Commentary

The year that was

It was hard not to get swept up in the whirlwind surrounding Orb in May

Updated: December 29, 2013, 11:00 AM ET
By Amanda Duckworth | Special to ESPN.com

For me, 2013 will be remembered as the year that I drank the Kool-Aid. For racing, it was a year where old names and faces grabbed the headlines away from the young upstarts, female trainers made an impressive statement, and we all had to say goodbye to a legend in the form of a piece of property.

Usually, I can avoid Triple Crown hype until after the Preakness. After all, a horse will win the Kentucky Derby every single year -- or at least one has every year since 1875.

This year, though, when Orb crossed the wire in front on the First Saturday in May, I believed he might finally be the one. He was talented, he had the right pedigree, and he had an old school, highly respected trainer.

I was wrong.

I was far from the only one who thought Orb could be the first horse to win the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978, and I think a lot of that had to do with his trainer, Shug McGaughey.

Orb ran fourth in the Preakness and third in the Belmont. Both were respectable enough showings but obviously not what I had been hoping for. In my defense, I was far from the only one who thought Orb could be the first horse to win the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978, and I think a lot of that had to do with his trainer, Shug McGaughey.

Although not as mainstream or flashy as some trainers, McGaughey is an institution on the racing scene. In 2004, he was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, and he has trained some fantastic champions, perhaps most notably Easy Goer and the undefeated Personal Ensign.

The ultimate nemesis of Sunday Silence, Easy Goer finished second in the Derby and Preakness before winning the Belmont Stakes to deny his rival a chance at Triple Crown immortality. More than two decades removed from that spring, racing fans will still argue who was the better runner.

For all of his success, the Kentucky Derby eluded McGaughey until this year. For us horsey-types it was a bit like seeing John Elway finally get his Super Bowl rings at the very end of his storied career or Andy Murray becoming the first British man in 77 years to win Wimbledon.

Even though Orb never won again, he did give a very deserving man a victory in America's greatest race. As a result, I have no issue with this year's Kentucky Derby, even if I did slip up and buy into the hype.

Like most sports, younger tends to be better. Horses only compete for a few years before new crops of runners take their place. Jockeys and trainers tend to enjoy success for longer periods of time, but eventually the wear and tear of the lifestyle usually leads to turnover.

Not this year, though. Shug getting his Derby was just the tip of the iceberg. The Preakness featured a triple punch of names from the past. Oxbow won the race, but his connections took all the headlines.

At the tender age of 77, trainer D. Wayne Lukas notched his 14th Triple Crown race with Oxbow, moving him past Jim Fitzsimmons as the most successful trainer in the American classic races.

Furthermore, Oxbow was piloted by 50-year-old jockey Gary Stevens, who came out of a seven-year retirement this year and made it clear his comeback was a thing to be respected, not pitied.

Just to make it even more historical, Oxbow ran for Calumet Farm, which is currently leased by Brad Kelley. While Kelley is just the latest owner of the historic farm, Calumet's history in the game runs deep. While owned by the Wright family, which made its money with Calumet Baking Powder, the farm won two Triple Crowns (Whirlaway in1941 and Citation in1948), among countless other accolades.

Lukas and Stevens would once again dominate headlines after the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic in November, but this time they lined up as competitors. Stevens was on the right end of a three-horse photo finish when his horse, Mucho Macho Man, outgamed Lukas-trainee Will Take Charge and foreign invader Declaration of War to the wire.

Stevens had to share the limelight again, though. Mucho Macho Man, a big fan favorite, is trained by Kathy Ritvo, who is five years removed from having a heart transplant. She will also forever be remembered as the first female trainer to win America's richest race.

Horse racing has a reputation for being a boys' club, and it is somewhat deserved. However, this fall female trainers on three different continents took three of the sport's most historic and lucrative races, all within a 30-day span.

Before Ritvo's victory with Mucho Macho Man, Criquette Head-Maarek won the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe with Treve in Paris, France. Interestingly, she had become the first woman to win Europe's greatest race several decades before when she won in 1979 with Three Troïkas.

Just days after Mucho Macho Man's score, Fiorente won the Melbourne Cup in Australia for trainer Gai Waterhouse. She became the second woman and first female Australian trainer to win the "race that stops a nation."

Wales native Sheila Laxon won in 2001 with Ethereal to become the first woman to officially take the race.

History gets a bit murky though due to the dearth of women's rights in days gone by. Mrs. A. McDonald was the registered New Zealand trainer of 1938 Melbourne Cup winner Catalogue but because Victorian laws of the day prevented granting training licenses to women, her husband was officially recorded as Catalogue's trainer for the Cup.

One of the biggest blows was the closing of Hollywood Park in California. After years of hearing it was going to happen, it finally did.

These trainers should all be recognized for their talents, and not just because they are women. That said, the fact they claimed some of the biggest prizes on the world's racing calendar in quick succession is impossible to ignore.

Also impossible to ignore is the fact that it wasn't all roses on the racing scene this year. One of the biggest blows was the closing of Hollywood Park in California. After years of hearing it was going to happen, it finally did.

The track, which opened in 1938, played host to the Breeders' Cup three times, including the inaugural event in 1984. It also held races featuring a number of racing greats throughout the decades, from Citation to John Henry to Zenyatta, and many others in between.

Hollywood Park will soon be developed, as its land was deemed too valuable to be a horse track. It is the second major racetrack in California to close in recent times, following Bay Meadows in 2008.

Although losing Bay Meadows was sad, losing Hollywood Park hurts. A lot. Maybe it will be the kick in the pants racing needs to address some overarching problems.

Two of the biggest -- aftercare for runners and drug regulations -- have no easy answers. I am not pretending they do. They are racing's version of politics and religion. Everyone has their own beliefs about what is right, and it is really hard to change anyone's mind.

However, nothing comes from nothing. Dialog is good, but actual compromise and action is needed.

I don't know what the upcoming year holds, but I do know some fantastic horses will do their best to provide the sport with thrilling moments. That part of racing -- the heart of it -- always beats true. The problems stem from the humans, not the horses. Hopefully 2014 is the year some of those problems find some kind of resolution.

Amanda Duckworth is a freelance journalist who lives in Lexington, Ky. Among her other duties, she is an editor for Gallop Magazine. Write to her at amanda.duckworth@ymail.com.

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