What made 2016 so memorable for racing fans?
With all due respect to the connections of Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist, Preakness winner Exaggerator and Belmont winner Creator – it wasn't the Triple Crown. It would have been difficult to top 2015 in that regard, when American Pharoah ended the 37-year Triple Crown drought with a domineering sweep of those three races, then putting the cherry on top of a brief but brilliant career by capturing the Breeders' Cup Classic in his only run against older horses. He was quickly whisked off to stud.
The 3-year-old filly Songbird was magnificent in 2016, winning seven races and remaining unbeaten through 11 career starts until she tasted defeat for the first time – by the slimmest of margins – at the hands of the three-time champion mare Beholder in the Breeders' Cup Distaff. She's returning to the races for owner Rick Porter this year
And the late-blooming 3-year-old colt Arrogate showed enormous ability in his two lone stakes races for Saudi Arabia's Prince Khalid, blowing the doors off his rivals in the Travers at Saratoga and then running down California Chrome in the final strides of the Breeders' Cup Classic. He's back this year, too, his first start coming next Saturday in the inaugural running of the $12-million Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park.
For me, and I'm sure for many others, what made 2016 a racing year for the ages were the campaigns of three older runners – 5-year-old California Chrome, 6-year-old Beholder and 5-year-old Tepin. They brought something to the sport that is sorely needed: the kind of star power that keeps fans following from one season to another.
If Beholder's owner, B. Wayne Hughes, had taken the conventional path of so many Kentucky breeders and retired Beholder at the end of her 4- or 5-year-old campaign, fans would not have been treated to a Breeders' Cup Distaff that ranks up there with Personal Ensign's dramatic surge in the shadow of the wire in 1988, when she defeated Kentucky Derby-winning filly Winning Colors and retired unbeaten after 13 career starts.
What if Robertson Masterson, the owner of Tepin, decided his 4-year-old filly had done enough after defeating colts in the 2015 Breeders' Cup Mile and winning an Eclipse Award as champion turf mare? Well, we wouldn't have had the chance to see her back up that triumph with another tremendous performance, this one during the 2016 Royal Ascot meeting in England, where she defeated males again, in the Queen Anne Stakes. For good measure Tepin added a third Grade/Group 1 victory against males in September, winning the Woodbine Mile in Canada, then fell just a half-length short of successfully defending her title in the Breeders' Cup Mile.
Tepin is coming back this year at six, with more international mountains to climb, according to Masterson. For that we are grateful.
Then there is California Chrome, whose life story and career has had more twists and turns than the road to Hana.
The chestnut-coated California-bred from the barn of Art and Alan Sherman was a good horse at 2 and an exciting two-time Classic winner at 3 who was voted Horse of the Year. He then went through a difficult year at 4 when his co-breeders and original owners, Perry Martin and Steve Coburn, thought the racing world was their oyster.
Enter the shrewd family of horsemen from Taylor Made Farm, who took on a significant ownership interest, and California Chrome – after a good, long freshening – was restored to brilliance in 2016 at the age of 5. His owners and the Shermans gave him time to grow up and they've been rewarded with a professionally managed and near-perfect season of six wins from seven starts – the lone defeat coming at the hands of Arrogate in the Breeders' Cup Classic.
California Chrome has one more chance to thrill his followers, the self-proclaimed “Chromies,” in the Pegasus World Cup. The brainchild of Frank Stronach, the race is designed in part to keep racing's best horses in training another year – or maybe just a couple of more months, as is the case with California Chrome, who will enter stud in February at Taylor Made Farm in Nicholasville, Ky.
This is what horse racing needs, the best horses remaining in training beyond their 3-year-old seasons. It is the only way to build lasting star power.
Not everyone got the memo.
– Sheikh Mohammed's Darley announced in a press release on Oct. 31 that 2016 Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist was being retired to stud. When he missed the Breeders' Cup Classic because of what was called a “puffy ankle,” trainer Doug O'Neill said Nyquist was “100 percent sound” in every other way.
– Kenny Troutt's WinStar Farm announced on Oct. 10 that 2016 Preakness winner Exaggerator was being retired. “He is a sound horse that passes all physical exams, but as the only 3-year-old to test all the Triple Crown races and summer classics, he's a horse that is asking us for a rest,” the farm's president and CEO, Elliott Walden, said in a press release,
– WinStar Farm announced on Oct. 6 that 2016 Belmont Stakes winner Creator – who had been given an “extended rest” after the Travers Stakes – was being sold to the Japan Bloodhorse Breeders' Association and retired to stud.
I know that breeding is a business, and when horses succeed at the highest level their connections become asset managers – not just horsemen.
I also know that without the sport, there is no business. This sport needs more horses like Beholder, Tepin and California Chrome to stick around beyond their 3-year-old campaigns and help build a fan base. It also needs more owners like B. Wayne Hughes, Robert Masterson, Rick Porter, Prince Khalid and the entire team that kept California Chrome racing until his 6-year-old campaign.
There is life after a horse's 3-year-old season.
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