By Jenny Kellner
A year to forget: despite some brilliant performances, 2019 was overshadowed by horse fatalities
Let us not speak of 2019 again.
No matter how brilliant Mitole was in winning the Met Mile (G1) and the Breeders’ Cup Sprint (G1), no matter how extraordinarily successful leading trainer Chad Brown (a record $31 million) was in training likely Horse of the Year Bricks and Mortar to a perfect turf season, no matter how thrilling Midnight Bisou was in defeating Elate in the Personal Ensign (G1), 2019 will always be remembered as the year dead horses ruled the headlines.
It began, and ended, at Santa Anita with the death of 2017 Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1) winner Battle of Midway during training on Feb. 23, and culminated with the fatal breakdown of Mongolian Groom just a few hundred yards from the finish of the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) on Nov. 2 and becoming the 37th horse to die at the track.
Interspersed with the deaths of so many horses were all manner of outlandish events that did nothing to rebuild the public’s faith in horse racing.
For the first time in its 145-year history, the Kentucky Derby (G1) had a horse disqualified from victory after it was ruled Maximum Security had interfered with several horses (including War of Will) nearing the fifth-sixteenths pole. Runner-up Country House (65-1), who was unaffected by the incident, was then declared the winner.
The Mark Casse-trained War of Will came back to win the Preakness (G1) by holding off a field that included a rider-less horse.
The oddest of all Triple Crowns came to a more-or-less fitting close when Casse added the Belmont Stakes (G1) to his already lustrous resume, albeit with a second-stringer named Sir Winston, who went off at 10-1.
The summer season brought with it a renewed emphasis on safety with racing officials, groups that represent trainers, and racetrack owners joining to implement changes in medication policies, use of whips, pre-race testing and other safety measures. During a sweltering heat wave in July, for instance, tracks across a wide swath of the country were shut down in an abundance of caution, and Monmouth Park, which remained open, canceled six races and pushed the post time for its premier race, the Haskell Invitational (G1), to 8:05 p.m. ET. The race, incidentally, saw Maximum Security survive a claim of foul to win.
Despite the industry-wide strides, an on-line survey conducted by Reuters/Ipsos late in the year found 42 percent of those familiar with horse racing said they did not like the sport.
The 38 percent who said they did enjoy horse racing did find a lot to like.
There was Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey’s emotional victory in the Travers (G1), his third in the “Mid-Summer Derby” and first in 21 years.
The Steve Asmussen-trained Mitole and Midnight Bisou both staked claims to “Race of the Year,” with Mitole holding off a closing McKinzie in a rousing renewal of the Metropolitan Handicap and Midnight Bisou prevailing by a desperate nose in the Personal Ensign at Saratoga Race Course.
Maximum Security rebounded from a life-threatening bout with colic to win the Cigar Mile (G1) at Aqueduct Racetrack, concluding a season in which he finished first in all but one of eight starts, that when second to King for a Day in the Pegasus at Monmouth.
Bricks and Mortar won six races at six different tracks, five of them Grade 1’s, including the Manhattan, the Arlington Million, and, finally, the Breeders’ Cup Turf to put an exclamation point on a superlative season.
Aboard Bricks and Mortar was 27-year-old Irad Ortiz, Jr., who is favored to win his second straight Eclipse Award with more than $34 million in purses earned through Dec. 28 and 322 victories, among them the BC Classic with Vino Rosso, the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1) with Spun to Run, and the Pennsylvania Derby (G1) with Math Wizard.
Not to be outdone, Hall of Famer Mike Smith won a record 217th Grade 1 in the Malibu on opening day at Santa Anita with Omaha Beach, surpassing Jerry Bailey, who retired in 2008. Omaha Beach, who was scratched as the likely Derby favorite with a breathing issue, also won the Santa Anita Sprint Championship (G1) and finished second in the BC Dirt Mile after coming back in October.
On the European scene, was there any horse more popular than Enable? The 5-year-old mare just missed winning a record third straight Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe after running up a 12-race win streak over three years, including victory in the 2018 Breeders’ Cup Turf. The better news is Enable is set to return in 2020 for perhaps another attempt at the Arc.
The year saw its share of losses, both human and equine.
Owner, breeder, socialite and philanthropist Marylou Whitney died a little more than two weeks before McKinzie won the Whitney (G1) at Saratoga. Other notable industry personalities who passed away were Hall of Fame jockey Randy Romero, the regular rider of Personal Ensign and Go for Wand; broadcaster Jack Whitaker, and entertainer and thoroughbred owner Tim Conway.
Sea Hero, who won the 1993 Kentucky Derby and Travers for 85-year-old owner Paul Mellon and 71-year-old trainer Mack Miller, died at age 29 in Turkey, while Pioneerof the Nile, sire of 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, died at 13 at WinStar Farm in Kentucky.
Looking forward to 2020, the inaugural Saudi Cup, to be held Feb. 29 at King Abdulaziz Racetrack in Riyadh, will be the world’s richest race, with a purse of $20 million and $10 million to the winner.
The Pegasus World Cup (G1), which was inaugurated in 2017 with a $12 million purse and saw that rise to $16 million the following year, will be run for $3 million on Jan. 25 at Gulfstream Park, with its partner race, the Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational Stakes (G1), offering a purse of $1 million. Both will be run free of race-day medication.
Intriguing prospects for the 2020 Kentucky Derby include Iroquois (G3) winner Dennis’ Moment, who lost all chance at the start of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) after stumbling badly at the start; Gouverneur Morris, second in the Breeders’ Futurity (G1) at Keeneland; Nashua (G2) winner Independence Hall; Honor A.P., an eye-catching maiden winner at Santa Anita, and Tiz the Law, winner of the Champagne (G1) at Belmont.