Late October, early November: In and around Belmont Park on Long Island, one wouldn't have known the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships were in town. There is no signage around the area, little--if any--coverage in the local papers, and no buzz at the track. On the weekdays leading up to the Breeders' Cup, there can't be more than a few hundred on the grounds, much less a few thousand. A rabbit is pulled out of the hat on event day as the plant fills up and the Breeders' Cup sets a handle record, but it seemed touch-and-go until then. On the flip side, a trip to Melbourne, Australia, during its main "Racing Carnival" sees major ink in the papers, and a concerted effort by Flemington Race Course to blanket the town with banners, posters, and signs. On the Saturday after Makybe Diva wins the Melbourne Cup (Aust-I) for the third time, more than 60,000 well-heeled patrons pony up $40 to push through the turnstiles on "Family Day." Dec. 1: Despite all of the bluster earlier in the year of him racing on, the official word comes down that Afleet Alex is retired. As the likely 3-year-old champion male of 2005, it'll mark the fourth time in a row the sophomore champion colt doesn't start as an older horse. Last week: Reading the "Reminders" section of The Blood-Horse. On Jan. 1, Aqueduct will run the Interborough Handicap for older fillies and mares with a purse of $65,000. Across the country near El Paso, Sunland Park runs the Albert Dominguez Memorial Handicap for older New Mexico-bred horses with a purse of $100,000. New York was, is, and should be the keystone of Thoroughbred racing in America. A racino state offering juicier purses than New York doesn't bode well for what we'd all like to hope to be a happy new year.
As December comes to a close, an editor is always looking for that warm and fuzzy feel-good story or a "Ten Best" type list to fill out the publication before running off to the Christmas party. 'Tis the season, right? Bah.That seems a pretty tall order this year. Against my mother's "if you can't say something nice" advice, I'd like to rip into my own personal list of the seven most annoying things about 2005--some serious, some with tongue planted firmly in cheek. In chronological order, here we go: March 5: While spending most of the morning and all of the afternoon in the sports book at Bally's casino in Las Vegas, watching and playing the entire cards from Gulfstream and Santa Anita, it comes time for the main event: the $1-million Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I). The Big 'Cap. It's big time, right? Wrong. The race goes off and draws about as much attention from those in the sports book as the third at Turfway. There is the same interest, if not more, in the Arizona/Arizona State basketball game on one of the other giant screens. A grade I race reduced to white noise. May 7: Trainer John Shirreffs is dragged into the winner's circle after Giacomo wins the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) at 50-1. The classically cool horseman knew he had a budding superstar in his midst and flew into Churchill Downs under the radar. He's just the kind of guy you always look for coming to the Derby for the first time, like, say, a Charlie Whittingham, a Mack Miller, a Neil Drysdale, a Barclay Tagg. I obviously was looking the other way. Almost any time this year: The rest of the country is always a year or two behind the curve when it comes to trends that start up in California and New York, but when did tracks elsewhere around the country pick up on California's tendency to draw short fields for stakes races? What used to be full fields in the Midwest and in New York seem to be dwindling to yawn-fest six-horse fields. There aren't more graded stakes than there used to be, and according to The Jockey Club, the foal crop isn't shrinking. Sept. 13: Sheikh Mohammed and John Magnier go at it behind the auction ring at the Keeneland September yearling sale and when the dust settles, a son of Storm Cat has sold for $9.7 million. Nine point seven? For a yearling? Reality has left the building.