Now that it is 2017, it’s time for my 13th annual ranking of the Top 10 performances of the year. Keep in mind this is not a list of the Top 10 “races” of the year (the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Distaff, with Beholder nosing out Songbird at the end of a fantastic stretch battle, would rank No. 1 for me on that list) or the Top 10 “moments” of the year. This is my list of the Top 10 “performances” by a Thoroughbred in the United States in 2016.
A Thoroughbred’s performance can make my list for a variety of reasons, such as:
–A win by a big margin while showing brilliance.
–Recording a fast final time and/or speed figure.
–Being especially game in victory or defeat.
–Defeating a particularly strong group of opponents.
–Carrying more weight than usual and/or spotting considerable weight.
–Achieving something historic.
The importance of the race itself also plays a role in determining whether or not I believe a performance deserves to make the list.
These have been my 10 Top Performances of the Year going back to 2016:
2004 Ghostzapper in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Classic
2005 Afleet Alex in the Grade I Preakness Stakes
2006 Barbaro in the Grade I Kentucky Derby
2007 Rags to Riches in the Grade I Belmont Stakes
2008 Big Brown in the Grade I Kentucky Derby
2009 Zenyatta in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Classic
2010 Blame in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Classic
2011 Animal Kingdom in the Grade I Kentucky Derby
2012 I’ll Have Another in the Grade I Preakness
2013 Dreaming of Julia in the Grade II Gulfstream Park Oaks
2014 Wise Dan in the Grade II Bernard Baruch Handicap
2015 American Pharoah in the Grade I Belmont Stakes
Here now, drumroll please, is my list of the Top 10 performances by a Thoroughbred in the U.S. for 2016:
10. LADY ELI in Belmont Park’s Grade I Flower Bowl at 1 1/4 miles on turf Oct. 8. (Owned by Sheep Pond Partners; trained by Chad Brown; ridden by Irad Ortiz Jr; 4-year-old Kentucky-bred Divine Park filly.)
This performance makes my Top 10 because of its significance from a big-picture perspective. For Lady Eli to win a Grade I race after what she had been through was truly remarkable and without a doubt one of the best stories in American racing during 2016.
Lady Eli won the first six races of her career, highlighted by a triumph in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf at Santa Anita in 2014. However, after she took the Grade I Belmont Oaks on the Fourth of July in 2015, she stepped on a nail walking to the test barn, then developed laminitis in both front feet. Lady Eli returned to the racing wars in 2016 on Aug. 27 at Saratoga when she finished second in the Grade II Ballston Spa. She then won the Flower Bowl by three-quarters of a length.
After the Flower Bowl, Lady Eli started as the 8-5 favorite in the Grade I BC Filly & Mare Turf at Santa Anita Park on Nov. 5. She finished second when nosed out by European shipper Queen’s Trust.
But even though Lady Eli was narrowly denied in her bid to become a two-time Breeders’ Cup winner, her win in the Flower Bowl makes it onto my list of the Top 10 performances of 2016 by a Thoroughbred in this country.
- TEPIN in Tampa Bay Downs’ Grade II Hillsborough Stakes at 1 1/8 miles on turf March 12. (Owned by Robert Masterson; trained by Mark Casse; ridden by Julien Leparoux; 5-year-old Kentucky-bred Bernstein mare.)
Tepin, who was voted a 2015 Eclipse Award as champion female turf performer, was bet down to 2-5 favoritism. Isabella Sings, with John Velazquez in the saddle, raced immediately to the front and quickly opened a big lead.
“Isabella Sings, making her first start since November, opened a nine-length lead through an opening quarter of :23.49 and just kept on widening, moving out to an 18-length advantage after a half in :45.95,” Doug McCoy wrote in the BloodHorse magazine. “Tepin and Julien Leparoux raced in third as Isabella Sings still held a 13 1/2-length advantage after six furlongs in a scorching 1:09.08. Tepin was making up ground, but many who had made her the 2-5 favorite were squirming in their seats as Isabella Sings and Velazquez swung into the stretch with a sizable advantage.
“But champions find a way. When Leparoux moved his hands, Tepin dropped her head and went after Isabella Sings with a vengeance. At Leparoux’s urging, the 5-year-old Kentucky-bred Bernstein mare just kept coming, and coming, and coming, finally sweeping past the leader in the shadow of the wire to win by a length and setting a course record of 1:47.26 for nine furlongs.”
- HIGHLAND REEL in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Turf at 1 1/2 miles on turf Nov. 5 at Santa Anita Park. (Owned by Derek Smith, Mrs. John Magnier and Michael Tabor; trained by Aidan O’Brien; ridden by Seamus Heffernan; 4-year-old Irish-bred Galileo colt.)
This, to me, was the top 2016 performance by a Thoroughbred on the turf in the U.S. It also was, I believe, one of the finest — and boldest — rides on the part of Seamus Heffernan.
Highland Reel zoomed to the front coming down Santa Anita’s hill before going a quarter-mile. He then opened a commanding lead of about eight lengths approaching the far turn when Heffernan threw caution to the wind. The rider was nothing less than brazen to open such a big advantage when there still was so much of the race to be run.
Nearing the top of the stretch for the run home, Highland Reel’s lead had shrunk to about six lengths. At this point, one could only wonder just how much gas Highland Reel had left in his tank for the final stretch run.
At the eighth pole, it looked like the only one who had a legit shot of catching Highland Reel was 9-5 favorite Flintshire. Flintshire tried his best and did gain steadily in the final furlong, but he could never get to Highland Reel, who prevailed by 1 1/4 lengths. Found, who stumbled at the start, never posed a threat and finished third, 2 1/4 lengths behind Flintshire. Found had won the 2015 BC Turf at Keeneland. With the $680,000 Found earned for finishing third, she increased her career bankroll to $7,610,405. She has the distinction of being the richest female Thoroughbred to have made at least one start in North America.
When Found won the prestigious Group I Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in 2016 on Oct. 2 in France, Highland Reel finished second. Unlike Found, who ran second in the Group I Champion Stakes at Ascot in England on Oct. 15, Highland Reel did not have a race between the Arc and the BC Turf.
Defeating Flintshire was nothing new for Highland Reel. When they clashed in the Group I Hong Kong Vase late in 2015, Highland Reel won by 1 1/2 lengths, with Flintshire second.
- SONGBIRD in Parx’s Grade I Cotillion at 1 1/16 miles on dirt Sept. 24. (Owned by Fox Hill Farms; trained by Jerry Hollendorfer; ridden by Mike Smith; 3-year-old Kentucky-bred Medaglia d’Oro filly.)
After an alert start, Songbird sat just off pacesetter Carina Mia in the early stages. These two then raced as a team from midway on the final turn to the quarter. Songbird then drew away without being asked by Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith to win by 5 3/4 lengths. Carina Mia finished second, 6 3/4 lengths in front of Cathryn Sophia, who earlier in the season had won the Grade I Kentucky Oaks in the absence of Songbird. It was announced on April 17 that Songbird would miss the Kentucky Oaks because she had spiked a fever.
With Songbird’s victory in the Cotillion, she had managed to win each of her first 11 career starts by 3 1/2 lengths or more. She thus became the first of the 348 different Eclipse Award winners to do this since the inception of the Eclipse Awards in 1971.
- NYQUIST in Churchill Downs’ Grade I Kentucky Derby at 1 1/4 miles on dirt May 7. (Owned by Paul and Zillah Reddam’s Reddam Racing; trained by Doug O’Neill; ridden by Mario Gutierrez; 3-year-old Kentucky-bred Uncle Mo colt.)
Nyquist took a 7-0 record into the Kentucky Derby. He won the roses by 1 1/4 lengths to extend his undefeated winning streak to eight. Nyquist became the eighth undefeated Kentucky Derby winner, following Big Brown (2008), Barbaro (2006), Smarty Jones (2004), Seattle Slew (1977), Majestic Prince (1969), Morvich (1922) and Regret (1915).
Making Nyquist’s Kentucky Derby performance look even better, six of his victims were next-out stakes winners — Exaggerator, Gun Runner, Mo Tom, Tom’s Ready, Creator and Whitmore.
Exaggerator finished second in the Run for the Roses, while Gun Runner came in third, Mo Tom eighth, Tom’s Ready 12th, Creator 13th and Whitmore 16th.
After competing in the Kentucky Derby:
–Exaggerator won the Grade I Preakness Stakes at Pimlico on May 21 in his next start.
–Gun Runner won the Grade III Matt Winn Stakes at Churchill Downs on June 18 in his next start.
–Mo Tom won the $500,000 Ohio Derby at Thistledown on June 25 in his next start.
–Tom’s Ready won the Grade II Woody Stephens Stakes at Belmont Park on June 11 in his next start.
–Creator won the Grade I Belmont Stakes on June 11 in his next start.
–Whitmore won an allowance/optional claiming race at Aqueduct on Dec. 3 in his next start.
- BEHOLDER in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Distaff at 1 1/8 miles on dirt Nov. 4 at Santa Anita Park. (Owned by Spendthrift Farm; trained by Richard Mandella; ridden by Gary Stevens; 6-year-old Kentucky-bred Henny Hughes mare.)
As mentioned earlier, I consider this to be the best race of 2016 in the U.S. And this victory by Beholder makes my list of the top performances because she was so valiant to win it.
Three-time Eclipse Award winner Beholder and 2015 Eclipse Award winner Songbird staged a furious duel all the way down the stretch to a dramatic photo finish. The two champions were bobbing heads for supremacy as the wire loomed, accompanied by a roar from a Breeders’ Cup record Friday on-track crowd of 45,763.
Some, including Larry Collmus, who called the race for NBC, thought Beholder had won. Others thought Songbird had won. Michael Wrona, who called the race as Santa Anita’s track announcer, announced it as “a cliffhanger that could go either way.”
The photograph went Beholder’s way, but by only the skinniest nose imaginable in what very nearly was a dead heat. Beholder and Songbird ran so hard, both giving it everything they had, it was a shame that either of them lost. But Beholder won it in what turned out to be the final start of her exemplary racing career.
- CALIFORNIA CHROME in Del Mar’s Grade I Pacific Classic at 1 1/4 miles on dirt Aug. 20. (Owned by California Chrome LLC; trained by Art Sherman; ridden by Victor Espinoza; 5-year-old California-bred son of Lucky Pulpit.)
The field assembled for the 2016 Pacific Classic was perhaps the best in its 26-year history. Daily Racing Form’s Jay Privman observed in a tweet: “Pac Classic field has combined for 19 Grade I wins, 5 Eclipse Awards (including HOY), Ky Derby, Dubai World Cup, 2 BC wins, 2 SA Derbies.”
A two-time Eclipse Award winner in 2014 when voted Horse of the Year and champion 3-year-old male, California Chrome was backed down to 11-10 favoritism in the 2016 Pacific Classic. Dortmund started as the 2-1 second choice, with Beholder off at 3-1.
California Chrome broke from post position No. 1. Victor Espinoza gunned California Chrome away from the starting gate, opening a clear lead at once. California Chrome got to the outside early after quickly clearing his opponents. He appeared to be in about the five or six path while racing through the stretch the first time. It was as if Espinoza was daring Gary Stevens on Beholder or Rafael Bejarano on Dortmund to move down to the inside of California Chrome. But Stevens did not take the bait. Neither did Bejarano.
“Before the race, no matter what strategy I have, everything changes when the gate opens,” Espinoza said. “So, right when I was behind the gate, I thought, ‘You know what, I’m going to send out of here. I’m going to send hard out of the gate and then move out just a little toward the middle of the track.’ I tapped California Chrome a couple of times and I was surprised that I opened up two or three lengths right away.”
Espinoza angled California Chrome in approaching the first turn, though he did remain a bit away from the inside rail the rest of the way. California Chrome showed the way through fractions of :23.20, :47.29 and 1:11.22.
In the 2015 Pacific Classic, Beholder sat in third early, then blasted to the front on the far turn while on her way to an 8 1/4-length romp. This time she sat in second early. And when Stevens again felt Beholder unleash a strong kick going into the far turn, the Hall of Fame rider felt optimistic about his situation. But Stevens’ optimism immediately turned into pessimism. Even though Stevens was feeling another powerful surge from Beholder, he saw that not only were they not closing the gap on California Chrome, but California Chrome actually was pulling away from them. Talk about demoralizing. When Stevens realized on the far turn that a victory for Beholder had become virtually impossible, he decided the time had come to do what he could to hopefully still finish second.
With a quarter of a mile to go, California Chrome sported a 2 1/2-length lead while having covered one mile in a fine 1:35.69. He then drew away to open up a commanding four-length advantage at the eighth pole. After receiving just a single light tap of the whip once inside the final furlong, California Chrome was allowed to canter home in the final 70 yards or so while the on-track crowd of 24,155 cheered wildly. He won by five lengths, but the margin really does not do justice to California Chrome’s superiority on this occasion. Track announcer Trevor Denman called it “one of the greatest performances you’ll ever see.”
Television analyst and former jockey Richard Migliore said it “was an incredible performance” to Daily Racing Form executive columnist and Hall of Fame writer Jay Hovdey.
“He stayed in the bridle much farther than most horses I’ve ever seen,” Migliore said.
Hovdey explained what Migliore meant.
“For those of us who do not speak fluent jockey, Migliore was describing the way California Chrome was attacking the race, teeth clenched and taking Espinoza for a ride,” Hovdey wrote. “Ideally, a horse will come ‘off’ the bit early in a race to conserve strength for the final run to the wire. To Migliore’s eye — and Espinoza agreed — California Chrome was ripping through a series of 12-second furlongs without dissipating energy or resolve.”
California Chrome posted a final time of 2:00.13. The track record of 1:59.11 was set by Candy Ride when he took the 2003 Pacific Classic by 3 1/4 lengths over Medaglia d’Oro.
- FROSTED in Belmont Park’s Grade I Metropolitan Handicap at one mile on dirt June 11. (Owned by Godolphin Racing; trained by Kiaran McLaughlin; ridden by Joel Rosario; 4-year-old Kentucky-bred Tapit colt.)
Frosted’s trainer, Kiaran McLaughlin, characterized Frosted’s performance as “fabulous.”
Even though Frosted was “geared down in the final 70 yards,” according to the official Equibase chart, his final time of 1:32.73 made it the fastest Met Mile in history, breaking the stakes record of 1:32.80 set by Honour and Glory in 1996. Najran set the track record of 1:32.24 when he won the 2003 Westchester Handicap at Belmont Park by 4 1/2 lengths.
In Frosted’s 2016 debut, he won a Group II race by five lengths in Dubai on Feb. 4. In the subsequent Group I, $10 million Dubai World Cup on March 26, Frosted was perceived by most to be California Chrome’s chief adversary. But Frosted could only manage to finish fifth in the World Cup, while California Chrome won by 3 3/4 lengths even though his saddle had slipped at the outset.
Following Frosted’s defeat in the World Cup, he rebounded big-time to win the Met Mile in isolated splendor by 14 1/4 lengths. He was assigned a huge 123 Beyer Speed Figure for his Met Mile triumph. It’s the highest Beyer Speed Figure since Midnight Lute recorded a 124 when he won the seven-furlong Forego Stakes at Saratoga in 2007 with a final time of 1:21.06.
In terms of races at one mile or longer, Frosted’s 123 is the highest Beyer Speed Figure since Commentator and Saint Liam each recorded a 124 in the 1 1/8-mile Whitney Handicap at Saratoga in 2005. Commentator won the Whitney by a neck over Saint Liam.
- ARROGATE in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Classic at 1 1/4 miles on dirt Nov. 5 at Santa Anita Park. (Owned by Juddmonte Farms; trained by Bob Baffert; ridden by Mike Smith; 3-year-old Kentucky-bred Unbridled’s Song colt.)
Most viewed the 2016 BC Classic as a two-horse race between California Chrome and Arrogate. California Chrome was the favorite at slightly less than even money. He was 9-10. Arrogate was the second choice at a bit less than 8-5. He was 17-10. Frosted was 8-1. Everyone else in the field of nine was 17-1 or higher.
California Chrome had regular rider Victor Espinoza in the saddle. Mike Smith rode Arrogate. Bob Baffert and Espinoza had collaborated to win the BC Classic with American Pharoah. This time Baffert and Espinoza were BC Classic opponents.
Away from the gate alertly, California Chrome showed the way through moderate early fractions of :23.28, :47.15 and 1:10.96 without being hustled at all to do so. Arrogate, fifth early, moved into third approaching the backstretch.
Heading toward the far turn and then all the way around that turn, Espinoza intermittently took several peeks back at the competition. Even with Espinoza still not asking California Chrome for run, they spurted away to a daylight lead of about three lengths midway around the turn.
Approaching the quarter pole, Arrogate loomed a threat — indeed, the only threat – to California Chrome. As Santa Anita track announcer Michael Wrona put it when California Chrome led by 2 1/2 lengths nearing the quarter pole: “Arrogate, the solitary 3-year-old, is sweeping after him in earnest as they race well clear of Melatonin.”
The bettors were spot on in that the 2016 BC Classic had indeed become strictly a two-horse race between California Chrome and Arrogate in the final quarter-mile.
As California Chrome entered the stretch in front and running strongly, Baffert later said he believed at that point that Arrogate was going to run second. And Baffert felt that finishing second to California Chrome, “a great horse,” as Baffert put it, “would be no embarrassment” for Arrogate.
Once straightened away for the stretch run, Espinoza now was asking California Chrome for run. When California Chrome led by 1 1/2 lengths with a furlong to go, it appeared the 2014 Horse of the Year probably was on his way to a perfect seven-for-seven 2016 campaign.
Smith, unquestionably one of the greatest big-money riders of all time, coaxed Arrogate while utilizing a left-hand whip from the top of the lane to just outside the sixteenth pole. Arrogate seemed to be responding just enough to be staying about a length or so behind California Chrome. But when Smith switched his stick and employed it with his right hand in the final sixteenth, Arrogate responded immediately and enthusiastically while appearing to find another gear. He surged past California Chrome in the final yards to prevail by a half-length in a thriller witnessed on a beautiful fall afternoon by a throng of 72,811 in attendance at The Great Race Place, the scenic battleground for this year’s Breeders’ Cup.
Arrogate completed his 1 1/4-mile BC Classic journey in 2:00.11. He was assigned a 120 Beyer. Only six Breeders’ Cup winners have ever recorded a Beyer higher than 120. Precisionist owns the highest Beyer Speed Figure in Breeders’ Cup history, a 125 in the 1986 Sprint at Aqueduct. Arrogate’s 120 Beyer in the 2016 BC Classic matched that of American Pharoah when the Baffert-trained Triple Crown winner took the 2015 BC Classic at Keeneland in 2:00.07.
- ARROGATE in Saratoga’s Grade I Travers at 1 1/4 miles on dirt Aug. 27. (Owned by Juddmonte Farms; trained by Bob Baffert; ridden by Mike Smith; 3-year-old Kentucky-bred Unbridled’s Song colt.)
There was only one 2016 performance by a Thoroughbred in the U.S. that I characterized as Secretariat-like. This was it.
When Arrogate streaked home to win the Travers by 13 1/2 lengths, I could not help but harken back to Secretariat’s victory in the 1973 Kentucky Derby. There are these similarities.
Secretariat’s final time was 1:59 and change. So was Arrogate’s.
Secretariat broke the track record. So did Arrogate.
Secretariat ran his final quarter-mile in :23 and change. So did Arrogate.
Secretariat defeated 12 foes. So did Arrogate.
In the Kentucky Derby, Secretariat broke a track record that had stood for nine years. In the Travers, Arrogate broke a track record that had stood for 37 years.
The early pace set by Arrogate in the Travers was quicker than that set by Shecky Greene in the 1973 Kentucky Derby. Yet Arrogate till was able to run his final quarter in the Travers in a sensational :23 4/5.
Arrogate’s final time in fifths of 1:59 1/5 shaved four-fifths of a second off the track record set by General Assembly (a son of Secretariat) when he splashed his way to a 15-length victory in the 1979 Travers on a sloppy track.
Unlike Arrogate, General Assembly’s record of 2:00 might have been aided somewhat by the condition of the track.
“Saratoga, like the New York downstate tracks, gets extremely fast when first soaked, for it has a good bottom,” William H. Rudy wrote in his 1979 Travers recap for The Blood-Horse magazine. “Nevertheless, the winner’s time of 2:00 was remarkable.”
One can get a sense of just how fantastic Arrogate’s Travers performance was by comparing his individual splits to those by Secretariat in the 1973 Kentucky Derby.
First quarter: Secretariat :25 1/5, Arrogate :23 1/5. Arrogate ran the first quarter approximately 10 lengths faster.
First half: Secretariat :49 1/5, Arrogate :46 4/5. Arrogate ran the first half approximately 12 lengths faster.
Final time: Secretariat 1:59 2/5, Arrogate 1:59 1/5. Arrogate completed the 1 1/4 miles approximately one length faster.
There is still another reason Arrogate’s Travers probably was better than Secretariat’s in the Kentucky Derby. Secretariat had much more experience.
When Secretariat ran in the Kentucky Derby, he was making his 13th career start and 10th start in a stakes race. When Arrogate ran in the Travers, he was making only his fifth career start and — remarkably — his first start in a stakes race.
Serving as further evidence of just how spectacular Arrogate’s Travers performance was, he was assigned a 122 Beyer, the second-highest figure of the year, topped only by Frosted’s 123 when he won the Grade I Met Mile by 14 1/4 lengths at Belmont Park on June 11.
The Beyer Speed Figures listed in the American Racing Manual for the Travers go back to 1990. Arrogate’s 122 is the highest ever recorded by a Travers winner. Indeed, it is the highest by quite a bit.
The best Beyer by a Travers winner prior to 2016 had been Point Given’s 117 in 2001. Point Given, also trained by Baffert, was the 2001 Horse of the Year. The big colt won the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes that year after running fifth in the Kentucky Derby, the only time he finished worse than second in 13 career starts.
Taking into account his winning margin of 13 1/2 lengths, final time of 1:59 1/5, final quarter-mile clocking of :23 4/5 and the lack of any prior stakes experience, it is my view that Arrogate’s victory in the Travers was the top 2016 performance by a Thoroughbred in the United States.