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Post Time / By Gene Kershner: California Chrome almost stole show

The 3-year-old class stole the spotlight in thoroughbred racing during 2014.

Led by California Chrome in the early part of the year, and wrapped up by Breeders’ Cup winning performances by Bayern in the $5 million Classic and Untapable in the Distaff in November, it was certainly the year of the sophomore at the track. Let’s take a look at the year in review by month.

January: Wise Dan was voted 2013 Horse of the Year at the annual Eclipse Awards held at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, Florida, for the second straight year. Lea set a track record at Gulfstream in upsetting Will Take Charge in the Donn Handicap, the first big race of the year for handicap horses.

February: The Kentucky Derby prep races started to heat up in the second year under a points system to determine the 20 Derby starters. Samraat won the Withers at Aqueduct and emerged as New York’s big Derby hope. Candy Boy won the Robert B. Lewis S. at Santa Anita and staked first claim to top West Coast horse, at least for a month. Tapiture won the Southwest S. at Oaklawn for trainer Steve Asmussen and led the Midwestern horses into the heat of the Derby trail.

March: The Derby prep season went into full swing on both coasts . Samraat continued his winning ways in taking Gotham at Aqueduct, Ring Weekend surprised at the Tampa Bay Derby at 14-1 and Vicar’s in Trouble emerged as a Derby contender with his victory in the Louisiana Derby. A colt named California Chrome won the San Felipe by more than seven lengths and raised some eyebrows on the left coast. The month culminated with the Florida Derby where Constitution knocked off the highly-regarded Cairo Prince in Gulfstream’s signature race. African Story came home first in the world’s richest race, the $10 million Dubai World Cup. Toast of New York won the UAE Derby but his connections decided to skip a trip to Louisville. Back in the States, Game On Dude won his second straight Big Cap at Santa Anita for trainer Bob Baffert.

April: The winners of the three biggest Derby preps in April were California Chrome (Santa Anita Derby), Wicked Strong (Wood Memorial) who closed like a freight train at the Big A and Pletcher’s colt Danza (Arkansas Derby) captured the premier race at Oaklawn. Dynamic Impact won the Illinois Derby for trainer Mark Casse, but earned no Kentucky points and had to point towards the Preakness. The 3-year-old filly division looked very competitive as Untapable won the Fair Grounds Oaks and My Miss Sophia claimed the Gazelle at Aqueduct.

May: Rosie Napravnik, the only female jockey to win the Kentucky Oaks, won her second aboard Untapable who won convincingly by four lengths over My Miss Sophia. In the 140th Kentucky Derby, 5-2 favorite California Chrome rolled home from the quarter pole with jockey Victor Espinoza aboard. Chrome continued his winning ways in the Preakness to keep his Triple Crown hopes alive and the mainstream paid attention to the sport as the 36-year Triple Crown drought was in serious jeopardy of ending.

June: Palace Malice returned to the scene of his Belmont Stakes victory to overcome an inside post to win the Met Mile on Belmont Day and add another big race to his impressive resume. With the nation’s eyes on California Chrome, his attempt at the first Triple Crown since 1978 ended two steps out of the gate when Matterhorn stepped on him and he was unable to rally in deep stretch. Tonalist held off Commissioner at the wire to take the final jewel and keep the Triple Crown drought in tact for another year.

July: Back here in Western New York and Southern Ontario, racing turns to the Canadian Triple Crown. Trainer Mark Casse ended a 0-for-17 drought by winning his first Queen’s Plate, when 5-1 shot Lexie Lou came from behind on the Polytrack at Woodbine in Toronto. Fort Erie’s biggest race, the Prince of Wales, was won by Coltimus Prime for local grown talent Justin Nixon, training his first Canadian classic winner. Saratoga Race Course opened and Wicked Strong changed style and wired the Jim Dandy on the front end over the post time favorite and Belmont winner, Tonalist. Bayern romped in the Haskell at Monmouth over favored Untapable, who tried to take on the boys, but the speed favoring track was too much for the filly. Mucho Macho Man, the 2013 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner is retired.

August: The Travers once again ended in a photo finish as V.E. Day nosed out barn mate Wicked Strong completing the exacta for trainer Jimmy Jerkens. Moreno won the Whitney and Itsmyluckyday won the Woodward in the two major handicap races at the Spa. Stopchargingmaria followed up her Coaching Club win with a victory in the Alabama. The gelding Shared Belief, who missed the Derby trail with an injury, won the Pacific Classic at Del Mar, giving Jim Rome’s talented 3-year-old a gate in the Classic. Ashado, Curlin and Alex Solis led a number of enshrinees into the Racing Hall of Fame. Carl Paladino and several business partners purchased Fort Erie Race Track, and plan to develop the 200 acres adjacent to the track while keeping the racing program in tact. Racecaller Tom Durkin called his final race at the Spa on the meet’s penultimate day.

September: Saratoga wraped up on Labor Day with Competitive Edge winning the Hopeful. Parx staged a big day of racing with two $1 million races on the card. Untapable kept her big season rolling with a win in the Cotillion and Bayern rebounded from a dismal Travers performance to win the Pennsylvania Derby over California Chrome. The Derby-Preakness winner finished sixth in his first race back since June. Game on Dude was retired to Old Friends after a brilliant career.

October: Daredevil helped trainer Todd Pletcher win his third straight Champagne Stakes. Wise Dan returned to Keeneland and avenged his loss in last year’s Shadwell Turf Mile, but sustained an injury and had to skip the Breeders’ Cup. Hillstar triumphed in the Pattison Canadian International at Woodbine, concluding the major stakes season at the suburban Toronto track.

November: The Breeders’ Cup was run for the third year in a row at beautiful Santa Anita Park outside Los Angeles. After a break which saw Bayern wipe out his biggest speed threat, Moreno, and Rome’s Shared Belief, he cruised to victory on the front end in the $5 million Classic at 7-1 odds over Toast of New York and California Chrome. A long delay after a steward’s inquiry upheld the results. Trainer Chad Brown won three turf races over the big weekend and Main Sequence completed a perfect year with a win in the Breeders’ Cup Turf for trainer Graham Motion. Untapable won the Breeders’ Cup Distaff and Rosie Napravnik announced her retirement after the race. Private Zone went wire-to-wire to claim the Cigar Mile at Aqueduct, the last Grade 1 of the year in New York.

December: Long-time Woodbine track announcer Dan Loiselle announced his retirement, scheduled for May 31, 2015. Travis Stone was named the ninth race caller in Churchill Downs history.

Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.