“I never gave a hoot about horse racing until ___________ came along this year.” Bob Jones said to me the other day at a grocery store in Louisville. There are a lot of horses who could fit into that blank space.
2012 brought us a year of awesome horses, fantastic races, and unfortunate tragedy that brought together the industry. With the Eclipse Awards slowly creeping upon us, I decided to come up with a list of my own. I will use some of the categories from the Eclipse Awards, however these are the horses, and people, who I believe made the biggest impact on fandom in the sport. The horses who will win Eclipse awards are true champions and were the best horses on the racetrack in their respected category. These are who I feel should win the award for who made the most impact, as a whole, to the industry.
2-Year-Old Horse: Shanghai Bobby
– Guts, that’s the words that sums up this horse. Shanghai Bobby willed his way to victory in the Breeders’ Cup and became the frontrunner for every 2-year-old award in 2012. Shanghai Bobby brought together the ownership of Starlight Racing and made their name known nationwide with his success. Through several print articles about the ownership, Shanghai Bobby gave racing and non-racing fans a new insight on horse ownership.
Older Horse: Shackleford
– Shackleford was not on my mind for this award until his performance in the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs. I tweeted on May 28th, after Shackleford won the Met Mile, that he could be considered for the Horse of the Year. Well, I was clearly wrong after a few less than par starts. Shackleford won three times this year, twice at Churchill Downs. Shack gained most of his fame in 2011 winning the Preakness with Jesus Castanon aboard. After Castanon went to the sideline with an injury I was waiting for the day these two would be re-united. It wasn’t until Shackleford’s last start that the two would meet on the racetrack again. Shackleford gave every bit of energy he had, every last ounce of strength to win the Clark. The storybook ending to a great career, Shackleford goes out a winner and does it under the hands of Jesus Castanon. Hollywood can’t even script a story this good.
Comeback Horse: Animal Kingdom
– If I didn’t give the nod to Animal Kingdom in this spot I wouldn’t even respect myself. Team Valor and Graham Motion showed tremendous horsemanship to not only bring back Animal Kingdom from injury but kept him sound. Motion was patient, almost John Sherrifs patient, with Animal Kingdom and it’s paying extreme precedence for his future on the racetrack. Not a lot of people thought it would be possible for Animal Kingdom to run well in the Breeders’ Cup off such a long layoff. Animal Kingdom showed how classy of a horse he is and how brilliant 2013 could be. Animal Kingdom brought together one awesome story for the media to present.
Outstanding Owner: Dr. Kendall Hansen
- Dr. Hansen did something with a horse that should be extremely respected industry wide. Some media spinoffs were negative, some were positive, Dr. Hansen made sure everyone knew Hansen (the horse) and brought new fans to the sport. Hansen, blue tail or grey, was a horse everyone will remember for that exact incident. If you were at the Kentucky Derby you know Dr. Hansen gave out hundreds of squishy Hansen dolls. Dr. Hansen also had women dressed up with blue tails on walking throughout the paddock to cheer on his horse. As crazy as some of these ideas were and as much as some people did not like them, Dr. Hansen did a phenomenal job to gain fans for Hansen. Kudos, Dr. Hansen for a fantastic job promoting your horse. Kudos, Mike Maker, for a brilliant job of managing both owner and horse.
Outstanding Trainer: Mike Mitchell
- I will be the first to admit I am not as well versed on California racing as I am to mid-west/east coast racing. Mike Mitchell fought more than any of us have in our entire lives. Every time I saw the media highlight Mitchell’s health issues I always saw a smile on his face. This is what makes him deserving as an outstanding trainer. Mitchell still had success out on the racetrack even though he was struggling with his own body. Mitchell still went to work when he could and still sent out winners even when he was sick. Three weeks after receiving brain surgery Mitchell was back at the races. That is called dedication.
Outstanding Jockey: Perry Ouzts
- This was one of the toughest categories I had to select a winner. There are so many great stories of so many great riders in 2012 that I wanted to include in this category. So, why did I include someone who is not even in the top 200 in the money earnings and has never won a graded stake? Since 1997, besides 2005 when he was sidelined, Ouzts has won an average of 187 races each year. This year alone he’s won 246 and did something that I was astonished by. Over the summer I was handicapping some races for the day and I heard that Ouzts got in a motorcycle accident that morning. However, that afternoon while I was waiting Pete Aiello to announce the rider changes for Ouzts, he was out on the racetrack and won on his first two mounts! Some people, and rightfully so, would take the afternoon off after being traumatized from a wreck that day. Ouzts was lucky enough that he didn’t get hurt, but won on two of his mounts at River Downs. Also in 2012 Ouzts recorded his 6,000th win, and at age 57 is still riding like a 20-year-old.
Outstanding Horse: I'll Have Another
- As I started this story I gave a “_____” in the quote and didn’t give away the horse’s name. Well, the horse Jones was talking about was I’ll Have Another. The media attention, the fandom, the races, I’ll Have Another proved what the Triple Crown is all about. The Triple Crown campaign of 2012 is something I know a lot of people will remember for the rest of their lives, including myself. I think we will be asking each other in a few years, “Where were you when I’ll Have Another was announced he was scratched from the Belmont Stakes?” So many horses brought so many great stories to the mainstream in 2012 and deserved to be recognized in this category. I’ll Have Another made the sporting world believe that 2012 could bring a Triple Crown winner. Through his coverage on major news and sports networks, I’ll Have Another gave a personal connection through the O’Neill’s and Mr. Reddam. After so many great events and great races in 2012 some of us may have forgotten the brilliance the months of May and June brought to American racing. Forgotten for the time being, but we will always remember the legacy I’ll Have Another had on the racing world in the Triple Crown campaign.
Some of the other horses I would like to recognize for this category are Groupie Doll
, who tried something new (blinkers) and showed tremendous heart against the boys to show she is one heck of a racehorse. Saginaw
, who should be the New York bred Horse of the Year. Saginaw won 10 races in 2012 and still has one more lined up before the year’s end. Saginaw not only shows the brilliance of a trainer to find the right races for him, but the brilliance of a great partnership to claim this horse for only $30,000. After the claim, he went on to win almost $500,000 since. Ready’s Rocket
is a horse well known in the Kentucky area who became the horse with the most wins at Churchill Downs. Ready’s Rocket, who was retired in the spring, stamped his spot in history in 2012 with his final victory under the spires at Churchill Downs. Finally, I have to give credit to Paynter
. Paynter brought together the entire industry over social media when he fell ill over the summer. When Paynter got sick and Mr. Zayat kept the racing industry informed on Paynter’s progress over Twitter, it showed how important social media is to this industry. Paynter fought through things most horses would have died from, but he kept going. Not only did he show courage on the racetrack this year but he showed courage fighting for his life. This is an incredible story of how his owners believed in him and not the money. The Zayat’s could have not spent their money to get Paynter healthy but they did.
It's not only about just the Eclipse Award winners this year. It never is. There are many, many horses who I left off this list and several stories that I could have included. Please, I’d love to hear some of your opinions. What horses impacted you the most? What stories to you remember from 2012 and what stories will you remember for years down the road?