1) Delaware Handicap - As if there was any doubt. The Epic rivalry between the two fantastic females came to an unforgettable conclusion in the 1 ¼ miles of the Delaware Handicap. In meeting number seven it looked like Havre de Grace was primed to become the queen as she stalked comfortably the early pace set by Life at Ten, but Blind Luck would have none of that. Making a huge move on the turn, the defending 3yo filly champion collared the powerful Larry Jones trainee soon after she had taken the lead, and the race was on. What transpired down the Delaware stretch was poetry in motion. Two great horses giving it their all, Blind Luck could never get by the game Havre de Grace, that is … until the wire. At the time we had no idea it would be their final matchup; it turned out to be the ultimate end to a great rivalry.
2) Hollywood Gold Cup - If not for the unforgettable drama in the Delaware Handicap, this race would have been a great candidate for race of the year. As two of the best horses in America in Game On Dude and Twirling Candy set moderate fractions in first and second early, First Dude sat back near the back of the pack. As the two leaders became joined at the top of the lane for a ferocious battle, it still seemed First Dude had too much to do. Not for this Dude. As Game On Dude tenaciously held off Twirling Candy, it was the other Dude who came rolling late to get up by a thrilling nose on the wire.
3) Princess Rooney Handicap – In a somewhat forgotten performance, I look back at the amazing performance of Sassy Image, as the single most visually impressive race I saw all year. Coming from the clouds does not quite do justice to where the classy daughter of Broken Vow came from in this grade 1 affair to nail future Breeders’ Cup winner, Musical Romance on the wire. If you haven’t seen this amazing last to first (all in the stretch) rush, the replay video is an absolute must watch.
4) King’s Bishop – Superstar Uncle Mo was back at the Spa, and for a moment in the stretch it appeared he was returning with a grade 1 win. That is of course before the flash in the pink silks stormed down the lane to nail him at the wire. The victory of Caleb’s Posse was so narrow that it would take the photo to tell for sure if his relentless rally had gotten there in time. Selfishly, it didn’t hurt that I singled Caleb’s Posse in all of my Pick 3’s, driving my biggest windfall of the year, to rate this race very highly.
5) Santa Anita Handicap – This race had a little bit of everything … drama, glamour, and rough riding. With heavily favored Twirling Candy in the middle, and Setsuko rallying on the outside, the gutsy Game On Dude played a little pinball with the other two at the head of the stretch. Twirling Candy would take the worst of it, leaving Game On Dude to gamely hold off Setsuko in a thrilling finish. Ten minutes would pass before stewards allowed the decision to stand, giving Chantal Sutherland her biggest win to date.
6) Breeders’ Cup Juvenile – In the most exciting finish of the World Championships, it was the speedy gray, Hansen, just holding off the big bay, Union Rags, to win the most important race for juveniles in the nation. Hansen proved his courage, while Union Rags supporters will point out all the extra ground he covered. It was quite a way to finish the season for the undefeated champion, and hopefully a glorious beginning to a great rivalry between the two talented colts.
7 The Melbourne Cup – Yes, I follow racing outside of the United States, and this year it was the race “the race that stops a nation” that was my favorite international race of the year. After 2 miles, French invader Dunaden and Red Cadeaux hit the wire in unison. In one of the tightest photos you ever want to see, Dunaden got the decision by the tip of a nostril to win the lion’s share of the $6.2 million purse. He would verify this big win by taking the rich Hong Kong Vase in his next start.
8) Turf Classic Invitational – Three trips to America, and three grade 1 wins, not bad work if you can get it. While Cape Blanco showed off his talent with cruising wins in the Man O’ War and Arlington Million, it was on a soggy turf course at Belmont Park that the world class 4-year-old would need to summon every ounce of courage to defeat the rallying long shot, Dean’s Kitten by a whisker.
9) The Preakness – All sweated up before the race, not many would have given Shackleford a big chance to win the Middle Jewel of the Triple Crown as the field entered the starting gate. 1 3/16 miles later though, the beautiful chestnut had not only beaten off all comers on the front end, but he also had enough in the tank, or in the heart, to hold off a hard charging Kentucky Derby champion, to get the big win at Old Hilltop.
10) Sir Beaufort Stakes - How does a grade 2 stakes race for 3-year-olds in the final week of the year make my list? Simple, it was the race I believe will mark the coming out party of my favorite horse in training, Mr. Commons. Bursting through a seam like a steam locomotive, the son of Artie Schiller motored home to an eye-catching score on opening day at Santa Anita. Look for him to go on to bigger and better things in 2012.