Achievement and retirement. Shame and success. Low points and comebacks. It was an up and down year for the racing industry, as many participants experienced both ends of the emotional spectrum. From Rosie Napravnik winning grade I races to her surprise retirement; Steve Asmussen’s unraveling via a secret video to his Breeders’ Cup success; Steve Coburn’s realized dream of a Derby winner to his tearful apology on national television, 2014 offered a taste of just about everything. Here are a dozen people who stood out this year for leaving their mark on the industry.
Before the eruption, Steve Coburn was America’s dreamweaver. For three fantastic months this spring, the neophyte Thoroughbred breeder and owner with the million-to-one colt told us about his dreams. Initially we scoffed, if we listened at all.
But as California Chrome, the first horse he and his partner, Perry Martin, had ever bred, picked off his targets one by one—just like Coburn said he would—America started paying attention.
Luck struck Steve Coburn, a 61-year-old press operator from someplace named Topaz Lake, Nev., like a kick in the head. The proverbial little guy in the Sport of Kings, Coburn reached heights via racing he could never have imagined. Named Dumb Ass Partners, he and Martin’s one-horse stable won the Santa Anita Derby, Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands, and Preakness Stakes (all gr. I) in succession as part of a six-race win streak with their remarkable California-bred 3-year-old.
That flashy chestnut helped make Coburn, DAP’s “public relations arm,” the most recognizable racing personality of 2014. Fans as well as newcomers to the sport knew Coburn as a Wilford Brimley look-alike with his white walrus mustache, oversized cowboy hat, and folksy demeanor.
“It was very, very special,” he said in retrospect. “It was like a fairy tale, like a dream come true.”
Coburn’s outgoing personality made him many new friends. He knew how to captivate an audience. But a few poorly chosen words after a crushing Triple Crown defeat in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) in New York also earned him plenty of detractors, as well as a torrent of criticism from the media. And, finally, his own tearful regrets expressed, appropriately, on “Good Morning, America.”
It seems Coburn had come to believe his own dreams. California Chrome could not be beaten. But when the exhausted colt, after giving all he had while running on an injured foot in the “Test of the Champion,” was unable to muster the finish Coburn had envisioned, the owner blew his top. A nation that had fallen for his charm was shocked to see a disappointed, red-faced Coburn angrily denounce the connections of horses that had not competed in all three jewels of the Triple Crown—such as those of Belmont winner Tonalist—of being “cheaters” who had taken “a coward’s way out.”
Reflecting, Coburn now admits, “The Belmont—it wasn’t cool. But like I tell people, I’m only human. It was just one of those emotional moments that if I could have to do over, I wouldn’t have done it. I would have taken a moment to compose myself.”
Or as he told Robin Roberts on GMA through tears with his wife, Carolyn, by his side: “This is America’s horse. I wanted so much for this horse to win the Triple Crown.”
In the months since, Coburn has reached out again to California Chrome’s multitude of supporters. He was quite visible, shaking hands and talking up fans in the paddock Nov. 29 at Del Mar prior to his colt’s winning the Hollywood Derby (gr. IT).
Yes, he’s the same down-home Nevada cowboy he always was. He just happened to strike gold with a copper-colored colt. And what a ride it has been.
Art Sherman, all 5 feet 2½ inches of him, climbed on a plastic mounting block April 29 at Churchill Downs to conduct an interview with the media … and the trainer made his way straight into the hearts of racing fans across the nation. The former jockey with the big chestnut runner brought just enough spunk, plenty of class, and a down-to-earth attitude to Louisville—attributes that made him and his California Chrome the crowd-favorite winners of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I).
Sherman, born in Brooklyn in 1937 but raised in California in the 1950s, also demonstrated a father’s influence, having imparted his passion for the game upon the two children he raised around the racetrack with his wife, Faye. His younger son and assistant, Alan, impressed as the main man in charge of California Chrome’s cross-country campaign, while older son Steve was instrumental in the colt’s landing in his father’s barn.
It was a whirlwind season for Sherman in 2014. Before California Chrome took the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) en route to his status as Kentucky Derby favorite, the 77-year-old conditioner had saddled just four grade I winners. Thrust into the limelight, Sherman and his family responded well to the pressure. They remained focused on their objectives. They did what was right by the horse.
Swept along to the Preakness Stakes (gr. I), where California Chrome delivered, and then to the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) with Triple Crown hopes high, Sherman soldiered on. Ever gracious, he signed autographs and made appearances. He handled the press corps with aplomb. He was disappointed—but not a sore loser—when his colt finished fourth and lost his chance at glory in June, and again when he finished off the board in his comeback race, the Pennsylvania Derby (gr. II) in mid-September. Sherman vowed racing fans would see “the real Chrome” again.
And that they did, the son of Lucky Pulpit gobbling up ground to land a solid third in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I), then wheeling back to tackle turf for the first time with a Hollywood Derby (gr. IT) score at Del Mar. Under Sherman’s capable handling, he is expected to race again in 2015.
Rosie Napravnik knows where to drop a bomb—on national televison. The popular 26-year-old jockey stunned the racing community and flustered her interviewer when she announced her retirement—and pregnancy—Oct. 31 during a winner’s presentation at the Breeders’ Cup World Championships.
Napravnik had just jumped off the 3-year-old filly Untapable after her tour de force over older rivals in the Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff (gr. I) and while being asked to gush over her win, she interrupted the proceedings to reveal she was hanging up her tack and starting a family with her husband, Joe Sharp.
“His career is brand new and thriving, and it’s good timing,” she said in the interview room later after revealing she was seven-weeks pregnant at the time. “He’s stepping into the limelight, and I’m stepping out.”
The New Jersey native enjoyed a meteoric rise to the top of the jockey standings since starting her career in 2005 and has been a fresh face for her generation at the racetrack. With the right mix of spunk and looks, she’s been able to step beyond the racing media to be featured in mainstream magazines and broadcast feature segments.”
Despite not riding in November and December, she ranks seventh in 2014 nationally by purse earnings and goes out with 1,878 wins and $71,436,887 in career earnings. In her all-too-brief career to date, she became the first female jockey to win the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) in 2012 with Believe You Can and became the first to win two with Untapable. She has a pair of Breeders’ Cup wins with Untapable and Shanghai Bobby (2012 Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, gr. I) and has racked up multiple meet titles at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots and at Keeneland.
The racing industry can fully hope this isn’t the end of seeing Rosie in the saddle.
“I can’t promise to stay off a horse forever, but I won’t be back in 10 months,” she said. Based on the past performances from other jocks’ retirements, she’ll get the itch and be back before too long.
The bigger you are, the bigger the target on your back. Trainer Steve Asmussen, the second-leading trainer of all time by wins with more than 6,900, was blindsided this spring when a video exposé on his barn taped by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals was sent to the New York Times, which subsequently wrote a story about the group’s allegations and its legal complaint.
Asmussen became an instant pariah. His nomination to the Hall of Fame was tabled, and he was skewered by the media and others in the industry.
He held his tongue and held his course throughout April and into Derby weekend while running heavy favorite Untapable in the Longines Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) and Tapiture in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I). While some horsemen suggested he stay away from Churchill Downs for the Oaks and Derby, he came, saw, and conquered with Untapable, who would go on to have what figures to be an Eclipse Award-winning 3-year-old season.
One of the few men who stayed in his corner was owner Ron Winchell.
“I’m a person who bases everything on experience and facts,” Winchell said. “So my experience told me otherwise, and I didn’t see any facts there. I’m glad it worked out the way it did, and now we can look forward and not backward.”
As the story played out, there was no “smoking gun” in the video and over time Asmussen has received a level of redemption in the industry. Untapable went on to win two other grade I races and the Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff (gr. I).
“I always knew she’d be better with time,” Asmussen said after the World Championships. She was, and his reputation is. He nears year’s end at his accustomed spot among the leading trainers with more than $12 million in earnings.
Frank Stronach has always been one to speak his mind.
During a January 2001 industry forum he organized at Gulfstream Park not long after his Magna Entertainment Corp. purchased the Florida racetrack, Stronach indicated his disdain for the status quo. He made many of those in a group of 200 stakeholders a bit uneasy when he said he couldn’t wait to level the expansive and picturesque Gulfstream and rebuild it.
Stronach, now 82, has had numerous ideas and plans over the years. Some have failed; others have come to fruition.
His early plans for Gulfstream were realized. Today, the much smaller but upscale facility includes slot machines, fancy restaurants, and a connecting retail and residential complex.
And not unrelated, Gulfstream now controls all Thoroughbred racing in South Florida as part of Stronach’s earlier vision to maximize facilities and generate revenue for horse racing.
Publicly traded Magna Entertainment Corp. eventually filed for bankruptcy protection, but its racing-related holdings moved under a private entity called The Stronach Group. Through the new organization Stronach was able to call the shots without shareholder interference, and the operation—Gulfstream and Santa Anita Park are its flagship tracks—continues to gain power in the pari-mutuel racing landscape.
Stronach also is an industry leader as a longtime Thoroughbred owner and breeder. His Adena Springs breeding operation has a major presence in Kentucky, Florida, and Ontario, Canada.
Stronach and Adena Springs have collected a record eight Eclipse Awards for outstanding breeder and nine Sovereign Awards as outstanding breeder in Canada. In several years Adena Springs took top honors in both countries.
In August 2014 Stronach stated his case for integrity in racing by announcing plans for a management-controlled equine medication dispensary at Gulfstream. Though not yet in place, the dispensary would log the medications purchased by veterinarians and require them to submit weekly reports.
The dispensary is part of a larger effort to control equine medication. Stronach also said that in 2015 Gulfstream would begin carding 2-year-old races for horses not treated with the race-day anti-bleeding drug furosemide.
“We need to change,” Stronach said at the time. “If we don’t come up with a different model, the industry will not survive.”
There are places at Keeneland a person can stand and pretend it’s nearly a century ago, but make no mistake, the sales and racing operations continue to move forward, and 2014 proved to be an especially busy year.
While sales continue to improve, most of Keeneland’s biggest news this past year came on the racing side. Under the leadership of Bill Thomason, who in 2012 moved from the track’s chief financial officer to president and chief executive officer, Keeneland grabbed more than its share of headlines in 2014.
After the spring meet the Lexington track overhauled its main track, returning to a dirt surface to replace the Polytrack it had installed before the 2006 fall meet. While the Polytrack proved safe for horses and the full fields that followed generated record handle, Keeneland had noticed the best horses were no longer competing in races such as the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I).
“One of our founding principles is, we are to provide racing at the highest level possible—and we have to acknowledge we have a lot of horses who are not coming to Keeneland,” Thomason said in April when the change was announced. “Those horses preparing for the Triple Crown races and Breeders’ Cup just have not been coming to our prep races and significant races because of it.”
In a continued effort to accomplish that goal, Keeneland announced in December plans to boost the Blue Grass purse to $1 million and move the race forward one week on the calendar so that it’s run four weeks before the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I).
While the spring meet always makes headlines, the biggest event next year will be Keeneland’s hosting of the Breeders’ Cup World Championships for the first time. In June the track and Breeders’ Cup announced Keeneland as the host site.
“At the center of the Bluegrass, a trip to Keeneland is a homecoming for the event and a celebration of the culture of racing and breeding at its highest level,” said Breeders’ Cup chairman Will Farish.
Keeneland also moved forward on plans to enter the historical racing market. Keeneland will partner with the Red Mile harness track on a historical racing facility that will open on the latter’s property in 2015, and by 2016 Keeneland will launch a Quarter Horse track in the Corbin, Ky., area that also will offer year-round Instant Racing.
It wasn’t quite Richard Mandella’s four Breeders’ Cup victories in 2003, but trainer Chad Brown’s trio of triumphs at this year’s World Championships rates as one of the most notable feats of 2014, and thrusts him into the forefront of Eclipse Award consideration.
Brown’s $2.2 million worth of purse winnings from those three races at the World Championships included Dayatthespa, winning the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf (gr. IT); Bobby’s Kitten triumphing in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint (gr. IT); and Lady Eli’s spectacular run in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf (gr. IT). Those wins, along with three stakes victories Nov. 29 highlighted by Leave the Light On in the Remsen Stakes (gr. II) have launched Brown into the second spot in purse earnings for trainers this season.
“We’re very pleased with how the year has gone, and certainly how it’s ending,” noted Brown, 36, a native of Mechanicville, N.Y., near Saratoga Springs. “We put so much into these horses for the clients, and it feels good when that hard work pays off.
“You try so hard for so long to get horses to the Breeders’ Cup, and then it goes by so fast that you’re pinching yourself afterward if you’ve had success. It’s hard to win those kinds of races, but it whets your appetite to start planning for next year.”
Although all three of his 2014 Breeders’ Cup victories came on the Santa Anita lawn, Brown is equally as proficient with his dirt runners. As of Dec. 9, he was winning with 27% of his grass starters and 25% of his dirt starters for the year. Brown has made millionaires out of dirt runners Last Gunfighter and Zivo, the latter of whom won this year’s Suburban Handicap (gr. II).
“I’m not going to apologize for our success on turf,” said Brown, “but we take each horse and figure out the surface, distance, and class level where it will excel. It helps the horse develop the right way and saves owners a lot of money.”
Brown also scored victories this season in the Belmont Oaks Invitational Stakes (gr. IT) with Minorette and in the Knob Creek Manhattan Stakes (gr. IT) with Real Solution. He has also has notched 30 wins with 2-year-olds, meaning Brown’s ascension through the ranks is likely to continue.
Six-time Eclipse Award winner Todd Pletcher had another banner year in 2014 as the 47-year-old surpassed his mentor and Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas as racing’s all-time leading trainer by earnings and went over the 1,000 stakes-victory mark, second in that category behind Lukas.
The Texas native who graduated the University of Arizona’s Race Track Industry Program and saddled his first winner on his own in 1996. He again dominated the trainer ranks by earnings with more than $21 million and his stable had more than 50 stakes wins in 2014.
While he is proud of the stable accomplishments in 2014 that also included four meet titles, the ever-competitive conditioner said he would have liked to have done more later in the year.
“It was a good year and had some significant milestones in it,” Pletcher said. “The year itself was extremely good, until about mid-August. The last quarter of the year has been good but not on the same standards as the beginning of it. We would liked to have finished a little stronger than we did, but at the same time we had a great year.”
As the calendar turns, Pletcher is gearing up for another strong season in 2015, with older horses such as Palace Malice, Danza, and Commissioner expected to return. With one Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) victory to his credit in Super Saver, Pletcher has high hopes for promising classic prospects Carpe Diem, Daredevil, and Competitive Edge.
Pletcher said he and his staff will continue to adhere to a philosophy that seems simple.
“We try to do the best we can for each and every horse we get and try to take that horse to the highest level of its talent,” he said. “In some cases that might be winning a modest claiming race and in others winning a grade I stakes. But that is our basic strategy—try to do the very best we can with each and every horse and do right by the owners. If you do that, everything else falls into place. We just try to keep doing it.”
And setting training records along the way.
Late in 2013 the New York Racing Association plucked Martin Panza from California to become its senior vice president of racing operations, and the hire yielded immediate dividends as Panza helped successfully reshape the racing calendar in New York.
Panza was charged with creating mega-racing days, and it was obvious on Belmont Stakes (gr. I) day in early June that he left the gate running. Total handle on that card reached a record $153 million, breaking the old record of $110 million and surpassing as well the record for a Breeders’ Cup day ($124 million).
“That was beyond what we could have imagined,” said Panza, who moved the Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I) and several other stakes to the June 7 card. “California Chrome going for the Triple Crown had something to do with that, but we’ve had Triple Crowns on the line before, so we took that day to another level. I firmly believe in ‘Build it and they will come.’ ”
Other goals for the season were to beef up the program for New York-breds and increase international participation from Europe. Purses were increased for most major stakes races, but in particular for two-turn grass events that did indeed draw European horses such as Adelaide and Toast of New York, who both ran in the Belmont Derby Invitational Stakes (gr. IT). The former went on to win the Secretariat Stakes (gr. IT) and Sportingbet W.S. Cox Plate (Aus-I), and Toast of New York ended up second in both the TVG Pacific Classic Stakes (gr. I) and the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I).
“Getting more foreign horses to New York is something we want to keep doing,” Panza said. “It’s a relatively easy trip, and we are using the good purse money to creat some things.
“We’ve also enhanced the program for New York-breds. We want to keep encouraging people to breed in New York. It’s a great time to do so with the purses and awards, and we want more mares coming into the state.”
Panza, who previously served as vice president of racing and racing secretary at the now-defunct Hollywood Park in Los Angeles, also scored with the Stars & Stripes Festival that was built up for July 4 weekend.
Big days will continue to be emphasized in 2015 when NYRA moves the Sword Dancer Invitational Stakes (gr. IT), and the Personal Ensign Stakes (gr. I) and Forego Stakes (gr. I) to Travers Day at Saratoga.
One year after sweeping the Eclipse Awards for both outstanding owner and outstanding breeder, Ken and Sarah Ramsey delivered another stellar season in 2014 that could see them add to their four previous Eclipse Awards.
The Ramseys earned leading owner Eclipse Awards in 2004, 2011, and 2013, also picking up the outstanding breeder award last year. In 2014 their racing stable reached eight figures in earnings for a second straight season. Through Dec. 9, they led all other owners by earnings with more than $10.3 million—nearly twice as much as second-place Midwest Thoroughbreds at nearly $5.6 million.
The Ramseys picked up their third Breeders’ Cup World Championships victory this season when Bobby’s Kitten rallied wide to win the $1 million Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint (gr. IT). Other grade I winners for the Ramseys this season were Real Solution and Stephanie’s Kitten. All three are homebreds by the Ramseys’ 2013 leading sire Kitten’s Joy.
The Ramseys also campaigned six other graded stakes winners including three-time graded stakes winner Vicar’s in Trouble.
The Ramseys earned their record-extending 23rd Churchill Downs meet title at this year’s fall meet, where they became the first owners to register 400 career wins at the Louisville track.
“This is a tremendous accomplishment,” Ramsey said after that milestone win. “I never thought I’d get to 400 wins, but I still need to get one more in the (Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands, gr. I) before my time is up,” Ramsey said.
In the fall the Ramseys notched their 14th Keeneland owner’s title, moving into a tie with T.A. Grissom for the most at the Lexington track.
While the Ramseys have succeeded at the highest levels in the sport, Ken Ramsey still enjoys running an extensive stable of claiming horses. He loves sharing his victories with the public.
“The fans love it,” said Ramsey, who enjoys leading his horses into the winner’s circle and often welcomes fans by his side for the celebration. “It’s a service to the industry.”
“Yeah, I guess it was an O.K. year,” Ron Winchell deadpanned before his laughter ended the put-on. “Actually, this has been a fanstastic year, the kind of year that keeps you in this business.”
Winchell, 41, has been in the Thoroughbred business all his life. His father, legendary California owner/breeder Verne Winchell, built the operation Ron heads today, and the one constant has been a string of top-shelf runners.
These days, the biggest factor in continuing that run is Tapit, who is dominating North America-based studs in 2014. The Winchells, with the help of their farm/racing manager, David Fiske, purchased Tapit as a yearling for $625,000, and then Ron kept a 50% interest in the grade I winner when he was sold to Gainesway Farm to begin his stud career. Winchell breeds a sizable percentage of his two-dozen mares each year to Tapit, and in 2014 was rewarded with Untapable, a lock for the Eclipse Award for 3-year-old fillies; and Tapiture, a three-time graded stakes winner.
Making it all the sweeter, both horses come from pedigrees made by Verne Winchell. Tapiture’s dam is by Olympio, one of the best horses campaigned by Verne Winchell. Untapable is out of Fun House, who is a granddaughter of Verne Winchell’s foundation mare, Carols Christmas. Untapable ran the table against females, winning four grade I contests including the Longines Kentucky Oaks and the Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff.
“We had such huge expectations for Untapable, and she fulfilled them there,” said Winchell. “The bottom line is how fortunate we are to have Tapit. Access to him gives us access to racetrack moments like that.”
Winchell’s success in 2014 came not only in major races, but in his decision to stick with trainer Steve Asmussen after a video surfaced in the spring from an animal-rights group seeking to discredit his barn and the sport. Winchell, despite coming under sharp scrutiny, eschewed any knee-jerk reaction to the video, which was largely discredited over time.
And with Tapit on his team, the future looks more than just O.K.
Florida horsewoman Mandy Pope struck the Thoroughbred auction market like a thunderclap two years ago when she bought Horse of the Year Havre de Grace for $10 million at the Fasig-Tipton November sale. The owner of Whisper Hill Farm continued making noise in 2014 by branching out and diverting some of her spending on colts.
She locked horns during the Keeneland September yearling sale with trainer D. Wayne Lukas and owner Willis Horton over a half brother to Oxbow, winner of the Preakness Stakes (gr. I) for Lukas and Brad Kelley’s Calumet Farm. Pope took the Unbridled’s Song—Tizamazing colt home for $1.6 million.
“I thought I would venture out a bit and try something different,” said Pope about purchasing a colt. “He’s absolutely gorgeous. Unbridled’s Songs tend to go on and run and, hopefully, become stallions.”
She has purchased several six-figure yearling colts over the past couple of years but had not ventured above the $650,000 price point.
Pope spent $9,165,000 on broodmares and yearlings in 2014. Among her purchases was the top-selling mare at the Keeneland November breeding stock sale, the Irish group III winner Aloof. The 5-year-old daughter of Galileo out of Airwave, by Air Express, was bought for $3.9 million out of Pat Costello’s Paramount Sales consignment. Aloof was sold in foal to Claiborne Farm’s rising sire War Front.
“We’ll probably breed her back to War Front,” Pope said after acquiring Aloof. “She’s a lovely Galileo mare out of an outstanding family, and she was a very good racehorse. We’re getting a little bit of the European flair going. We’re spreading our boundaries.”
Opening collage photos by: Anne M. Eberhardt (Coburn, Sherman, Asmussen, Brown, Panza), Jonathan Palmer (Ramseys), Reed Palmer/Churchill Downs (Napravnik), Wally Skalij (Stronach), Matt Anderson (Thomason), Rick Samuels/The Blood-Horse (Pletcher), Jamie Hernandez (Winchell), Keeneland/Photos by Z (Pope)