2011 remembered: A to Z

January, 3, 2012
01/03/12
3:17
PM ET
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Someone once said that year-end reviews are what journalists write to avoid making New Year's resolutions. This is probably true, since I haven't gotten around to writing resolutions yet (number one, don't procrastinate?) At any rate, it's time to remember the high points of 12 months of coverage as I did in 2009 and 2010 -- from A to Z, a collection of writing on Thoroughbred Racing.

Animal Kingdom -- There are many ways to pick a Kentucky Derby winner. This is one of them.

Animal Kingdom will win the Kentucky Derby. I know this because I didn't write a feature about him. -- Writing to Win

Bill, Bob, and Breen -- Trainer Bill Mott wrapped up a good year in style at the Breeders' Cup, sweeping the Ladies' Classic/Classic double with Royal Delta and Drosselmeyer. Bob Baffert saddled 498 starters -- including Haskell winner Coil and two-time Grade 1 winner/Classic runner-up Game On Dude -- compared to Todd Pletcher's 1,012 and Steve Asmussen's 1,678, but has the highest win rate of the trio (26%) and ranks third for the season with more than $14 million in earnings. Kelly Breen had a career-best season, taking the Louisiana Derby with Pants On Fire and upsetting the Belmont with Ruler On Ice for his first Triple Crown Classic score.

The horse was taking awhile to mature … but he had enough talent to succeed on the Triple Crown trail if they could just get him in a spot to get in on the action … -- 'Ruler' took less traveled road to Belmont

Caleb's Posse -- The little horse that could sprinted to the best season for a 3-year-old colt and placed himself in serious contention for year-end honors. With a King's Bishop win over returning 2010 champ Uncle Mo and a victory in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile, he was the only male sophomore to take multiple Grade 1 events in 2011.

Dead last eight lengths behind Uncle Mo … Caleb's Posse swung five wide off the final turn after patiently trailing a speed duel between Runflatout and Flashpoint … He gobbled up ground on the outside with tremendous strides under jockey Rajiv Maragh, flying past seven other horses … to get his first Grade 1 win by a nose. -- Caleb's Posse in Charge at End

Derby Trail -- I started the Derby trail in New Orleans for the first time, finding a wealth of storylines and interesting characters. Horses are woven into the history of the Cajun people, and at Fair Grounds, that connection is plain to see. From there, it was back to Kentucky to work on articles like "Why Calvin Borel Owns the Rail" for an innovative new site, Kentucky Confidential. Finally it came down to the first Saturday in May, where you could "tape a program to the wall and throw a dart to pick your winner."

The state of the current Derby field leaves woeful pundits markedly certain that this year, yet again, no Triple Crown winner will come forth from the 3-year-old crop … and once you start to break them down, to expose perceived weaknesses, you can talk most out of the winner's circle faster than the time it takes the race to be run. -- Kentucky Derby 137 Truly Wide Open

Eclipse Award -- One memory from the 2010 Preakness (which is actually my favorite Triple Crown race to cover) is of Tom Durkin's final year as NBC's "voice of the Triple Crown." He prepped for his call of the race on the rooftop at Pimlico, a color-coded chart attached to a nifty hanger that could prop around his neck to leave his hands free for binoculars. When the track announcer retired from that position in 2011, I knew I wanted to tell the story. Winning the Eclipse Award for Feature/Commentary with this piece was icing on the cake.

This is a man whose voice forms the soundtrack for more than 2,000 races, from Grade 1 events to those maiden claimers, each year … During day-to-day racing his narrative is generally strong, and many who listen on a regular basis have noticed a resurgence of sorts since he announced his decision to leave the Triple Crown broadcast, a relief, perhaps. This is not imaginary. -- Pressure off Durkin at Belmont

Foal Project -- Wrote about this worthy charity in April and was pleased to follow its' progression throughout the year. The Foal Project raises funds for equine-related charities and benefits several therapeutic riding centers, a cause close to my heart due to my work with children with special needs. Honorable mention here goes to Frankel; wish I'd had a chance to cover his races in person and I'm hoping he makes a trip "across the pond" in 2012.

In the early hours of a quiet New York morning, photographer Lisa Miller sits outside a stall at Waldorf Farm. She is waiting, as she has many mornings past, for the miracle moment -- when a Thoroughbred mare meets her newborn foal for the first time. -- The Foal Project

Graham -- Trainer Graham Motion remained even-keel and professional while weathering his first "media blitz" with Animal Kingdom along the Triple Crown trail. The British expatriate maintained his composure following a disappointing runner-up finish in the Preakness, and handled the spotlight with grace and consistency in spite of a difficult situation at the Belmont. Props to him for joining twitter (@grahammotion).

He stood on the sideline of Pimlico racetrack and clasped his hands behind his back. His shoulders slumped a little … It was a completely different scene from two weeks ago, when the English-born horseman found himself in the winner's circle at Churchill Downs, hoisting the trophy for the Kentucky Derby -- America's greatest race -- to the sky. -- For Motion, Preakness Loss Hits Hard

Havre de Grace -- She was the filly everyone hung their hopes on this year, and although Havre de Grace didn't quite live up to wonder-horse expectations, she was surely worth watching. Kudos to owner Rick Porter and trainer Larry Jones for running her against the boys in the Breeders' Cup Classic. Earlier in the season, her Woodward win was something to see.

Racing fans pressed against the rail to watch Havre de Grace pass, and they called out "Good job!" to trainer Larry Jones, who said he knew his horse had the race all along. "Like I kept trying to tell her, 'I've never seen what men could do well that there isn't some girl out there that thought she could do it just a little bit better,' " Jones said. "Like I kept trying to tell her, 'You could be that girl." -- Havre de Grace Becomes Second Filly to Win Woodward Stakes

Innovation -- With a new casino at Aqueduct and planned improvements at Saratoga, the New York Racing Association led the way for development and innovation at two of three circuit tracks. I didn't get a chance to visit the casino, but I did sit in on a community forum regarding theSaratoga changes. It's nice to see NYRA moving ahead with projects to bring horse racing in the Empire State into the 21st Century. It's about time.

Hayward called lighting, audio, and television improvements  including the purchase of 14 high-definition cameras for the association's in-house television production  'something we're seriously going to look at for 2012, particularly in the grandstand' and said next year NYRA racing should be broadcast in HD at the upstate oval. -- NYRA Speaks out on Projected Spa Projects

Jess Jackson -- The powerful owner's influence on the sport was felt even after his death on April 21, as homebred My Miss Aurelia remained unbeaten and sewed up a season championship as the best 2-year-old filly of 2011. It was nice to see the resurging Corey Nakatani aboard for the Steve Asmussen trainee's final victory of the season, the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies.

"I know it would mean the world to him to win this one with a homebred, because he was always interested in breeding a racehorse, not just horses for sale, but horses that would win at the track," said Jackson's wife, Barbara Banke. -- Nakatani Gets Ride to Remember

Karlsson -- Jockey Inez Karlsson is back in the saddle at Hawthorne Race Course after taking time off to have a baby. This story from February 2011 chronicles the reason for her decision. Karlsson is "one of the good guys [girls]" and worked hard to build a career on the tough Chicago circuit. I have no doubt she'll come back with a vengeance.

So Inez Karlsson took stock of her life, all 27 years of it. She made tough choices spurred on by a brutal case of endometriosis and the realization that her decision could change her future forever. Then she walked away from her rising career and did the last thing anyone expects a highly successful jockey to do. She decided to have a baby. -- Karlsson Writes Life's Next Chapter

Lasix -- A decision by trainer Kiaran McLaughlin to run Darley and Shadwell Stables' 2-year-old starters at Saratoga without Lasix/Salix first time out went mostly unreported in the midst of upheaval over raceday medications. Alpha, the runner named in this feature, went on to run second in the Champagne Stakes (without Lasix) and was the only 2-year-old in a 13-horse Breeders' Cup Juvenile field to start without the drug. He finished 11th.

It was a quiet experiment begun by Kiaran McLaughlin with his 2-year-olds starting under the colors of Darley and Shadwell Stables. Four times during the 2011 season at Saratoga Race Course, juvenile runners from the barn of the New York horseman went postward without anti-bleeder medication. One of them -- a Darley homebred named Alpha -- won. -- Select McLaughlin Trainees Drug Free

McMahon and Hill -- In what had to be one of the most entertaining stories for me to write in 2011, bloodstock agents Mike McMahon and Jamie Hill allowed me to shadow them for a day at the Keeneland September Sale. The guys put a tremendous amount of effort and dedication into their quest for a good racehorse, and their youthful enthusiasm is infectious and inspiring.

There's excitement, a buzz, around thoroughbred sales and what could be. These young agents exude it. Since 2001, their bloodstock company has sold or purchased 106 stakes horses, including 16 thoroughbreds who were graded stakes earners, and another 20 broodmares who produced graded runners after purchase. -- Highs and Lows at Keeneland

NTRA -- When an announcement came that the National Thoroughbred Racing Association was getting an influx of funding to beef up marketing and PR efforts, I was skeptical. But new communications VP Stephen Panus and Penelope Miller, the group's new social media manager, have done an excellent job aiding the efforts of already phenomenal staffers Eric Wing and Joan Lawrence. Modifying the organization's weekly electronic newsletter was a huge step in the right direction (it's actually fun to read now!) and as a former sports agent, Panus has a good feel for ways to cross-market horse racing to mainstream media. He even hooked me up with pro skateboarder Rob Dyrdek for this fun piece on Breeders' Cup week; it got 536 recommendations -- a high number for racing-related articles -- on Facebook alone.

They are shoes of cobalt blue, and they are shiny. According to the wearer, they bring good luck. 'When you have lucky shoes, you wear them all day,' Rob Dyrdek remarks. -- Dyrdek Hopes Lucky Shoes bring Title

O'Brien -- Trainer Aidan O'Brien won seven Grade 1 stakes with five different horses in this country in 2011. Over at the Blood-Horse, senior correspondent Steve Haskin made a case for the European horseman as Eclipse Award-worthy, and although my vote will head in a slightly different direction, there's no doubt the O'Brien family name impacted North America this season -- especially with son Joseph O'Brien, 18, becoming the youngest jockey ever to win a Breeders' Cup race on St. Nicholas Abbey in the Breeders' Cup Turf.

No foreign trainer and owner have supported American racing like O'Brien and Coolmore, and perhaps it's time they were rewarded with a well-deserved Eclipse Award.  (Steve Haskin, Blood-Horse)Aidan and a Bettin'

Panama -- First trip out of the county couldn't have been a better one. A Venezuelan runner got the victory in the Clasico del Caribe, while the local horse I wanted to win -- Desbocado, whose name means "runaway" -- finished second. Points of interest: North American bloodlines are a big influence, a small and closely-related group keeps the country's Thoroughbred breeding industry alive, and the Laffit Pincay Jr. jockey school is making a difference in the lives of Panamanian kids.

… the wariness in his eyes belying the pain of his past, Rodriguez said the school offered a support system unlike any he ever had. "I had a very tough life and grew up very bad," he remarked. "My life has changed a lot since then. Before I didn't have any options, and now I have a goal." -- Jockey School Changes Lives

Quiet Consistency -- At the beginning of 2011, visitors to Al Stall Jr.'s barn at Fair Grounds were greeted by a plain bay gelding walking the shedrow. Star Guitar's ears perk up in recognition at his name, and his intelligent eyes gleam at the prospects of a peppermint treat. Undefeated this year, the 6-year-old son of Quiet American is also the winner of his last seven straight and shows no signs of slowing down following his third consecutive victory in the $150,000 Louisiana Champions Day Classic on Dec. 10. He also won the 2008 Louisiana Champions Day Sprint and the 2007 Louisiana Champions Day Juvenile and is second to Happy Ticket ($1,688,838) as the all-time Thoroughbred money earner for the state of Louisiana with $1,515,862. Although I haven't had a chance to write about him yet, he's on the "really really want to" list for 2012.

Rapid Redux -- I hope he receives a special Eclipse Award. He probably won't, but he deserves one. He'll go after his 22nd straight victory this Wednesday, Jan. 4, at Laurel Park at 2:56 p.m. (ET) Barbara Livingston has some great images of the modern-day record-holder.

Scooter, Shackleford, Saratoga Special, and the Stewards -- Many racing fans had never heard of trainer Charles "Scooter" Dickey until this season, when his big horse Flat Out won the SuburbanHandicap en route to a Jockey Club Gold Cup score. I met Scooter for the first time in Saratoga to talk about his Whitney bid, then followed up before the Breeders' Cup Classic in a feature for the New York Times. You'll never meet a more down-to-earth or personable guy, and it's amazing to note the challenges he worked through to get this horse to Grade 1 victory. I like him, and Flat Out was one of my favorite horses this season.

Three other favorites land in the "S" category -- a piece on the Saratoga Special, and a column on the NYRA Stewards, and Shackleford, the Preakness winner who danced every dance this year.

Charles Dickey walked into the Breeders' Cup office at 9:05 on Monday morning and entered his best horse in the race of a lifetime at Churchill Downs. It was a remarkably simple process -- one signature on a piece of paper -- considering the hours of vigil, days of concern, months of uncertainty and years of effort that went into training Flat Out. -- A Likely Favorite's Longshot Story

Turbulent Descent -- She disappointed in recent starts, but earlier in the season this filly captured my attention. She came into the Test at Saratoga as the favorite, and returned victorious to California. I enjoyed meeting her connections, especially co-owner Bill Strauss. I still love her.

Winning at Saratoga isn't easy, but Turbulent Descent's connections don't know that. -- Turbulent Descent Cruises in Test

Uncle Mo -- Ah, where would we be without Mo? We covered him jogging. We analyzed his works. We wrote about the way he walked. The 2010 2-year-old champ was a hot topic in 2011, especially after he was scratched from the Kentucky Derby the day before (an event that doubtless impacted Churchill's adoption of also-eligibles to be implemented in 2012 for the first time since the 1980s). Whatever your opinions of the Mike Repole-owned runner, he held our attention for sure.

Today I caught up with owner Mike Repole to talk about the colt's progress, his hopes of targeting the Aug. 27 King's Bishop at Saratoga, his thoughts on where Uncle Mo might eventually be retired to stud, and how this season's early 3-year-old scene shaped up differently than anyone would have ever imagined. -- Regaining Mo-mentum

Veitch -- One of the most polarizing figures of 2011 was (now former) Kentucky State Steward John Veitch. Clearly a scapegoat for the Life At Ten situation, he was right to fight back when dismissed from his position following a lengthy review of the 2010 Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic. I didn't cover Veitch's case, but I did observe developments and wrote about a question that arose while "the Life At Ten review" was underway. I stand by my column penned this January, although it was not popular with certain parties.

Imagine what a statement could be made if potential finalists for all human Eclipse Awards were required to have a completely clean record in order to make it onto the ballot for the season under consideration. Impossible? If so, the message we're sending about racing and its key players is a sad one indeed. -- Time to Embrace Higher Standards

Winter Memories -- This gorgeous gray filly's stop at Keeneland this October offered a welcome chance to spend some time with her and trainer Jimmy Toner. She didn't win the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup, but fans witnessed better performances from her earlier in the season at Belmont Park and Saratoga. She's still a brilliant runner.

Trainer James J. Toner stood outside Barn 35 at Keeneland Race Course and tried to figure how Winter Memories, a 3-year-old filly with tenacious attitude and a graded stakes-winning resume, has captured the fancy of racing fans across the nation."You have a pretty gray horse and it just attracts people," he mused. "That's what it is; she's a beautiful gray horse and her running style is just electrifying, so she's picked up a lot of fans along the way." -- Thanks for the 'Memories'

X-otic Wagering -- Sometimes, stories occur during the season that I follow, but happily don't have to cover. This was one of them.

Though he admitted that there were others who could have discovered it, New York Racing Association president and CEO Charles Hayward on Tuesday took responsibility for the mistake that led to NYRA charging too high a takeout rate on certain wagers for a 15-month period, an error that cost bettors $7.9 million. (David Grening, DRF) -- NYRA Takeout Reduction Permanent

You -- Thanks to followers on facebook and twitter (@clairenovak) for helping me get the word out about the sport. I love what I do and interacting with racing fans about their favorite runners and stories is often part of the joy.

Zenyatta -- She ends the year for the third time in a row. Even in retirement, the big mare retains a legion of fans.

Her coat is thicker now, fuzzy with the changing seasons and with winter coming on. Days shorten and temperatures dip at night across the bluegrass. The foal inside her rounding belly grows … -- Zenyatta and Blame: A Year Later

(Please note that this column is based upon horses and situations I personally had the chance to write about or witness. For a sweeping portrait of horse racing in 2011, I recommend Jay Privman's "A Season of Highs and Lows" and a look back at every division via the Daily Racing Form).

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