Trying to pull off an encore season to 2015’s Triple Crown triumph by American Pharoah was going to be a big challenge for thoroughbred racing.
The 2016 racing year provided enough stellar moments to rate it as one of the better years of the decade. Having horses such as California Chrome, Tepin and Flintshire continue to race at the age of 5 or older and postpone heading to the breeding shed was a major coup for the sport.
Add in two stunning performances by the 3-year-old Arrogate and 2016 delivered with vigor.
Let’s take a look at the year in review by month.
January: American Pharoah joined John Henry (1981) as the second horse to be unanimously selected as the 2015 Horse of the Year at the Annual Eclipse Awards held at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, Fla. California Chrome, the 2014 Horse of the Year, returned to the track for the first time in nine months to win the San Pasqual Stakes to kick off a year where he reeled off six straight wins.
February: Mshawish wins the Donn Handicap at Gulfstream for trainer Todd Pletcher, who won an unprecedented 13th training title. The Derby trail starts to heat up. In California, the Bob Baffert-trained Mor Spirit, a son of Eskendereya, wins the Robert B. Lewis S. at Santa Anita. Mohaymen wins the Fountain of Youth for Kiaran McLaughlin and emerges as the main challenger to Nyquist. California Chrome heads to Dubai and wins at Meydan to prepare for the $10 million World Cup where he finished second without a local prep in 2015.
March: The Derby prep season goes into full swing and Destin emerges in the Tampa Bay Derby for Todd Pletcher and Gun Runner starts his march to Louisville with his victory in the Louisiana Derby. Danzing Candy upsets Mor Spirit and Exaggerator in the San Felipe and raises some eyebrows on the left coast. Cupid gives Baffert another Derby hopeful with a win in the Rebel at Oaklawn. California Chrome dominates the $10 million Dubai World Cup by five lengths
and looks to be the best horse in the land.
April: The Florida Derby is billed as a heavyweight fight between Nyquist and Mohaymen. Nyquist comes out on top on a sloppy track, Mohaymen finishes a disappointing third. The winners of the four biggest Derby preps in April are Exaggerator (Santa Anita Derby), Outwork (Wood Memorial), an upset winner at the Big A, Brody’s Cause (Bluegrass) and Creator (Arkansas Derby) captures the premier race at Oaklawn. Stanford wins the Charles Town Classic, but only races one more time during 2016, a disappointing eighth-place finish in the Met Mile.
May: In the 142nd Kentucky Derby, post time favorite Nyquist holds off a late closing Exaggerator to win the Run for the Roses. It was his eighth straight win and he became the second horse to win both the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and the Derby. Gun Runner, who led early, finishes third behind the two West Coast rivals. Nyquist’s arch rival Exaggerator finally beat him for the first time in five tries in the Preakness on a sloppy track dashing the hopes of a second straight
June: Frosted wins the Met Mile on Belmont Day in spectacular fashion, winning by an astounding 15 lengths. With Nyquist taking a pass on the Belmont and the Triple Crown trail taking a toll on Exaggerator, Creator comes from off the pace to nip Destin in the final jump at the final jewel of the Triple Crown. The win is Steve Asmussen’s first Classic triumph and the first for jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. Tepin represents America well at Royal Ascot, winning the Queen Anne Stakes in front of Queen Elizabeth II.
July: With the American Triple Crown series in the books, the focus shifts back to Western New York
and Southern Ontario, and the Canadian Triple Crown. Trainer Mike Maker leads upset winner Sir Dudley Digges to victory in the Queen’s Plate at Woodbine in Toronto for owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey at odds of 16-1. Fort Erie’s biggest race, the Prince of Wales, is won by the talented Amis Gizmo, ending the Canadian Triple Crown hopes of Sir Dudley, who finished 20 lengths behind the winner. Saratoga Race Course opens and Laoban upsets the Jim Dandy and the super-filly Songbird wins the Coaching Club American Oaks. The month ends with Exaggerator winning again on a sloppy track, winning the Haskell over Nyquist and Gun Runner.
August: Frosted continues his winning ways by taking the Whitney in solid fashion over the Pletcher-trained Comfort. Songbird dials up a back-to-back win at the Spa with a victory in the Alabama. Arrogate emerges onto the 3-year-old scene and drums a quality field in the Travers by a pole, setting an age-old track record in a sub 2-minute mile-and-a-quarter performance. California Chrome outlasts Dortmund and Beholder in the Pacific Classic and continues his quest towards Horse of the Year. Among others, Asmussen, Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta are inducted into the National Racing Hall of Fame.
September: Parx stages a big day of racing with two $1 million races on the card. Songbird keeps her undefeated season rolling with a win in the Cotillion and Connect rebounds three weeks after a dull Travers performance to win the Pennsylvania Derby. Tepin wins her eighth straight in the Woodbine Mile and continues her dream campaign.
October: Practical Joke wins the Champagne Stakes on Super Saturday at Belmont. Hoppertunity comes east and beats a weak field in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Tepin is upset at Keeneland in the First Lady by the front-running Photo Call in a Breeders’ Cup prep.
November: The Breeders’ Cup is held at Santa Anita for the fourth time in five years in spectacular weather. The weekend is highlighted by the two feature races of each day. The 5-year-old mare Beholder noses out Songbird in the Distaff, handing her the first loss of her career, in a race for the ages on Friday afternoon. The table is set for a big climax in the Classic on Saturday.
The $6 million Classic comes down to a stretch duel between Travers winner Arrogate and California Chrome with the sophomore ending Chrome’s six-race winning streak in the final 20 yards. Impressive divisional wins over the two-day Cup weekend by Drefong (Sprint), Tourist (Mile), Songbird (Juvenile Fillies), Highland Reel (Turf) and Classic Empire (Juvenile) culminate an entertaining Breeders’ Cup. Gun Runner adds a Grade 1 to his resume, winning the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs.
December: The Gulfstream Championship meeting commences with the Claiming Crown and starts building momentum toward next January’s inaugural Pegasus World Cup. The $12 million race will feature 12 horses, each paying $1 million entry fee, scheduled to run on Jan. 28. Chrome dusts the competition in the Winter Memories at Los Alamitos in his tune up for his rematch with Arrogate in the Pegasus. The year ends on a down note when three-time Eclipse winning jockey Garret Gomez is found dead in a hotel room in Arizona.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.