There were plenty of highlights in horse racing this year, and as 2012 prepares to bid us farewell I’ve picked out what I believe to be the three best races from around the world in the last 12 months.
1. The Queen Anne (1609m, England): The greatest performance of all time?
Frankel headed to June’s Royal Ascot meeting as the world’s highest rated thoroughbred – he had never been beaten in ten outings and had prevailed six times at the highest level.
As a preface to Frankel’s 2012 debut in May’s Lockinge Stakes (1609m), English racing pundits professed that the four-year-old was an unbeaten season away from having a claim on the title of ‘greatest racehorse of all time’.
Such assertions were surprising at that stage because even though Frankel had shown incredible speed and power in his first two seasons of racing, there were chinks in his armour.
As a three-year old, in 2011, Frankel had a tendency to race too strongly in the bridle which sometimes left him vulnerable to a late challenge and seemingly limited the Galileo colt to a maximum distance of a mile.
For those two reasons, the talk of Frankel leaving the racetrack as the greatest of all time appeared a tad fanciful.
Well, until his performance in the Queen Anne at Royal Ascot.
Frankel headed to the Royal meeting after a soft victory in the Lockinge where he showed no ill effects from a leg injury suffered in the off-season.
As a fully matured animal prepared to race kindly Frankel was ready to fulfil his potential.
On the day of the Queen Anne, he presented in the mounting yard in outstanding order – an illustration of power, size and beauty. And his performance on the track was to match – devastating, brutal and humbling.
He won by 11 lengths, beating the world’s second ranked miler (third in the world overall) Excelebration and recording the highest ever rating (147 from Timeform) in history.
It was probably, the single greatest athletic performance by an equine in modern times, if not in history. It was perfect.
And the scary thing was that Frankel, without surprising anyone, would continue to produce similar performances throughout 2012 – including at 2000m.
When in almost every preceding outing he had done plenty of bullocking work himself, in the Queen Anne Frankel enjoyed a soft run. He conserved energy in the early of part of the race, tucking in behind pace-maker and three-quarter brother Bullet Train.
The world soon came to understand that a Frankel protected by Bullet Train was an unrivalled force.
A horse that by season’s end – having retired with an unbeaten record in 14 starts, including ten at Group One – would, as correctly asserted in May, have a say in any conversation about the greatest ever.
The Queen Anne is the year’s best race not because it included an epic battle but because it was a demonstration of the zenith of the thoroughbred.
2. Lightning Stakes (1000m, Australia): Black Caviar fights off Hay List
In the first part of 2012, Black Caviar was everything in Australian racing. In six outings between January and June ‘the wonder from down under’ increased her profile and reputation by taking her unbeaten record from 16 to 22.
There were victories in Melbourne, Adelaide for the first time and aboard at England’s Royal Ascot. But it wasn’t easy. Certainly not as easy as what it used to be.
Perhaps Black Caviar will be remembered for her heart-stopping victory in the Diamond Jubilee – when she battled injury and weariness to win on the world stage.
But that Royal Ascot victory wasn’t so much a great race as it was great drama.
Black Caviar’s English expedition was just one 2012 example of the challenge issued by trainer Peter Moody in an attempt to showcase the extraordinary champion qualities of his mare.
Before the toil of travel and fatigue caught up with Black Caviar at Ascot, there was the best win of her career – in February’s Lightning Stakes over 1000m at Flemington.
The previous Saturday, Black Caviar thrilled fans at Caulfield as she cantered to victory in the 1400m Orr Stakes at weight-for-age level.
For the first time, the mare stepped up to a distance longer than the out-and-out sprint of 1000 or 1200m and she completed the task with consummate ease – winning her eighth Group One by over three lengths in a typically effortless display.
But in the following week’s Lightning she faced her stiffest test.
Just by lining up in the race Black Caviar was left vulnerable by Moody. Not since the 1990s had any horse won over 1000m, the week after racing over 1400m.
On the back-up her speed would be tested – after all a quick turnaround is often used by trainers to help bring a horse’s stamina to the fore.
Going back in distance on a seven-day break is almost unheard of and certainly no aid to a horse about to compete against the likes of Hay List over 1000m.
This was the fifth meeting between Black Caviar and Hay List. And Hay List’s best crack at beating the mare. He entered the Lightning in rare good health, fresh off a spell. His camp, led by trainer John McNair and jockey Glyn Schofield were confident.
I’ll even put my hand up and confess – I thought Hay List was a big hope too. It would be his best chance at beating Black Caviar.
And didn’t he put up a fight.
Together the pair raced down the straight, almost in tandem. Before the 600 Schofield upped the pressure to a level high enough to test the speed of the mare.
And in response Black Caviar carved out one of the fastest 200m sectionals ever. It took her 9.98 seconds to travel between 600 and the 400m. That’s almost two to Usain Bolt’s one.
But Hay List wasn’t done yet. I’m sure he fought back to head the champ before the 300. Luke Nolen on Black Caviar was certainly nervous. He pulled the whip on the mare for the first time in about a year.
And Black Caviar responded to his urgings. She got the better of Hay List inside the final 100m and came clear to win by just over a length.
Injury-plagued wins aside, it was the first – and only – time Black Caviar really had to dig deep to win. It was a credit to Hay List and maybe the first indication of the fighting qualities of the mare.
A great sprint. And a better win.
3. The Preakness (1900m, USA): I’ll Have Another keeps the dream alive
The holy grail of American racing is also the sport’s greatest curse – the Triple Crown. And in 2012 that curse was about to turn 34 years old.
The American Triple Crown comprises of three races for three-year old horses – the Kentucky Derby (2000m), Preakness and Belmont (2400m).
The Triple Crown honour roll includes legendary gallopers War Admiral (1937), Secretariat (1973) and Seattle Slew (1977). But no horse has won it since Affirmed became the 11th to do so in 1978.
Since Affirmed, 11 horses travelled to New York for the Belmont with the Triple Crown alive. All lost.
In 1999 Charismatic entered the final furlong of the Belmont clear of his rivals, seemingly with the Triple Crown in his keeping, but tragically fractured a leg. He finished third.
A decade later in 2008 – after Big Brown won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness by a combined ten lengths – the drought was supposed to end. But again the injury gods struck. Big Brown cracked a hoof during the Belmont and was pulled out of the race on the home turn.
And this year, I’ll Have Another was on his own journey. If he could get to the Belmont with the Triple Crown alive, he’d surely have it won. I’ll Have Another’s greatest danger, Bodemeister, would not pose the same threat over 2400m.
Bodemeister was, however, a danger in the first two legs. In the Kentucky Derby, Bodemeister went out in the lead and jockey Mike Smith set a frenetic pace.
He tried to pinch the ‘Run for the Roses’ by setting the sort of speed he would in a mile race, and the plan almost worked.
When Bodemeister entered the Churchill Downs stretch he had a race winning advantage. I’ll Have Another was one-paced and appeared beaten.
But slowly Bodemeister began to tire. And just his stride shortened, I’ll Have Another’s stamina kicked in.
He grabbed Bodemeister inside the final 100m of the race and came clear to win a fantastic Derby. A great example of how exciting racing can be when a genuine tempo is set from the front.
The Derby set the tone for the Preakness. Bodemeister would be suited by the shorter 1900m journey, and he started favourite.
But I’ll Have Another had the sentimental support behind him. If he could win the Preakness, the Triple Crown would be well and truly alive.
This time Smith set a kinder tempo. He rated Bodemeister beautifully in the lead and the baldy-faced colt had plenty left in the locker when he straightened for the finish.
If I’ll Have Another had to call on his strength and conviction to win the Derby then he needed to find all his brilliance and speed to take the Preakness.
After wobbling around the final bend, I’ll Have Another again looked beaten at the 300. But before you could completely rule him out, he began to make inroads on Bodemeister.
The Preakness was going to down to the wire. In the final 100m with ground still to be made up, Bodemeister started to tire. And I’ll Have Another closed in.
In shadows of the finish, I’ll Have Another grabbed the lead and won an emotional Preakness. A race just as good as the Derby but promoted into my top three because of the emotion of the win.
After the race, Bob Baffert announced that Bodemeister would not contest the Belmont.
The Triple Crown was a big chance of going off.
But on the eve of the Belmont the curse of the Triple Crown struck again. I’ll Have Another was found to have tendonitis in a leg and he was scratched.
Like Bodemeister he was soon retired to stud.