Putting a Circle Around 2011 - by Evan Hammonds

 (Originally published in the December 24, 2011 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)

By Evan Hammonds  

By Evan Hammonds The ball hasn’t dropped yet on New Year’s Eve, but the verdict is already in: It’s highly unlikely the year 2011 will go down as one of the more memorable ones in the history of Thoroughbred racing. There were a couple of bright spots but few, if any, signature moments. We’re still discovering just how long the shadows are that Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra cast over the racing landscape.

For some of the key story lines of the year, previous events put the wheels in motion that eventually brought things full circle.

Breeders and sellers of Thoroughbred bloodstock had a pretty good year, all things considered. After three tough years for the bloodstock market, most indicators flashed “up arrows” for the year. There’s a sense we’ve found the floor, and those that have remained in the business can hopefully start making some money again.

Greasing this rebound, most breeders began turning wheels two years ago when they did their homework, evaluated their stock, and decided which mares to breed and which to take out of production. The shrinking foal crop has helped put supply more in line with demand and has added strength back to the market.

While compiling the “Milestone” pages for the year-in-review section of this magazine, one gets the chance to find a certain level of hindsight that perhaps allows for a fresher perspective. Remembering the passing of top-level horses and outstanding individuals only enhances the legacy they’ve left behind. A few key departures remind us of how Thoroughbred racing, and life, eventually comes back around.

It was just this last week we received an e-mail from Turkey regarding the passing of 1991 Kentucky Derby (gr. I) winner Strike the Gold. With a cast of characters including an up-and-coming trainer named Nick Zito, jockey Chris Antley (who was featured in an ESPN documentary film on Charismatic this year), and owners B. Giles Brophy, William Condren, and Joe Cornacchia (who also passed in 2011), “Strikey” blazed a colorful path through the Triple Crown trail in the spring of ’91.

Strike the Gold’s victory marked a turning point in Derby handicapping. Some pundits had determined that Dr. Steven Roman’s Dosage Index (a point system based on certain sires in a horse’s pedigree) had helped predict Derby contenders since 1929. All winners up to that point had a DI of 4.00 or lower…Strike the Gold won the Roses with a DI of 9.00. Following Derby scores by Real Quiet (5.29) in ’98 and Charismatic (5.22) the next year, the Derby/Dosage theory lost its steam.

Steaming toward an unprecedented fourth attempt to win the Breeders’ Cup Mile (gr. IT) this year was the Freddy Head-trained Goldikova, which brought to mind the Head-ridden Miesque, who had been euthanized in January.

Back when seven Breeders’ Cup races were enough, mighty Miesque became the first to win back-to-back Breeders’ Cup events, and her effort in ’88 at Churchill Downs made for perhaps one of the greatest days of racing in North American history. The gray day—and early evening—of the first Breeders’ Cup day under the Twin Spires also gave us Gulch’s surprising win in the Sprint (gr. I); 2011 Hall of Fame entrant Open Mind’s Juvenile Fillies (gr. I); the shocking loss of Easy Goer in the Juvenile (gr. I); Personal Ensign’s unbelievable comeback to edge Winning Colors in the Distaff (gr. I)—still considered the Breeders’ Cup’s most memorable moment—and Alysheba’s Classic (gr. I) win in the dark that tabbed him as “America’s Horse.”

Now that was a day of racing.

Few enjoyed a day of racing more than Jim Hurst, who at 51 left The Blood-Horse, the industry, and his family all too soon in August. It was back in the early 1980s when we were first introduced to the young salesman with enthusiasm for the game, enthusiasm for life, and a mean jump shot on the basketball court. We spent a lot of time shooting the breeze with Jim in the office, shooting hoops after work, and shooting holes in our wallets at the track—be it Keeneland, Latonia (now Turfway Park), or his favorite haunts of Del Mar and Santa Anita.

It’s doubtful he was a stellar student in math at Shelby County High School, but we’d put his talents at assembling a Pick 6 ticket with the best of them.

Jim knew and loved the game and could sell it to anyone, but most of all he knew the importance of relationships and, with Jim, there was no distinction between business and personal relationships—they were one and the same.

Jim’s departure has left a big hole for Blood-Horse Publications, for the industry, and for us personally. We’ll be long past 2011 before we can even begin to come full circle on our loss. 

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