As we come to the last major stakes weekend of the year, I would be remiss if I did not reflect on the ups and downs of 2008.
Sure, there was great sadness in Eight Belles, but there was even more depravity in how the press treated her connections. Yes, there were additional, supposedly safer, synthetic racetracks developed, but there was also a serious lack of research going into making more tracks safer dirt courses like those in Japan, or such as the Fair Grounds, Tampa Bay Downs or Hawthorne.
Now, for the simply stellar.
The real story of 2008 was Curlin. His victory in the Dubai World Cup, that made the world believe in his talent, was the first major exclamation point of 2008. His follow up victory in the Stephen Foster, a race in which so many Dubai destroyers had nobly failed before him, put him in a separate category. That race, to me, makes him Horse of the Year over the undefeated filly phenom, Zenyatta. Yes, Zenyatta was undefeated. I concede her dominance over her own sex. But, the only way a female horse wins "HOY", in my book, is if she beats the opposite sex at the top of their game, or there is simply no standout in any other division. If Curlin would have only performed on conventional dirt, he would have been undefeated with wins at Churchill, Belmont, and Saratoga in American Grade 1's, and not one, but TWO wins overseas against the best international competition. This is not a case for Curlin, but a statement of record that he annexed territory that had yet to be completed successfully.
The story of Big Brown was one that made us once again believe in an exceptional talent, and then have them revealed to be the very flesh and blood of the predecessors. Such is the life of the American Thoroughbred Superstar. In Europe, Zarkava proved to have the best kick that I have seen since Pientre Celebre. Since fillies usually peak at four, it would be incredible to see what might have been next year. I cannot fault her connections, though, for putting her away after she had won the biggest race in Europe as an undefeated sophomore. What a filly!
Horses to watch in 2008? Look no farther than this weekend's big races. The Malibu features a fantastic group, including the talented Mandella-trained Into Mischief, who will most likely go off as a slight favorite over Travers and Santa Anita Derby winner Colonel John. The horse who will come out of this race as the most likely winner, in my eyes, and possibly with the brightest future (at least on the racetrack) is Georgie Boy. If they are lined up at the eighth pole, he will out kick the entire field, hands-down (see him here at the track and distance beating Into Mischief). After this race, expect to see him lighting up the Santa Anita meet, and possibly taking his act east.
Though I am tempted to say he has been over-raced this year, Gio Ponti is a horse with a huge future if he keeps improving. He is the best horse in the Sir Beaufort field, and should only lose if he has an awful trip, again. He may have won the Hollywood Derby, had he any luck at all. Also, cutting back in distance will help this colt, whose best distance is probably 8.5 to 9 furlongs.
Indian Blessing is the star in the La Brea-G1, but do not be surprised if it is that official coronation of a new queen of racing, Country Star. This filly has had her troubles, but should keep improving with age, as she is incredibly well-bred. Her dam, the very talented Rings a Chime, was good enough to win the Ashland and place in the Kentucky Oaks, both on conventional dirt courses (beating champions Cash Run and Spain). A great deal of her talent was in her deceptively deep pedigree. Her no-name sire, Metfield, was a son of Seattle Slew out Inca Queen. The latter was, in turn, a daughter of Hail to Reason (sire of greats Roberto and Halo), out of Silver Spoon (a Citation-sired champion who is one of only two fillies to sweep both the Santa Anita Oaks and Derby).
Rings a Chime (pictured beating the ultra-fantastic producer Zaftig in the Ashland)'s dam was a gritty stakes winner named Outofthebluebell and her damsire is Red Ryder. Not familiar to you? Well, he just so happened to be the only full brother to Mr. Prospector, and was sent to South Africa in 1990. He was unraced, and his influence is few and far between in the U.S., but beware of him in pedigrees. He and his much more famous brother were bred for speed, speed, a dash of two-turn grit, and more speed.
Do not be surprised if Country Song has all her chinks patched up and is ready to eventually take on, I dare say it, Zenyatta?! I do dare.
The last star in the making to watch this weekend is Baffert's filly, Internallyflawless. This Giant's Causeway, out of a Seeking the Gold daughter of the great producer, Korveya, will have something to say about 2009. She is bred to run on everything, so do not be put off if she gives the two big IEAH/Tapit fillies a run for their money in the Las Virgenes and S.A. Oaks. Her race in the Miesque was not mind-blowing, but she just kept coming. She's a grinder who just might develop into a much more blinding closer. Seeking the Gold's influence is often just that- his horses often go from useful to flashing the closing fortitude of I Am The Game, Concern or Looming.
My biggest predictions for 2009, though, are human ones. I think Edgar Prado will take his reign back as the top jockey in America from Garrett Gomez. Rafael Bejarano will get the best rides of the year, but still will fall just short of the top two. Ramon Dominguez will be the big surprise. He will jump up into the top 3 or 4 jockeys, and may possibly win a classic race.
2009 may be the year that Bob Baffert returns to his rightful position on top of the sport. He is arguably the best all-around trainer in the game, and the most talented big-race trainer in the country. It will take a great deal to knock off the scary momentum of Steve Asmussen and Dick Dutrow. Do not be surprised if Larry Jones has an amazing year, as well. He is looking stacked for 2009, despite calling it quits at the end of the year. Proud Spell, Old Fashioned, and Solar Flare look to come back big time for the tough grass-roots trainer.
Cheers, everyone, and happy new year! Let's keep this sport together, progressing, and taking care of its people and animals.