, not two, but three times Whitmore went to post for the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. No cigar, only an eighth in 2017, second in 2018 and third in 2019.
Then came a fourth attempt for the 7-year-old warrior, who took charge midway through stretch under Irad Ortiz, Jr., and won by 3 ¼ lengths for trainer Ron Moquett. Sent off at 18-1, Whitmore rewarded his backers with a $38.80 payoff for a $2 win bet.
“He played the part of sentimental favorite perfectly as he dashed to victory,’’ commented Lynne Snierson.
Added Ed McNamara: “The 7-year-old gelding cruised by 3 1/4 lengths against the fastest of the fast, finally breaking through in the Sprint.”
The field was a good one, featuring Belmont winner Tiz the Law and Derby winner Authentic, along with older horses Maximum Security, Improbable and Tom’s d Etat.
But from the start, it was all Authentic ($10.40). After his Derby win, he ran second in the Preakness (G1), but back he came in a wire-to-wire, 2 ¼-length victory in the $7 million Classic that likely clinched Horse of the Year honors. A few days later, he was retired.
The winning time of 1:59.60 was a Keeneland track record for 1 ¼ miles.
“Authentic winning in record time to neatly put a bow on the Horse of the Year trophy,’’ commented Mike Farrell.
“Once again, Bob Baffert shows he knows how to have his horses ready to run in the biggest races. Authentic’s final four races: Haskell (win); Derby (win), Preakness (second); Classic (win),’’ commented Richard Rosenblatt
The race Authentic wasn’t supposed to win because it was too long proved to be no problem as he outran Belmont and Travers winner Tiz the Law with a gate-to-wire effort under Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez.
It was a most eventful day at Churchill Downs as trainer Bob Baffert became a six-time Derby winner. In the saddling area before the race, his other Derby starter, Thousand Words, flipped on his back and was scratched from the race per racing rules. Assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes broke his wrist and was not at the track for the race. And as Authentic, wearing the garland of roses, was being paraded in the winner’s area, he reared up and knocked Baffert to the turf.
With no fans in the stands, and the Derby as the second leg of the Triple Crown run on Sept. 5 instead of the first leg on the first Saturday in May, it made for one eerie, but memorable day.
“This was the showdown between Authentic and Tiz the Law fans had been waiting for,’’ commented Noel Michaels.
“Front-running Authentic showed he could stay 1 1/4 miles and outran odds-on Tiz the Law, to whom many had conceded the race,’’ commented Ed McNamara.
Ok. If Whitmore wasn’t your favorite sentimental story, then it has to be Monomoy Girl. The star 5-year-old mare, in what was billed as the final race of a brilliant comeback career, took on Preakness winner Swiss Skydiver in a greatly anticipated match. It was the 3-year-old champion filly of 2018 who missed 18 months with a series of setbacks versus the top 3-year-old filly in the land coming off her historic win at Pimlico.
With a sweeping, four-wide move entering the second turn, Monomoy Girl took charge with a furlong to go under Florent Geroux and cruised to a 1 ¾-length victory. Swiss Skydiver, with Robby Albarado aboard, stumbled at the start, made a brief challenge by moving up to fourth, but could not keep pace and finished sixth.
“The comeback story of the year, winning the Distaff two years after she won it in 2018,’’ commented Lynne Snierson.
Monomoy Girl, trained by Brad Cox, was 4-0 in 2020. After being purchased for $9.5 million by Spendthrift Farm, a decision was made to keep her racing in 2021.
“It wasn’t the great showdown between Preakness winner Swiss Skydiver and champion Monomoy Girl after the former blew the break, but that takes nothing away from Monomoy Girl’s performance,’’ commented Margaret Ransom.
Ok. So maybe Maximum Security’s winner’s share of $10 million is being held up as an investigation continues into what transpired under now indicted former trainer Jason Servis.
But make no mistake: the inaugural Saudi Cup – the world’s richest race with a $20 million purse – was a doozy. The star-crossed Maximum Security, DQ’d from first to 17th in the 2019 Kentucky Derby for interference, was making his 4-year-old debut. 2019 champion mare Midnight Bisou was taking on the boys for the first time.
Under Luis Saez, “Max” stalked the early pace set by Cappezano, and then Mucho Gusto took over and led by about two lengths heading into the stretch. Saez had to steer his colt back inside to avoid a potential issue with Mucho Gusto, who was tiring, then took charge and held off a late and determined bid by Midnight Bisou to win by three-quarters of a length.
“Incredible efforts by Maximum Security and Midnight Bisou that were unfortunately overshadowed by trainer Jason Servis and the subsequent illegal medication allegations,’’ commented Mike Farrell.
“Traveling to Saudi Arabia, ‘Max’ proved to everyone that he is indeed a champion, no matter what took place in the Derby. Midnight Bisou, who did not get the best of trips, ran a tremendous race, too,’’ commented Richard Rosenblatt.
“ ‘Max’ won by three-quarters but it was the champion mare who ran the more impressive race as she had to come from so far back and almost caught ‘Max’ at the wire,’’ commented Lynne Snierson.
When a filly runs in a Triple Crown race, there’s always an added layer of excitement. Yes, it’s a Classic, but fillies rarely show up.
And in this most unpredictable year, Swiss Skydiver soared in becoming the first filly to win the Preakness since Rachel Alexandra in 2009.
Trainer Ken McPeek made the call to take on Derby winner Authentic as well as Blue Grass winner Art Collector, who had beaten Swiss Skydiver in that race in her first test against males. But Swiss Skydiver came back and won the Alabama (G1), finished second to Shedaresthedevil in the Kentucky Oaks and convinced owner Peter Callahan and McPeek to go to Baltimore.
Swiss Skydiver, with Robby Albarado in the saddle for the first time, broke from post 4, saved ground behind leaders Thousand Words and Authentic and then eased out past the five-eighths pole. She took a slight lead inside of Authentic with a half-mile left, and found her way to the rail. It was a duel to the wire, but Swiss Skydiver ($25.40) maintained her short lead and won by a neck at 11-1 odds.
“An upset of heavily-favored Authentic in dramatic fashion, prevailing in a thrilling stretch duel all down the lane to win by a neck. What a race,” commented Lynne Snierson.
“Swiss Skydiver became only the sixth filly to win it, aided greatly by Robby Albarado’s brilliant tactics,’’ commented Ed McNamara.
“Only wish I could have been there to cheer her on, but very exciting nonetheless,’’ commented Jenny Kellner.
The Preakness received four of the eight first-place votes from the usracing.com panel. Four other races each received one first-place vote each: the Saudi Cup, the Haskell, the BC Classic and the Japan Cup. Ten points were awarded for a first-place vote, nine for second, eight for third, etc.
The following races received support from our panel, but not enough to make the Top 10. However, they are worth mentioning:
King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, July 25 (Enable): “Brought back for a 6-year-old campaign after recovering from injury, she not only won this race at Ascot but won easily by 5 ½ lengths with Frankie Dettori aboard.” – Lynne Snierson.
Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint, Nov. 7 (Gamine): The filly does it again, asserting herself one more time with another dominating win – 6 1 /4 lengths – in track record time of 1:20.20.
Breeders’ Cup Mile, Nov. 7 (Order of Australia): Tough to leave this shocker out of the Top 10, but it’ll be tough to forget 73-1 long shot Order of Australia – who made it off the also-eligible last at the last moment – winning by a neck over Circus Maximus. The result gave Aidan O’Brien a 1-2-3 finish in the mile, but not many thought it work out this way. And, it was substitute rider Pierre-Charles Boudot (in for Christophe Soumillon, COVID-19 positive) who delivered the winning ride. The payout of $148.40 on a $2 win bet was the second highest in Breeders’ Cup history.
Japan Cup, Nov. 28 (Almond Eye): “Almond Eye capped an incredible career, which included wins in the most prestigious races in Japan (a record eight) and one in Dubai. She finished up with a second victory in thrilling fashion in the Japan Cup, defeating a tremendous field that included previously undefeated Triple Crown winners Contrail and Daring Tact, who were second and third, respectively. – Margaret Ransom.
Whitney Handicap, Aug. 1 (Improbable): It wasn’t the largest field, though it did have good runners, and he didn’t win by open lengths, but the way Improbable captured this Saratoga staple with his newfound confidence (after his traditional poor gate behavior) was impressive.” – Margaret Ransom.
Note: The usracing.com team contributed to this story: Margaret Ransom, Ray Wallin, Lynne Snierson, Jenny Kellner, Ed McNamara, Noel Michaels, and Mike Farrell.
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.