2021 in review: Top 10 thrilling finishes in U.S. horse racing

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December 31st, 2021

For my look back at the American Thoroughbred racing scene of 2021, I’d like to highlight the year’s most riveting finishes. From the classic brigade to turf performers, sprinters, and distaffers, several divisions are represented in this Top 10 list.

So without further ado, we’ll go in reverse order and count down to number one, New Year’s Eve ball-style.

10. Pilgrim (G2) at Belmont Park

Promising turf juveniles Annapolis and Portfolio Company turned the Oct. 3 Pilgrim (G2) into a virtual match race at Belmont Park. Although Portfolio Company seized the early initiative, 0.65-1 favorite Annapolis wore him down by a head after a prolonged battle. Even so, the runner-up kept fighting all the way to the wire as they pulled five lengths clear of the rest.

9. Belmont Oaks (G1) at Belmont Park

Aidan O’Brien shipper Santa Barbara towered over the field in the July 10 Belmont Oaks (G1), but traffic prevented her from flaunting that superiority until the final yards. Indeed, backers of the 1.15-1 favorite had to sweat out anxious moments as she was strung up in the pocket. Jockey Ryan Moore was forced to drop back and come around to find room in midstretch. Yet Santa Barbara was still too good for them. Delivering a sparkling change of gear, Santa Barbara won by a more comfortable half-length than looked physically possible just seconds before.

8. Kentucky Oaks (G1) at Churchill Downs

Likely champion three-year-old filly Malathaat has been a magnet for tight finishes. Her fantastic rally in the Ashland (G1), and upset loss in the Coaching Club American Oaks (G1), could have qualified for this list as well, but her Apr. 30 Kentucky Oaks (G1) is arguably the most compelling. Despite a troubled start and wide trip, the daughter of Hall of Famer Curlin prevailed by a neck over an ultra-game Search Results. While Malathaat looked poised to overpower Search Results at the top of the lane, her rival refused to yield. The two fillies, both unbeaten at the time, served up a terrific stretch run at Churchill Downs.

7. Turf Classic (G1) at Churchill Downs

When Domestic Spending surged late to join Colonel Liam on the line in the Old Forester Bourbon Turf Classic (G1), their dead-heat victory was symbolic of the state of the turf division on May 1. Colonel Liam was the pro tem leader of the American turf males through the first half of the season, but Domestic Spending would overtake command of the division in the summer. Their inseparable photo-finish in the Turf Classic on Kentucky Derby Day at Churchill Downs was a snapshot in time, the instant before the changing of the guard. As it turned out, both were on the sidelines by the Breeders’ Cup, leaving the turf championship ripe for European plunder.

6. H. Allen Jerkens Memorial (G1) at Saratoga

Gutsy sprinter Jackie’s Warrior, who suffered a brutal beat in the June 5 Woody Stephens (G1), came out on top in another race named for a Hall of Fame trainer – the Aug. 28 H. Allen Jerkens Memorial (G1). In so doing, he spoiled the perfect record of Life Is Good, who ran extremely well in his first start back from ankle surgery. Tracking Life Is Good on the inside through hot fractions, Jackie’s Warrior grabbed a narrow lead in the stretch and held off his redoubtable foe by a neck.

5. Breeders’ Cup Sprint (G1) at Del Mar

Dr. Schivel appeared to have not only the Breeders’ Cup Sprint (G1) trophy in his hands, but also a divisional Eclipse Award, as he drove clear in midstretch at Del Mar. Then out of the blue came the 11-1 Aloha West to mug him at the wire. While Aloha West wasn’t illogical, as an up-and-comer in the sprint ranks, he hadn’t won a stakes before. This was quite the occasion for a breakthrough.

4. Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1) at Del Mar

As if a nearly 50-1 shocker by a Japanese dirt horse in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1) weren’t enough, the stretch run at Del Mar added to the drama. An epic pace collapse played to the strengths of Marche Lorraine, who struck the front turning for home and relied on her stamina to hold on. A posse of American hopes tried to catch the stout Japanese mare, to no avail. Dunbar Road uncorked a furious rally to make it close, with Malathaat grinding on the inside and Clairiere swooping wider out, but Marche Lorraine’s nose reached the wire first in the blanket finish. She thereby concluded an incredible Breeders’ Cup double for trainer Yoshito Yahagi, after her far more credentialed stablemate (see number 3 below).

3. Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf (G1) at Del Mar

The 1 3/8-mile Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf (G1) was almost twice as long as the six-furlong Sprint, but it too produced a thriller in the shadow of the wire – with Eclipse implications. War Like Goddess made a circling move and subdued Love in the stretch, in hopes of clinching a championship as the 2.30-1 favorite, only to have My Sister Nat fly alongside. Then Loves Only You, hitherto stuck behind them, suddenly speared through to become the first-ever Japanese-based horse to win a Breeders’ Cup race. Given her world-class form abroad, Loves Only You’s late thrust might have propelled her to an Eclipse Award as well.

2. Belmont S. (G1) at Belmont Park

Essential Quality and Hot Rod Charlie had a penchant for stretch slugfests. If the stamina-laden Essential Quality tended to outlast his opposition, as in the Travers (G1), Jim Dandy (G2), and Blue Grass (G2), the speedy Hot Rod Charlie at times succumbed late. Most of his losses came by narrow margins. Hot Rod Charlie didn’t miss by much to ill-fated Medina Spirit in the Robert B. Lewis (G3) and Kentucky Derby (G1), crossed the wire first in a tight Haskell (G1) only to be disqualified for interference, and he ended the season just denied by Express Train in the San Antonio (G2).

Hence Essential Quality and Hot Rod Charlie’s no-holds-barred wrestling match in the June 5 Belmont (G1) showcased their finest qualities. Hot Rod Charlie was heroic on the front end, ripping through fast fractions of :22.78 and :46.49 for a 1 1/2-mile classic. As a half-brother to champion sprinter Mitole, Hot Rod Charlie was entitled to curl up when Essential Quality accosted him. But Hot Rod Charlie summoned additional staying power from his sire, Oxbow, and forced Essential Quality to find extra to put him away. As a son of Tapit, Essential Quality had more left in the tank to edge away late. Their tag-team produced one of the top Brisnet Speed figures of 2021, as my colleague James Scully explains.

1. Apple Blossom H. (G1) at Oaklawn Park

The Apr. 17 Apple Blossom H. (G1) will go down in history as a vintage renewal at Oaklawn Park, with three champions filling the trifecta. Letruska grabbed the early lead from last year’s champion three-year-old filly, Swiss Skydiver, then found two-time Breeders’ Cup champ Monomoy Girl pass her in upper stretch. That’s when Letruska, formerly a champion in Mexico, first proved herself of U.S. championship-caliber. Coming again after looking beaten, Letruska clawed back the yards, drew level with Monomoy Girl, and regained the advantage by a nose at the wire. Swiss Skydiver was left 6 1/2 lengths behind in third.

The verdict might have been assisted by a six-pound weight concession from Monomoy Girl, but Letruska’s subsequent winning streak underscores the merit of her performance. The Apple Blossom was the beginning of a five-race spree, all in major divisional races, that put Letruska in pole position for an Eclipse Award. Thus in hindsight, you can imagine the passing of the baton from Monomoy Girl to Letruska in those last strides of the Apple Blossom.