The 2012 renewal of the Breedersâ€™ Cup lacked sizzle heading into last weekâ€™s two-day run at Southern Californiaâ€™s Santa Anita. But, as usually happens, the horses saved the days.
That was especially true if you were a Kentucky racing fan with a home-state rooting interest.
The 626 area code that connects us to Arcadia, Calif. might as well have 502 or 859 as the results were tallied over two race days at the picturesque racetrack at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains. Several Kentucky horses and humans either wrapped-up or made a strong case for Eclipse Award honors with their performances in Breedersâ€™ Cup 2012.
Letâ€™s look at the Bluegrass State heroes in BC 2012:
Wise Dan and Charles Lopresti â€“ His races made the case for Morton Finkâ€™s 5-year-old homebred gelding as Americaâ€™s best horse, and his breathtaking works for trainer Charlie Lopresti in the weeks leading up to the Breedersâ€™ Cup Mile only strengthened that perception. His brilliant victory in the Mile, in a scorching course-record 1:31.78, came at the expense of 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom, who was brilliant after 10 months on the sidelines â€“ was a BC 2012 highlight.
â€œHeâ€™s an incredible horse,â€ Lopresti said after the triumph. â€œHe has done things in the morning that you just donâ€™t believe. Heâ€™s just a dream come true. You work all your life to get a horse like this.â€
The only loss by the Keeneland-based Wise Dan in 2012 was a narrow defeat on the main track at Churchill Downs in the Stephen Foster Handicap. Turf milers rarely are in the hunt for U.S. Horse of the Year, but Wise Dan was so brilliant through the season that he is now an odds-on choice for that honor. The yearâ€™s final NTRA National Thoroughbred Poll had Loprestiâ€™s star firmly the top spot with 45 of 52 first place votes.
Royal Delta and Bill Mott â€“ The reigning 3-year-old filly champion scored an emphatic victory over the deepest and most talented field of BC 2012 when she repeated her win last yearâ€™s Ladiesâ€™ Classic at Churchill Downs on Friday night at Santa Anita. Had Wise Dan lost the Mile, she would have had a shot at Horse of the Year.
Trained by Hall of Famer Bill Mott, the all-time win leader at Churchill Downs, the daughter of Empire Maker rolled to the front under Mike Smith, winner of the Bill Shoemaker Award as BC 2012â€™s outstanding jockey, and improved on that position.
She finished a distant second to Wise Dan in the NTRA poll and is a cinch to earn an Eclipse Award as Americaâ€™s best older filly or mare.
Fort Larned, Ian Wilkes and Brian Hernandez Jr. â€“ The $5 million finale of BC 2012 completed the Kentucky celebration â€“ with an Australian accent â€“ as outsider Fort Larned led from the opening bell and held Mucho Macho Man safe in the final yards of the Classic.
Wilkes, the Aussie-born longtime assistant to two-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Carl Nafzger, became his own man in 2012 with his work with Fort Larned. After a lackluster 2011, Wilkes outfitted Fort Larned with blinkers and he became a different horse.Â His 2012 wins included the Grade I Whitney at Saratoga and his speed ended up being the key to his Classic win, as Fort Larned caught a Santa Anita course that strongly favored early speed on Saturday.
To that point, the work of Hernandez was critical as the Louisiana native got Fort Larned out of the gate while favored Game On Dude missed the break. Hernandez first rode at Churchill Downs on the day after graduating high school back home in Louisiana and has enjoyed a solid, but unspectacular, career up to now.Â But given a chance by Wilkes, Hernandez guided Fort Larned to both his wins in the Whitney and his career peak in the Classic, with the latter coming on his birthday.
Heâ€™s only 27, and Brian Hernandez â€“ one of the nicest guys in Thoroughbred racing â€“ has finally arrived on the national racing scene.
Regarding the outstanding performances by those three horses, even better news is that all three are scheduled to return to racing in 2013. And Wilkes and Hernandez have another star on the rise in Neck â€˜n Neck, who won the Ack Ack Handicap last Friday at Churchill Downs and is set to run later this month in the Grade I Clark Handicap Presented by Norton Healthcare at Churchill Downs, which was Wise Danâ€™s star-making performance a year ago. With Fort Larned and Neck â€˜n Neck, Wilkes and Hernandez will likely enter what shapes up as a promising 2013 with two of the top 10 older horses in America in their care.
Groupie Doll and the Bradley Family â€“ Prior to last weeksâ€™ races, the surest win bet of Breedersâ€™ Cup 2012 seemed to be the 4-year-old filly Groupie Doll.
The pride of Frankfort, Ky. did not disappoint as she thoroughly dominated a talented, but overmatched, group in Saturdayâ€™s Filly & Mare Sprint. Owner-breeder Fred Bradley, former Kentucky state senator, and son Buff, Groupie Dollâ€™s trainer, run a small farm near the Kentucky state capital that produced Kentucky favorite, Brass Hat. The $2 million earner would fit nicely as the horse of a lifetime for most Kentuckians, but now they have Groupie Doll.
â€œYou live this dream, and thatâ€™s what weâ€™re doing right now,â€ a tearful Buff Bradley said after Groupie Dollâ€™s win. â€œIâ€™m so excited my dad was able to come out here and enjoy and experience this. Thatâ€™s whatâ€™s so great. Heâ€™s the one who got it all started for us, for me.â€
Groupie Doll is another that blossomed with the addition of blinkers. Sheâ€™ll be back next year, and my dream for her is a run around one-turn against males in Belmontâ€™s Metropolitan Mile.
Little Mike and Dale Romans â€“ Little Mike had a up-and-down season, but the â€œupsâ€ were really good and a front-running course-record win in the 1 Â½ mile Turf on Saturday topped that list. Not far behind were his Grade I victories in the Arlington Million and the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic at Churchill Downs.
Wise Dan is certain to be named Americaâ€™s top grass course, with Little Mike and beaten Turf favorite Point of entry close by. But Little Mikeâ€™s win places an exclamation point on a remarkable year for Louisville-born Dale Romans, who should have a great chance to earn his first Eclipse Award as Americaâ€™s top trainer.
Shanghai Bobby and Starlight Partners â€“ A gritty victory by the unbeaten favorite in the Breedersâ€™ Cup Juvenile made the colt the early favorite for next springâ€™s 139th running of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands. It also provided an overdue reward for the Louisvillians who make up most of group of Starlight Partners that own the colt: managing partner Jack Wolf, a Louisville native, and wife Laurie, and other partners who include attorney and civic leader Ed Glasscock and his son, Clinton.
That group has experienced considerable heartache in recent years when Hildaâ€™s Passion, the likely favorite for the 2010 Filly & Mare Sprint at Churchill Downs, came out of a resounding victory in the Ballerina at Saratoga with a career-ending injury and the unbeaten Algorithms was knocked off the road to the 2012 Kentucky Derby by injury.
Now they have the early choice for Derby 139 and the added romance of the presence of jockey Rosie Napravnik in the saddle. She became the first woman to ride a Kentucky Oaks winner when she piloted Believe You Can to victory in this yearâ€™s running, and now is in position to go where no woman has gone before as the pilot of the Derby favorite.
A personal message to Ed Glasscock, who hails from this same hometown as this writer: How does it feel to be the first native of Leitchfield, Ky. to own a favorite for the â€œRun for the Rosesâ€?Â Good luck over the next six months.
D. Wayne Lukas â€“ Heâ€™s an ageless 77 and extended his record Breedersâ€™ Cup victory total to 19 when he saddled the previously win-less Hightail to win the Juvenile Sprint. Wayne gives his horses the opportunity for greatness with a philosophy that â€œyou canâ€™t win it unless youâ€™re in it,â€ and it paid off again.
And he did it for Franklin, Ky. native Brad Kelley â€“ a deep-pocketed owner who is among the richest of Americans and one of the largest landholders in the world.
Words to live by: donâ€™t ever give up on D. Wayne Lukas.
Steve Asmussen â€“ The dominant trainer of recent years at Churchill Downs had a huge Breedersâ€™ Cup, winning the Dirt Mile with Tapizar and earning strong runner-up efforts by My Miss Aurelia in the Ladies Classic and Filly & Mare Sprint runner-up Dust and Diamonds.
Post-Cup praise also goes to Willie Martinez, a longtime Churchill Downs regular who won his first Breedersâ€™ Cup race when he piloted Trinniberg to an upset in the Sprint, and trainer Tom Proctor, who was second in the Filly & Mare Turf with Marketing Mix.
Photos by AMBER CHALFIN | Contributing PhotographerÂ