What was the best race from the first half of 2021?
Halfway through 2021, there has plenty of excellent racing in North America. So, let's ask ourselves another midyear question. What has been the best race of the year?
Apple Blossom Handicap (G1)
The Apple Blossom was billed as a showdown between Monomoy Girl and Swiss Skydiver, but a new standout emerged.
As many expected, Letruska set the pace in the Apple Blossom. As fewer expected, Letruska dug to deny Monomoy Girl by a nose.
Letruska has continued to dominate the division, with wins in the Ogden Phipps S. (G1) and the Fleur de Lis S. (G2) since her Apple Blossom score.
Belmont Stakes (G1)
The three-year-old male division was muddled ahead of the Belmont. Essential Quality looked to rebound from his first loss, Rombauer sought to frank his Preakness S. (G1) triumph, and Hot Rod Charlie, Rock Your World, Known Agenda, and Bourbonic came to make room for themselves at the top of the crop.
Class rose to the top in the "Test of the Champion," as Essential Quality made a long, sustained run to overtake Hot Rod Charlie in the lane. But Hot Rod Charlie made headlines of his own, as he set a breakneck pace for a mile and a half, stayed on, and finished 11 1/4 lengths clear of everyone but Essential Quality.
Kentucky Oaks (G1)
Malathaat came into the Kentucky Oaks undefeated — four-for-four. Search Results came into the Kentucky Oaks undefeated — three-for-three.
At the head of the stretch, Search Results made the front. At the eighth pole, Malathaat battled on to join her. In that final furlong of the Kentucky Oaks, both gave everything they had to keep their undefeated record intact. But once Malathaat got her head in front, she refused to let Search Results come back and prevailed by a neck.
Turf Classic Stakes (G1)
There is a reason this race has become the fixture right before the Kentucky Derby (G1). It's a perennial showcase of the best in the turf division.
After a mile and an eighth on the grass, absolutely nothing separated Pegasus World Cup Turf (G1) winner Colonel Liam and Domestic Spending, who was already a Grade 1 winner against three-year-olds but faced older horses for the first time.
Domestic Spending followed up to win the Manhattan S. (G1), which strengthened his claim as the best older male turf router at this point in the season. And, just a neck behind them in the Turf Classic was Smooth Like Strait, who won the Shoemaker Mile (G1) next time out.
Poker Stakes (G3)
This may be a dark-horse candidate for best race this year, but sometimes a race is great both because of what happened on the racetrack, as well as the story around it.
The Poker had a better field than its Grade 3 designation would suggest. Favored Raging Bull impressed in the Maker's Mark Mile (G1) this year, and Oleksandra won the Jaipur S. (G1) last season.
Six-year-old Raging Bull, off that win at Keeneland, was finally the "now" horse. For Oleksandra, nothing had gone according to plan. She was injured after the Jaipur and was unable to race between then and the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint (G1). For some time, whether she would even make the Breeders' Cup was a question. She clipped heels early in the Las Cienegas S. (G3) next time out. Win or lose, the Poker would be Oleksandra's racing finale, as she was bred to Into Mischief. Out of touch early, she began to gain on the turn, swung out six wide to the lane, rallied to the lead, and denied the ground-saving favorite Raging Bull to score by a head.
Last week, we asked the you who was the best handicap horse in 2021. Silver State is on a six-win streak, and he didn't lose this one, either. He took 58% of your vote. Charlatan was second, with 17% — though with him retired and Maxfield on the rise after his victory in the Stephen Foster S. (G2), there's everything left to play for in the handicap division!