One of my favorite things about turning the page on a new year is the opportunity it affords to revisit the one just past.
In this space, that means reliving a few brief shining moments of 2021 that might have been overlooked or underappreciated during what overall was a tough year for the sport of horse racing.
My annual trip down memory lane comes from doing my homework before voting in the annual Eclipse Awards, which will be presented Feb. 10 at Santa Anita Park.
So sit back and enjoy a few good memories from the year that was:
Horse of the Year
and Older Dirt Male
It’s hard for me to see either of these trophies going to anyone other than Knicks Go. The Brad Cox-trained 5-year-old won five of his six U.S. starts, capped by a relatively easy victory in the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic. Foes always knew he was going to follow the advice of legendary East Coast trainer “Father Bill” Daly, who history has it told some forgotten jockey to “go to the front and improve your position,” but none could do anything about it at distances of 1⅛th or 1¼ miles. We should get to see him in action one more time later this month in the $3 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational. I had Maxfield second and Silver State third.
Older Dirt Female
Letruska deserves the laurels for her body of work, which included six graded-stakes victories for Mexico-based trainer Fausto Gutierrez, four of them Grade 1s. Shedaresthedevil was my second choice, with As Time Goes By in third.
In the colts division, the Bob Baffert-trained Corniche seems a shoo-in, unless there’s some sort of protest vote because of the controversy hanging over the Hall of Fame trainer from Medina Spirit’s still unresolved drug positive after winning the Kentucky Derby. This colt did nothing wrong in a three-for-three season that culminated with a win in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. In the fillies division, you can’t look past Echo Zulu, who finished the year with four wins from four starts, including a waltz in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies.
This was probably the closest call for me, but Essential Quality got my vote as the top colt. He won five of seven starts, most notably the Belmont and Travers Stakes. Medina Spirit was a close second, in my estimation, even though he finished ahead of Essential Quality both times they met. The ill-fated colt, who died after completing a workout on Dec. 6 and remains the Kentucky Derby winner for now, won three graded stakes, however, to Essential Quality’s five. Life is Good, the best miler, and Jackie’s Warrior, the best sprinter, both deserve accolades as well, but my third placing went to the former. In the fillies division, I gave it to Malathaat, winner of three Grade 1s and never off the board in five starts. I could see some opting for Going Global, a five-time graded stakes winner in California who seems the only legitimate threat.
And the rest
My other top equine selections: Sprint: Jackie’s Warrior, narrowly over Aloha West and Golden Pal; Female Sprint: Gamine, with Ce Ce and Bella Sophia in the minor placings; Male Turf: Colonel Liam by a whisker over Domestic Spending and Smooth Like Strait; Female Turf: the late Santa Barbara, over Althiqa and Going Global.
For the humans: Cox repeats as top conditioner, edging out new all-time winningest trainer Steve Asmussen. Don’t see how you could deny Joel Rosario his first Eclipse Award as top rider, given he nearly broke the all-time earnings record. Jessica Pyfer was top apprentice, riding in the tough Southern California colony. Time to recognize Godolphin as Owner and Breeder of the Year, after the stable run by the ruling family of Dubai topped nearly every category. A special nod, though, to Maryland breeder Angie Moore, who produced Knicks Go at her modest Greenmount Farm operation.
Ellis Starr’s Santa Ynez Stakes analysis
$200,000 race at 7 furlongs for 3-year-old fillies on Saturday.
Miss Mattie B ran the second fastest of any horse in the field in her most recent race on Nov. 27, earning a 98 Equibase Speed Figure while drawing off to win by nearly four lengths under Mike Smith, who rides back after getting familiar with her that day. After starting her career in Indiana this past summer, Miss Mattie B moved to California and to the barn of Robert Hess Jr. but did not run well in two races in blinkers, one a sprint on dirt where she finished third, beaten 14 lengths, and the other a sprint on turf where she checked in seventh of 12 after a bit of trouble. Removing blinkers for her most recent race, Miss Mattie B improved markedly to rally from ninth of 12 early, swinging four paths wide on the turn and easily winning. The cut back in distance is of no concern as it not only gives her a little extra stamina and kick in the late stages compared to her most recent race, but according to a Race Lens research query, trainer Hess has a very strong 25 percent winning percentage and +55 percent return on investment over the last two years when moving his horses from routes to dirt sprints. With that in mind, Miss Mattie B could run the same or better as in her most recent race and prove victorious in the Santa Ynez Stakes.
Big Switch is a perfect two for two in her career, with the second of the two victories coming at the same trip. After earning a lowly 67 figure winning at six furlongs in August, Big Switch was much more mature when returning to the races on Nov. 5, earning a 91 figure when winning the Golden State Juvenile Fillies Stakes by nearly three lengths after relaxing in fifth of six in the early stages. She’s likely got a bright future ahead of her in the top barn of John Sadler, particularly as one of the other two foals of the dam won seven of 16 races on dirt and was a stakes winner at 7 furlongs as well. The 91 figure earned in her second start can be improved upon and that makes Big Switch a strong contender in this field.
Under the Stars will likely be the betting favorite based on the fact her trainer is Bob Baffert, who has won with nine of 21 starters (43 percent) since the start of the Santa Anita winter-spring meeting on Dec. 26. Another reason Under the Stars will be bet heavily is she is a half-sister to multiple stakes winner Bodemeister, who won the 2012 Arkansas Derby easily before runner-up efforts in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes that year. Under the Stars won last month in her third career start and earned a field high 99 figure in doing so. She certainly may be capable of improving off that effort, but she lacks the class of Big Switch, who just won a stakes race, and she lacks the stamina of Miss Mattie B on the cut back from a winning route to a sprint. Just the same, Under the Stars could be yet another top 3-year-old filly in the career of Bob Baffert and win this race.
The rest of the field, with their best Equibase Speed Figures: Awake at Midnyte (89); Big Shamrock (69); and Mimajoon (82).
Ellis Starr is the national racing analyst for Equibase. Visit the Equibase website for more on the race or to purchase handicapping products.