We've made it through the mid-point of the thoroughbred racing season and it has certainly taken us on quite a ride so far. It seems that the highs outweigh the lows and the summer season of racing should be riveting.
The second half will take us to the summer destinations of Saratoga, Monmouth and Del Mar before returning in the fall to Belmont and Keeneland as we point toward the pinnacle of the season at Santa Anita Racetrack where the Breeders' Cup World Championships will be held in November.
The 3-year-olds took us through a great spring, and the older horses and handicap division will start taking center stage leading up to the Breeders' Cup. Without further adieu, here are our thoughts on the best and worst moments in racing at the halfway mark of the 2012 racing season.
1. I'll Have Another wins the Kentucky Derby and Preakness setting off Triple Crown fever. Winning three Grade 1 races in a row, the Southern California-based horse broke two old Derby streaks becoming the first horse to win from post No. 19 and the first horse in 23 years to sweep the Santa Anita Derby and the Kentucky Derby. His Preakness victory on May 19 set off a frenzy of Triple Crown fever for the first time in four years.
2. Emergence of winning jockeys from Hastings Race Course. In maybe the most unlikely of scenarios, little known jockey Mario Gutierrez rode I'll Have Another to the two Classic victories after transferring his tack from Hastings in British Columbia near Vancouver to Santa Anita. His ride in the Derby was fantastic and the perfect trip in winning from such a wide post. To boot, Justin Stein, a jockey who raced regularly at Hastings early in his career, won Canada's biggest race last weekend, steering Strait of Dover to the Queen's Plate victory.
3. Increased national television exposure. NBC took over all three legs of the Triple Crown and in conjunction with its sister cable station, NBC Sports Network, provided excellent television coverage of the Derby trail leading up to each of the Triple Crown Saturdays. Buffalo showed its love of racing by finishing fifth in national metered ratings for both the Derby and Preakness, slipping to 14th in the Belmont ratings.
4. Ron the Greek pulls off the Big Cap/Foster double. In March, trainer Bill Mott's talented 5-year-old won the Santa Anita Handicap (the Big Cap) at odds of 4-1. He went to the gate in the Foster at Churchill at 9-1 and jockey Jose Lezcano snuck past even money favorite Wise Dan at the wire to pull a major upset and jump right into the Horse of the Year picture. He became the first horse to win both the Big Cap and Stephen Foster in the same year. Mott trained last year's Breeders' Cup Classic winner Drosselmeyer. The handicap division has some top horses that should make the remainder of the season worth watching.
5. Royal Delta avoids the Dubai bounce. Last year's Ladies' Classic champion took on the boys in Dubai in the World Cup in March and struggled on the Tapeta surface. She returned to the States to demolish the field in impressive fashion to win the Fleur de Lis on Foster day at Churchill setting up a late season drive that if everything goes well could pit her against males in the Breeders' Cup Classic. One to keep an eye on as the second half of the season unfolds.
Honorable Mention: Union Rags' Belmont victory, Bodemeister's dominant Arkansas Derby performance, Rosie Napravnik becomes first female jockey to win the Kentucky Oaks
1. Triple Crown downer. When word quickly spread the day before the Belmont Stakes that I'll Have Another would retire due to a tendon injury, the excitement that had been building all week that the 33-year Triple Crown streak was going to fall turned to disappointment. It's not too often that the top mid-year high is mirrored by the same horse as the top mid-year low. That's the way the first half of the season has transpired.
2. Baffert finishes second in all three classics. Not only did trainer Bob Baffert's two classic horses, Bodemeister and Paynter, finish second in all three Triple Crown races, they led the combined three races for all but 300 yards. Unfortunately, his horses were nipped at the wire in each case. Both of Baffert's horses will look to move forward in the Haskell (Bodemeister) and the Travers (Paynter).
3. Top NYRA officials fired over takeout snafu. New York Racing Association (NYRA) Chief Executive Officer Charles Heyward and Chief Counsel Patrick Kehoe were both relieved of their duties in the wake of a takeout scandal that cost bettors over $8 million when the takeout for certain wagers were not lowered when the law expired and NYRA officials were aware of it. The scandal has ultimately led to a changeover in the NYRA Board, which is now effectively controlled by Governor Cuomo.
4. Congressional hearings blast racing industry. In April, a congressional subcommittee interviewed various members of the racing industry with a major focus on the use of race day medications. The allegation-ridden hearing on equine health and medications may have furthered the notion of federal intervention into the regulation of horse racing at some level. The lack of uniform rules has been in question by members of Congress since hearings were last held in 2008 after the Eight Belles break down in the Kentucky Derby.
5. Unlikely that two of the top horses from overseas, Frankel and Black Caviar, will run in Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita. Frankel, who has been dominant in races at a mile or less, will likely not come over to face the Americans. Black Caviar may have suffered an injury in the Diamond Jubilee at Royal Ascot last weekend. The injury could lead to the retirement of the Australian champion who has won all 22 of her career races. Both absences are downers for Americans who would have loved to have seen these two "world" champions.
Honorable Mention: Damaging New York Times article on racing's dark issues, Giant Ryan's breakdown in the True North on Belmont Day and trainer Doug O'Neill's drug violations overshadowing his training of I'll Have Another.
Gene Kershner is a Buffalo-based turf writer and handicapper who blogs at equispace.blogspot.com and tweets @EquiSpace.