2011 Crop No Flop

Few classic crops have been maligned more than the class of 2011. Well, perhaps it is time for the critics to re-evaluate their position.

The truth is, there have been few classic crops recently that have accomplished more over the next two years. It should be noted that we are differentiating classic crop from 3-year-old crop. Every year, we often see late-developing 3-year-olds become the dominant forces in the division, as many of the classic starters fall to injury or fail to maintain their form from the winter and spring due in many cases to the arduous nature of the Triple Crown trail.

This past weekend emphasized the impact made by last year’s classic horses, as two of its major stars – Shackleford and Stay Thirsty – made successful farewells in grade I stakes and now go to stud with unlimited potential, bringing with them an enticing blend of speed, class, and stamina.

The following demonstrates the overall impact of the horses who made their presence felt in last year’s Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes.

Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom, with only one start in 17 months, turned in a spectacular performance to finish second to Horse of the Year favorite Wise Dan in the Breeders’ Cup Mile and now is considered one of the leading contenders’ for next year’s Dubai World Cup.

Preakness winner Shackleford captured the Met Mile, Clark Handicap, and Churchill Downs Stakes this year and finished second in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, Haskell Invitational, and Indiana Derby and this year’s Kelso Handicap.

Belmont Stakes winner Ruler On Ice finished third in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic, second in the Pennsylvania Derby, and third in the Haskell Invitational.

Belmont Stakes runner-up Stay Thirsty won the Travers and Jim Dandy and was third in last year’s Jockey Club Gold Cup. This year, he captured the Cigar Mile and was second, beaten a head, in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

Mucho Macho Man, third in the Kentucky Derby, won this year’s Suburban Handicap and Gulfstream Park Handicap, was second, beaten a neck, in the Woodward Stakes, and ran his heart out to finish second, beaten a half-length, in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Kentucky Derby runner-up Nehro returned from an injury to finish second, beaten a nose, in this year’s Oaklawn Handicap before reinjuring himself.

Brilliant Speed, third in the Belmont Stakes, won the Saranac Stakes and placed in the Breeders’ Cup Turf, Woodford Reserve Turf Classic, Sword Dancer, and Jamaica Handicap.

In summation, the horses who finished first, second or third in last year’s classics have gone on to win or place in 16 grade I stakes, including five Breeders’ Cup races – BC Classic twice, BC Turf, BC Mile, and BC Dirt Mile.

Also, Master of Hounds, fifth in the Kentucky Derby, went on to win a grade I stakes in Dubai and grade II stakes in Turkey this year, while placing in three other graded stakes in Dubai.

If you extend the premise into the summer, Haskell winner Coil went on to finish third against older horses in the Goodwood Stakes and this year captured the grade I Santa Anita Sprint Championship, was second in the grade II Pat O’Brien stakes, and third in the Cigar Mile.

Even looking at the horses who participated on the Derby trail, but didn’t make the Run for the Roses, To Honor and Serve came back to win last year’s Cigar Mile and Pennylvania Derby and this year’s Woodward Stakes and Westchester Stakes.

As we have been saying for years, the quality of a classic crop should not be determined until the following year after we’ve had a chance to evaluate the talent level and accomplishments of the horses who participated in the Triple Crown races. The fact that so many of the major players from last year’s classics are even still around and competing at the highest level is impressive and unusual enough. But considering how successful they’ve been in the year and a half following the Belmont, it should convince the skeptics that last year’s classic horses were much better than first thought.

The fairest of the fair

Having just returned from a magical three days in New Orleans, during which my daughter’s boyfriend of six years proposed to her outside Jackson Square, I have to mention the exhilaration felt by all of us attending opening day at Fair Grounds on Thanksgiving, which is racing’s best kept secret outside the state of Louisiana.

In addition to the warm hospitality by everyone at the track, especially Sandra Salmen, head of horsemen’s relations, and a magnificent Thanksgiving buffet feast (I’m still drooling over the cornbread stuffing), I was surprised what a festive tradition opening day has become. The grandstand was packed with enthusiastic fans, many of them parents with their children, and the ladies’ hats rivaled those seen at Churchill Downs on Derby and Oaks day. To top off the proceedings, the Thanksgiving Handicap featured several top-quality sprinters, including the victorious Delaunay, an up-and-coming star who has won five of his last six starts; Smile Sprint Handicap winner Gantry, coming off the Breeders’ Cup Sprint; and the hard-knocking multiple stakes winner Cash Refund. The final time of 1:08 4/5 demonstrated the speed and quality of the field.

What made this visit so nostalgic and gratifying was to see how beautiful the new plant has become since the devastating fire that destroyed the old grandstand in 1993. That just happened to be the last year I visited Fair Grounds. I was sent there in 1992 and ’93 at the request of ESPN to promote a new Daily Racing Form feature I had conceived, along with colleague Steve Feldman, called Derby Watch. That was 20 years ago and Derby Watch, with some conceptual changes, is still a popular feature in the DRF.

I remember suffering from such a bad case of nerves at the thought of being on TV, ESPN’s Bob Neumeier, who was interviewing me, had to give me a glass of water and massage my shoulders to calm me down. Thank goodness it was being taped and not live. And this was the second year I was doing it. The first time was with Dave Johnson and I had come down with a cold and we had to film it on the roof in the rain. I thought I had done great until I was told that the interview had run over nearly three times its allotted length and that I had drifted from one end of the platform on which we were standing to the other. It may have been the first ESPN interview in which the guest sniffled throughout the entire interview.

But even with all that, the memories I had of Fair Grounds were fond ones, and now to return two decades later the day after my daughter’s engagement made this a moment to cherish always. At least this time it was my future son-in-law who had been suffering from nerves and not me.

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