Commentary

Best, worst racing stories of 2013

Ritvo and Lukas inspired, but drugs remain a problem in the Sport of Kings

Updated: December 29, 2013, 10:52 AM ET
By Bill Finley | Special to ESPN.com

Horse racing had its share of ups and downs in 2013, another year that reminded us that this sport can be exciting, dramatic and intoxicating, yet also grotesque and ugly. A look back at the best and worst horse racing stories of 2013:

The Best

1. D. Wayne Lukas rises from the dead: There's no putting this mildly. Wayne Lukas was old and the game had passed him by. The once mighty stable, the most successful in the sport's history, was limping along with a handful of horses, none of which were any good, and with a paltry winning percentage. But Lukas showed once again that you can never count him out, roaring back this year with wins in the Travers, Hopeful, Preakness, Pennsylvania Derby, the Rebel, Dixie and other stakes.

2. Kathy Ritvo wins the Breeders' Cup Classic: Kathy Ritvo doesn't get to work with an army of well-bred classy horses like some trainers do. But she made good with what she had, and won the Breeders' Cup Classic with Mucho Macho Man. That Ritvo has undergone a heart transplant makes the story even sweeter.

"Somebody gave me a gift … I want to live every day," Ritvo once said. "I want to appreciate every day. I never thought I'd be able to have a normal life again even if I did survive. But here I am, working at the track every day almost as if nothing ever happened."

This is, and always will be, a sport where the unlikeliest of dreams come true.

3. Shug McGaughey wins the Kentucky Derby: Great trainer, does everything right, is a class act, has won a bunch of big races … but never the Kentucky Derby. That was McGaughey's story coming into the 2013 running. Now, with Orb having won on the first Saturday in May, his career is complete.

4. Gary Stevens launches a remarkable comeback: He was an old, former jockey with bad knees. But Gary Stevens never lost his will to compete and launched an improbable comeback this year, seven years after calling it quits. He easily could have embarrassed himself. Instead, at age 50, Stevens returned to top form, winning, among other races, the Preakness, Breeders' Cup Classic and Distaff.

5. The Yearling Sales rebounded: Ever since the economic meltdown in 2008 the breeding industry has had to weather some very tough times. But this important segment of the industry bounced back and bounced back in a big way in 2013. At the Keeneland September Sale, the median price was a record $50,000 and the average of $102,220 was the third-best ever. Everywhere you went, the sales were way up.

The Worst

1. Penn National trainers busted: Just one day after a representative of the National Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association told a congressional committee, and did so with a straight face, that the sport did not have a drug problem, three trainers at Penn National were arrested and accused of doping horses. Among them were David Wells, who guided Rapid Redux to a 22-race winning streak and an Eclipse Award, a streak now worthy of suspicion.

2. Hollywood Park closes: How can it be that a racetrack that was once so prosperous it was considered No. 1 in the sport has now sunk so far that it was forced to close? Though there were signs of life for the industry in 2013 (see the yearling sales), the fact that a track like Hollywood Park couldn't keep going bodes poorly for the sport's future. Could we see many more racetracks close because they are more valuable for their real estate than as a living, breathing racetrack?

3. The Jane Cibelli situation at Tampa: A veterinarian employed by trainer Jane Cibelli was caught illegally injecting a horse on the day it was entered to race at Tampa Bay Downs. The matter dragged on for what seemed to be forever and it looked for a while that nothing was going to happen to Cibelli, but Tampa and what passes for a racing commission in Florida finally acted. The trainer was suspended for 60 days and lost her stall privileges at Tampa. In the six months prior to the incident Cibelli won at a rate of 25 percent. In the six months after the incident she was a 13 percent trainer.

4. Ramon Dominguez forced to retire: A great rider and a classy individual, Ramon Dominguez was forced into retirement due to head injuries suffered in a Jan. 18 spill at Aqueduct. Dominguez had many good years ahead of him and was widely recognized as the top rider in the sport. His accident was an unwelcome reminder of just how dangerous the sport is.

5. Demorphin (aka frog juice): A nefarious and powerful pain-killing drug, it had been known as a go-to drug for cheating trainers in quarter horse racing. This year it spilled over into the thoroughbred ranks as trainers James Jones and Kim Veerhusen were suspended for using the drug which is said to be 40 times more powerful than morphine.

• Bill Finley is an award-winning horse racing writer whose work has also appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated.
• To contact Bill, email him at wnfinley@aol.com

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