As we recover from the holidays and the celebration of your choice to ring in the New Year, it should be noted that all Thoroughbreds celebrated a universal birthday for racing purposes on Jan. 1.
All the 2-year-olds that displayed promise are now three – the age at which they’ll have their only chance to compete in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands or the Kentucky Oaks. So the young horses that just a few weeks ago were allowed to show promise are now, in effect, on-the-clock.
Just over 120 days remain until Kentucky Derby 139 on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs. That cannot be described as a distant horizon.
It’s a personal rule-of-thumb that when the team at Churchill Downs gets to the 100-day marker ‘til Derby Day, it’s like the race is coming up tomorrow.
It’s a safe guess that owners and trainers feel similar time pressure as there is little margin for misstep along the road to the Derby and Oaks. And those connections will also be seeking out their comfort zones in the “Road to the Kentucky Derby” and “Road to the Kentucky Oaks,” the points systems that will determine, for the first time, which horses will be eligible to slide into the starting gates on the days of the respective races.
Although we are just over four months away from those big days, thoughts on the major players in the early days of the 3-year-old season can wait a bit. Now is a time to reflect on the best moments of 2012, the old year that is now quickly shrinking with each glance into the rear-view mirror.
Here are some thoughts on the really good moments of 2012 in Kentucky racing and beyond.
The running of the Metropolitan Handicap at Belmont Park gets the nod in this corner for Race of the Year. The 2012 renewal ended with 2011 Preakness winner Shackleford and the brilliant miler Caleb’s Posse inseparable to the eye when they hit the wire in the one-mile race. The Dale Romans-trained Shackleford got the nod from the photo-finish booth, one of the major highlights of the final racing season for the Classic winner who ended his career in November with a victory in an emotional renewal of Churchill Downs’ Clark Handicap Presented by Norton Healthcare.
Just behind the Met Mile is the course-record victory by likely Horse of the Year Wise Dan in the Breeders’ Cup Mile at Santa Anita. Trainer Charles Lopresti’s star was brilliant, as he had been all season, and he needed to be to hold 2011 Kentucky Derby winner and ultimate runner-up Animal Kingdom safe.
I’ll Have Another’s late charge to win the Kentucky Derby is also in that discussion. Runner-up Bodemeister ran one of the bravest losing efforts in Derby history and just failed to hold off trainer Doug O’Neill’s Derby winner.
At the risk of being accused of being a home (and that has never happened!), the 2012 renewal of the Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs deserves a special mention. That race ended in the only loss in a fantastic season for Wise Dan, who might not have seen the victorious Ron the Greek slipping through the on rail to rob him of a perfect season.
The eighth-place finisher that evening at Churchill Downs was Fort Larned, who lost all chance in a rugged start. Trainer Ian Wilkes’ star would rebound nicely from that disappointment to complete the season with a win in Saratoga’s Grade I Whitney and a dramatic season-ending victory over Mucho Macho Man in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. was in the saddle aboard Fort Larned in both triumphs, the highlights of the career of a still-young 28-year-old veteran who rode at night and attended high school during the day as teen. He moved to Churchill Downs on the day after his high school graduation.
Always one of the nicest individuals in racing, it was a joy for those who know Hernandez to justify the faith Wilkes had placed in him as the trainer ignored the phone calls of higher-profile jockeys interested in the mount on Fort Larned. His signature wins came at an important point in the career of Hernandez, who had ridden very well in recent Kentucky meets and has the potential to become a bigger player on the national scene off his 2012 success.
While also admitting some hometown bias, it’s difficult to imagine that Louisville-born trainer Dale Romans would be denied an Eclipse Award to honor him as America’s top trainer following a year that included Grade I triumphs by Shackleford, Breeders’ Cup Turf winner Little Mike, Toyota Blue Grass and Pacific Classic winner Dullahan, turf star Tapitsfly and Afleeting Lady, a half-sister to Shackleford who Churchill Downs’ Falls City Handicap in her season finale.