America’s Best Racing correspondent Tom Pedulla offers his view of the top 10 stories of 2018 from the sport of Thoroughbred racing.
Justify joined Seattle Slew (1977) as the only undefeated Triple Crown champions and the 13th horse overall to complete the historic sweep when he rolled gate-to-wire to capture the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets by a length and three-quarters against late-running Gronkowski. He never appeared to be in jeopardy at any stage of the mile-and-a-half marathon as he responded to jockey Mike Smith’s every wish in triumphing for the sixth time in as many starts. Justify’s emergence represented a dream come true for Elliott Walden, who played a lead role in the ownership group as president of WinStar Farm. “You can’t find these horses,” Walden said. “They find you.”
Justify’s commanding Belmont performance following American Pharoah’s tour de force in 2015 placed Bob Baffert in the company of “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons as the only trainers to oversee two Triple Crown winners. Justify’s Belmont also pushed Baffert past D. Wayne Lukas in giving him an unprecedented 15th victory in a Triple Crown race. Baffert said of his Triple Crown winners, “One thing this horse has, [and] American Pharoah has, is not only are they brilliant, they’re fast, but they’re durable.”
END OF A CURSE
Justify abruptly ended the Curse of Apollo when he became the first horse that was unraced at age 2 to win the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve since Apollo in 1882. Despite not debuting until Feb. 18, he easily brought home the roses by 2 ½ lengths against Good Magic. Mike Smith, 52, became the second-oldest jockey to win the Derby. Bill Shoemaker was 54 when he guided home Ferdinand in 1986. Smith gave all of the credit to his mount. “I just basically stayed out of the way and kept a leg on each side and my mind in the middle,” he said.
The magnificent 4-year-old filly Enable became the first horse to sweep the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe and the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf in the same year when she made a dramatic charge down the middle of the Churchill Downs course and outdueled Magical, a 3-year-old filly, by three-quarters of a length. “She conquered America!” exulted winning rider Frankie Dettori. Triumphant trainer John Gosden was able to step back and savor the moment. “It was a wonderful, wonderful stretch between two great fillies,” he said. “She won with sheer grit and determination.”
Accelerate ended trainer John Sadler’s 30-year quest for a Breeders’ Cup victory when he held off Gunnevera by one length in the $6 million Classic. Sadler ended a 0-for-43 drought. Accelerate, ridden by Joel Rosario, rattled off his fifth consecutive Grade 1 win and improved his record to six wins in seven starts for the season, rewarding the decision to allow him to compete as a 5-year-old instead of sending him to the breeding shed. “We owed it to this industry to keep him on the track and let him do what he was born to do,” said Krista Hronis, one of the owners. “He was born to be a racehorse.”
Monomoy Girl turned the Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Churchill Downs into her fifth Grade 1 triumph of the season, turning back Wow Cat by one length with Florent Geroux aboard. “She was training like a monster and she ran like a monster,” said Brad Cox, her conditioner. “She is a special filly, one of a kind, an unbelievable filly.” For rising star Cox, his first Breeders’ Cup victory could not have been more meaningful. He grew up in the shadow of the famed twin spires.
Trainer Rick Violette listened to what Diversify was telling him when he started him in the $1.25 million Whitney Stakes instead of keeping to a schedule that initially pointed toward the $750,000 Woodward late in the Saratoga meet. The reward was a front-running 3 ½-length triumph against Mind Your Biscuits. “He just did too well not to run. Everything he did said run,” Violette said. “He ate up well here. He trained well. He breezed like a good horse last Sunday. His blood work was good. It was like, ‘Okay stupid, stop being a chicken and bring him over.’” It would be the last graded stakes victory for Violette, a long-time advocate for horsemen who died Oct. 21.
The second running of the $16 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational was emotional on many fronts. For Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen and his staff, the world’s richest race brought a rousing farewell for Gun Runner. The 2017 Horse of the Year closed his memorable racing career with his fifth consecutive Grade 1 triumph and began his life as a stallion at Three Chimneys Farm as an earner of $15,988,500. For jockey Florent Geroux, the Pegasus came one day after he passed the oral exam required to fulfill his dream of becoming a United States citizen.
John Velazquez became the fourth active jockey and the 18th overall to register 6,000 wins when he booted home Singapore Trader on Nov. 30 at Aqueduct for Todd Pletcher, a trainer with whom he has enjoyed a long and prolific association. As much as Pletcher admires Velazquez for his riding skills, he values the man even more. “Winning 6,000 races is a tremendous accomplishment,” Pletcher said. “But what I’m most proud of Johnny for is the person he is – a leader of the jockey community, a caring father, loving husband, friend and mentor to many.”
Racing mourned the loss of Cothran “Cot” Campbell, who died on Oct. 27 at his home in Aiken, S.C. Campbell, 91, was ahead of his time in showing how effective partnerships can be in limiting financial risk while often giving investors the opportunity to have a share in multiple horses. His Dogwood Stable campaigned 80 stakes winners, including Summer Squall (1990 Preakness) and Palace Malice (2013 Belmont). Campbell’s passion for the sport could not have been greater. He once wrote for BloodHorse: “No horseman ever lived who could consistently identify the good ones. Therein lies the charm.”