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Top 10 Horse Racing Stories of 2021
Yibir was one of three Breeders' Cup wins for trainer Charlie Appleby (Photo credit: Bill Denver/Breeders’ Cup/Eclipse Sportswire/CSM).

Top 10 Horse Racing Stories of 2021

After the pandemic ravished sports and turned our lives upside down in 2020 things were supposed to get better in 2021.  Well, things did get back to normal in some respects. However, the horse racing industry took some hits but kept on ticking.

With the Omicron variant rearing its ugly head as we enter 2022, we ended last year having seen some NHL and NBA games wiped out or postponed, NFL games getting moved, and bowl games cancelled.

It is going to be an interesting few months ahead. But hope springs eternal. The Run for the Roses is just four months away.

Let’s take one last look back at the top 10 Horse Racing Stories of 2021. Seriously, just one look back and then we really should move on.

#10 Flightline Soars

The John Sadler trained Flightline is the talk of the horse racing world as 2021 comes to an end. The colt won the Malibu (G1) at Santa Anita on Dec. 26 by 11 ½ lengths for fun, keeping his record perfect in three career starts.

The colt kicked off his career on April 24 at Santa Anita, breaking his maiden by 13 ¼ lengths and earning a 105 Beyer Speed Figure. He showed that figure was no fluke by popping a 114 Beyer beating first level allowance foes on Sept. 5 at Del Mar by 12 ¾ lengths.

He earned a 118 Beyer for his Malibu win, meaning he has earned the top two Beyers in 2021. Only Baby Yoda matched the 114 in his victory in his win against first level allowance foes at Saratoga back in September. Baby Yoda has lost his last three including a runner up finish in the Malibu.

By comparison, Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) winner and likely Horse of the Year Knicks Go earned a 112 Beyer in his Classic victory at Del Mar in November.

Sadler will soon map out a plan for Flightline’s 2022 campaign which likely will include the Met Mile (G1) at Belmont Park.  

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“The next race is up to the horse,” Sadler said.  “We have to be true to the horse.  We will chart the course from there.  This horse is so brilliant.  This is not an ordinary horse, this is a very special horse.”

All indications are this is a very special racehorse.

#9 Joel Rosario Racks Up Stakes Wins

Jockey Joel Rosario looks well on his way to his first Eclipse Award for outstanding jockey. Rosario has racked up $33 million in purse earnings and 49 graded stakes wins in 2021.

Rosario won two Breeders’ Cup races this year, booting home Knicks Go in the Classic and Echo Zulu in the Juvenile Fillies. He was also aboard Knicks Go in his wins in the Pegasus World Cup (G1) at Gulfstream Park and the Whitney (G1) at Saratoga.

The jockey has amassed these totals despite missing most of December with a fractured rib he suffered in a spill at Aqueduct on Dec. 2.

#8 Vet Scratch at Breeders’ Cup

Modern Games was an impressive winner in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1) but horseplayers who liked the Charles Appleby trainee did not cash a ticket. 

The colt was inadvertently scratched at the starting gate before the race and was the wagering favorite at the time.

His stablemate Albahr had flipped in the starting gate and was quickly scratched. The assistant starter opened the front of the gate allowing Modern Games to get out of the gate and avoid potential trouble.

One of the veterinarians at the gate called in a scratch to the stewards and despite being fit to run, it was too late as the scratch was already put into the tote system.

The race was the final leg of the Pick 5 and bettors who were alive to Modern Games were shifted to the post time favorite who was Dakota Gold who finished a disappointing fifth.

Horseplayers took to social media to express their anger over the scratch. It was an inexcusable event on one of racing’s biggest wagering days, shifting millions of dollars in bets.

#7 Japan Wins Two at Breeders’ Cup

Horses coming from Japan to compete in the Breeders’ Cup have not had much luck in past years, going 0 for 13, but the tide turned with a pair of victories at this year’s Breeders’ Cup at Del Mar.

Loves Only You won the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf (G1) for trainer Yoshito Yahagi and jockey Yuga Kawada, returning her backers $10.60 to win as the third choice in the field of 12.

She came into the race well regarded, a two-time Group 1 winner. She capped off her 2021 campaign by winning the Hong Kong Cup (G1) on Dec. 12.

Three races later on the card Letruska entered the starting gate in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1) as the solid favorite but it was the Yahagi trained Marche Lorraine who came with a five wide bid to sweep to the lead, open up and hold off Dunbar Road by a nose.

She returned $101.80 in one of the biggest upsets in Distaff history and giving Japan their second victory in a Breeders’ Cup race.

#6 Knicks Go Has Classic Year

The Brad Cox trained Knicks Go wrapped up Horse of the Year honors with his victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1), returning $8.40 as the co-second choice behind the betting favorite Essential Quality.

It was his fourth win in a row and for the year he won 5 of 7 starts with earnings of $7.3 million.

The colt showed promise as a juvenile back in 2019, winning the Breeders’ Futurity (G1) at 70-1 and then was second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) at 40-1. He then lost his next nine starts, and was transferred from trainer Ben Colebrook to Cox, where he has thrived since. 

He won his first four starts for Cox including the 2020 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1) and the 2021 Pegasus World Cup (G1).

It looks as if Cox is gearing him up to defend his title in the Pegasus World Cup which will be run this year on Jan. 29.

#5 Asmussen Breaks Record

Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen became the all-time leader in victories after he saddled Stellar Tap to a debut win at Saratoga on Aug. 7.

“How fitting to do this with a two-year-old owned by the Winchells and who came through Mom and Dad’s farm in Laredo and on Whitney Day. I was definitely blessed,” Asmussen said.

The previous mark was held by the late Dale Baird who had the record since 2007 with 9,445 wins, most of those wins coming at his home base at Mountaineer Park.

Asmussen’s horses have won over $361 million and he has won seven Breeders’ Cup races including a pair of Classics with Curlin (2007) and Gun Runner (2017).

His horses earned over $31 million in 2021 and he likely will win his 10,000th race later in 2022. He won his first race as a trainer in 1986 at Ruidoso Downs.

#4 Hat Trick for Appleby at Breeders’ Cup

Trainer Charles Appleby brought four Breeders’ Cup starters from across the pond this year and won with three of them. Modern Games got things started off by winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1) on Friday. On Saturday Appleby sent out Space Blues who won the Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1) and then took the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1) with Yibir.

Horseplayers could not benefit from Modern Games’ win as he raced for purse money only. Space Blues paid his backers $6.20 with William Buick aboard. In the Turf, Yibir rallied from the back of the pack to pull off the mild upset, returning $19.00 with Buick aboard.

Appleby has now won six Breeders’ Cup races from just 11 starters with earnings of $6.2 million. The trainer started 18 horses in North America in 2021 and won with nine, eight of those being Grade 1 races. The lone exception was Yibir’s win in the ungraded Jockey Club Derby which likely will be upgraded next year.

#3 Navarro Sentenced

Disgraced trainer Jorge Navarro was sentenced to five years in prison after he pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit drug adulteration or misbranding.

Navarro has also been ordered to pay $25.8 million in restitution to the owners, trainers and jockeys that he beat with his horses, while there no mention of horseplayers being compensated in the sentencing guidelines.

Navarro was part of a sting back in March of 2020 in which 29 people were arrested for conspiring to give horses performance enhancing drugs. Among Navarro’s most well known runners was X Y Jet who won over $3 million in purses and won the 2019 Dubai Golden Shaheen (G1).

The gelding dropped dead of an apparent heart attack just two weeks after his last race, a sixth-place finish in the Mr. Prospector Stakes (G3) at Gulfstream Park in December of 2019.

Navarro was known among horseplayers as the Juice Man, a moniker he apparently liked. He was caught using it in a video and had a pair of slippers that were embroidered with “Juice Man.” 

Trainer Jason Servis, best known as the trainer of Maximum Security, was also indicted and has pled not guilty and is awaiting trial.

Neither trainer will be missed.

#2 Baffert Unwelcome at Derby

Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert had a very rocky 2021. After having several drug positives in big races including the Arkansas Derby, Santa Anita Derby and Kentucky Oaks in previous years, things got even worse in 2021 with an overage of a therapeutic drug in the Kentucky Derby.

Medina Spirit was found with Betamethasone in his system. The drug was being used to treat a skin rash according to Baffert.

Churchill Downs announced that Baffert would not be welcome at the 2022 and 2023 Kentucky Derby. The racing commission in Kentucky has not yet had a final hearing to see if Medina Spirit will get disqualified from his win.

The New York Racing Association tried to ban Baffert and he was successful with an injunction and is allowed to compete in New York for the time being. He is based at Santa Anita where he is welcome to train and race.

Churchill Downs announced that horses trained by Baffert are not eligible to earn points in the Road to the Kentucky Derby points series. That will make for some tough decisions for owners of top three-year-olds that are currently in Baffert’s barn. Some likely will be moved to new trainers this year unless Churchill Downs drops the suspension.

#1 Derby Winner Medina Spirit Dies

After the drug positive was announced shortly after the Kentucky Derby, Medina Spirit was allowed to race in the Preakness Stakes (G1) where he ran third. He then won the Shared Belief and Awesome Again (G1). He ended his campaign with a solid second in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) behind Knicks Go.

One month later Medina Spirit was dead. The colt died after completing a workout on Dec. 6 at Santa Anita. Initial reports are the colt died of an apparent heart attack.  

A comprehensive necropsy will be done on the colt.

“It is with great sadness that I am reporting Medina Spirit passed away today from a heart attack at Santa Anita following a workout,” read a statement from Baffert. “My entire barn is devastated by this news. Medina Spirit was a great champion, a member of our family who was loved by all, and we are deeply mourning his loss.”

The loss of the Kentucky Derby winner was a tragic way to end the year and brought Baffert right back into the headlines, and not in a good way.

Onward to a New Year

We saw fans back at the tracks and handle on the rise in 2021, but the industry took more than its fair share of blows below the belt. Much of it was self inflicted, and with increased competition for the gambling dollar with more states legalizing betting on sports, the industry could use a controversy free year. Maybe a Triple Crown winner in June would be a good way to cap off the first half of 2022.