2021 featured some amazing horse races across the country and across the world. It saw streaks broken, new faces burst onto the scene, and its fair share of “Oh, my God did you just see that” moments. When compiling this year’s list, I took into consideration several factors: importance of the race, how thrilling the race was, the impact the outcome of the race had on horse racing, and the potential longevity the race will have in the minds of viewers. Obviously, any Top 10 list is subjective and this one is no different. You’ll notice Knicks Go, the likely Eclipse Award Winner for Horse of the Year does not appear in my list simply because Knicks Go typically wins his races with such ease there is little drama unfolding. He’s truly a symbol for how the totality of his races is more impressive than any single performance. With the throat clearing aside, lets dive into my Top 10 races and be sure to share yours in the comments below or on social media and tag me on Twitter at @failedtomenace.
10. John Henry Turf Championship (G2) – Santa Anita won by United
We will start off with a race that did not alter the state of racing put delivered one of the more thrilling finishes of the year in a graded stakes race on the west coast. The John Henry Turf Championship featured five graded stakes winning horses in the field headlines by the reigning winner, United. The other four graded stakes winners (Acclimate, Red King, Neptune’s Storm, and Award Winner) had all shown great ability on the west coast turf circuit leading up to the race and it promised to be a classic show down. Acclimate jumped to the early lead followed closely by Neptune’s War while United sat back and bided his time. Turning for home, it appeared that Acclimate may have saved enough on the lead to hold on for the victory, but suddenly you saw a late-charging United and Friar’s Road make a bid for a three-way photo finish that saw United just nose out Acclimate and Friar’s Road at the wire. The timing of United’s charge was perfect and the race also was a showcase for Friar’s Road who emerged as a horse to watch on the turf circuit and who has followed that up with hitting the board in consecutive graded stakes races. The thrilling finish combined with the strong field made the race fit the criteria.
9. Wood Memorial (G2) – Aqueduct won by Bourbonic
The Wood Memorial is one of the classic Kentucky Derby Prep races and has, over the years, been a great indicator of future success. However, the inclusion of the race on this year’s Top 10 list is more for the thrilling finish and the historic long shot. Going into the race, horses such as Risk Taking, Weyburn, Crowded Trade, and Prevalence were considered the favorites, but things did not go as planned. However, early on the race appeared to favor the bigger names as nearly all of them were forwardly placed and running in the lead back, which is an ideal position for most dirt races. Meanwhile, long shot Bourbonic was in the back of the field doing his best Mind That Bird impression. The opening half-mile was 50 seconds, which is hardly setting land-speed records and as 70-1 shot Market Maven gave way to the leaders you quickly realized that Prevalence and Risk Taking were all out and it appeared that Dynamic One or Risk Taking would get the victory over a fading Weyburn. However, in the middle of the track came a late-arriving Bourbonic, covered in dirt and running on another gear to nab Dynamic One at the wire and win the Wood Memorial at 72-1 odds, which is the biggest upset in the history of the race. The euphoria of the victory is one of the great moments of the year but ultimately the race proved to be an outlier for Bourbonic who has not finished better than third since (Grade III West Virginia Derby) and the rest of the field has not gone on to perform well during their three-year-old campaigns. Weyburn, who finished fourth, likely will end up as the best horse from that day, but the lack of big-name talent or a follow-up performance from Bourbonic keeps this historic race lower on the Top 10 list.
8. Jessamine Stakes (G2) – Keeneland won by California Angel
Sometimes a race makes a list because of the impact the victory has on the sport and that is certainly the case for the 2021 Jessamine Stakes, which was one by California Angel in thrilling fashion. The field of juvenile fillies featured an overwhelming favorite Turnerloose (4-5) with a modest group of single-digit odds horses following her. The race played out exactly how most expected with Turnerloose going to the lead and once she kicked for home it appeared that her biggest competition would be Diamond Wow to her outside who had made a charge, but in the last ½ furlong California Angel, an 18-1 long shot, started tracking everyone down in the middle of the turf course and ended up beating Diamond Wow by a nose and Turnerloose by a neck. The race turned California Angel into a bit of a celebrity for a few different reasons. First, she’s the progeny of Kentucky Derby and Preakness champion California Chrome who has a loyal following of fans. However, at the heart of California Angel’s story is her trainer, George Leonard II, who is instantly recognizable with his giant Stetson and his salt and pepper beard. Leonard II, a trainer of color, not only represents the right way to do things as a horseperson but also provided much needed diversity in a sport that lacks it outside of the jockey’s room. The public got to know Leonard II’s upbringing and life story while also falling in love with the adorable California Angel who looks a lot like her sire. Was this the best race of 2021? No. Will California Angel go onto a distinguished career? Maybe. The race is one the list because it highlighted one of the great people in the sport at a time when it was desperately needed.
7. Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1) – Del Mar won by Life is Good
It would be easy to litter a Top 10 list with several races from the Breeders’ Cup but this year’s edition of the Dirt Mile is one of only two Breeders’ Cup races on the list. The Dirt Mile race featured something all horse racing fans love, fulfilled potential. Life Is Good was a horse that captured the imagine of race fans in late 2020 and early 2021 as he dispatched eventual Kentucky Derby champion Medina Spirit at the Grade III Sham and Grade II San Felipe Stakes. However, an injury derailed his run at the Triple Crown and then a trainer change took place as he was moved to Todd Pletcher’s barn. Pletcher brought the young colt along slowly but by August he ran second in the Grade I H. Allen Jerkens against the best 3-year-old sprint horse in the country, Jackie’s Warrior. He followed that up with a romp at the Grade II Kelso Handicap and showed up at Del Mar for the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile with the racing world waiting to see if he was all the way back. He was. In a dominating rout, Life Is Good blew away his closest competition, Grade II-winning 4-year-old Ginobili, by six lengths under an easy gallop the last ½ furlong. He ran the opening fractions of the race faster than 2020 Dirt Mile Champion Knicks Go and his performance ushered in hope for a star-studded 2022 campaign. Another reason the Dirt Mile lands on the list is because it set up the most anticipated race of early 2022, the Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park, as Life Is Good will take on 2021 Breeders’ Cup Classic Champion Knicks Go. These two frontrunner speed demons have given fans something to be excited about in the new year.
6. Prix De L’Arc de Triomphe (G1) – Longchamp (FR) won by Torquator Tasso
I wanted to make sure I had some international race in my Top 10 because while I may not be able to watch as many European and Asian races as I do North American races, there have been some amazing finishes overseas this year and perhaps none moreso than the 2021 edition of the Prix De L’Arc de Triomphe, also known as The Arc. This year’s Arc was won by a long shot, German horse Torquator Tasso (80-1), but unlike the early entry of Bourbonic, Torquator Tasso beat a who’s who of horse racing to end up in the winner’s circle. The race played out in a fascinating fashion as Japanese Champion mare Chrono Genesis ran well to the outside of the rest of the field to start the race and looked nearly like a car driving on an outlet road next to the interstate. Meanwhile, champion jockey William Buick guided the Godolphin-bred monster Adayar to the front of the field that also featured fellow Godolphin champion Hurricane Lane, Breeders’ Cup champion Tarnawa, and Aidan O’Brien’s entry Snowfall who has won three consecutive G1 stakes races and a 2nd at another G1 race coming into The Arc. As the tightly bunched field hit the homestretch, William Buick tried to get the jump on the field by sending Adayar full out in the hopes of pulling away, but his stablemate Hurricane Lane started tracking him down and Tarnawa came up from the rail. For a moment it appeared that the three favorites would all hit the board but in the center of the track with the black cap and red and yellow colors of Germany came Torquator Tasso improbably flying up and past this extremely accomplished group of horses to take the biggest race in Europe at the huge 80-1 price. The race was absolutely thrilling, contained the best horses in Europe, and has set the 4-year-old German colt up for a big 2022.
5. King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II Stakes (G1) – Royal Ascot won by Adayar
Typically, I’m not a fan of including races with small fields on the Top 10 list because it often lacks the drama and spectacle of races with larger fields, however the 2021 King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II Stakes was the exception to the rule. It may have only been a five-horse field, but what a group of five it was, as it featured perhaps the best horses from the best trainers in Europe. Charlie Appleby’s up-and-coming Adayar was the favorite, followed by Aidan O’Brien’s Love who had an incomparable 2020 campaign, while John Gosden’s Mishriff may have been the best of the bunch. Rounding out the field, champion jockey Frankie Dettori was riding Lone Eagle and long shot Broome, the other Aidan O’Brien entry, went on to finish 2nd at the Breeders’ Cup Turf in November. The field has a combined 11 G1 victories and 24 group or graded stakes victories. Enough of the field since the race lived up to the billing. Broome went to the lead and held it until the hit the homestretch when William Buick and Adayar made a move to pull ahead. Meanwhile Mishriff came from last to pass the others in the field and crossed in front of Love to challenge Adayar but the Godolphin colt was just too good and became the first horse since the legendary Galileo to win the Epsom Derby and the King George in the same year. Any time you make history at Royal Ascot, you are going to end up on a Top 10 list.
4. Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf (G1) – Del Mar won by Loves Only You
Speaking of making history, the number four race on our Top 10 list falls firmly into that category at Loves Only You (JPN) made history for an entire country at the 2021 Breeders’ Cup. Going into the race no Japanese horse had ever won a Breeders’ Cup race (0-28) and it was rare they even hit the board, but Loves Only You represented Japan’s best chance in 2021 and she was among the morning line favorites at 4-1 odds. However, she had her work cut out for her as the race also featured the previously mentioned Love, Bill Mott’s War Like Goddess, and Chad Brown’s pair of long shots My Sister Nat and Pocket Square. Loves Only You had won big races before having won the G1 Queen Elizabeth II Cup at Sha Tin in Hong Kong back in April. Early on, Going to Vegas and Dogtag led the pace, but Loves Only You was in a perfect stalking position however halfway through the third turn War Like Goddess made a tremendous run from the back of the pack and overtook the leaders and appeared to get a jump on the field. My Sister Nat battled on from the outside while Love faded back slightly. However, Loves Only You with her jockey Yuga Kawada made a bold move and split between War Like Goddess and My Sister Nat and edged them out at the wire to bring Japan their first Breeders’ Cup championship. The post-race interview with Kawada and in the winner’s circle with all the connections was emotional and uplifting as it brought a new player to the sport of kings. Amazingly, about an hour later Japanese long shot Marche Lorraine captured the country’s second Breeders’ Cup championship when she won the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. The performance of Loves Only You is also symbolic of the rising influence of the Japanese in horse racing as this winter saw them purchase several high-profile Kentucky broodmares for breeding and North American champions like Firenze Fire are now out to stud in Japan. The race may not have changed the world, but it tilted the axis a bit.
3. Belmont Stakes (G1) – Belmont won by Essential Quality
The only one of the three Triple Crown races to make the list, the 2021 Belmont featured historic speed and a horse that looked like he could run for days. The race played out as a duel between the two favorites, Essential Quality and Hot Rod Charlie. Essential Quality, who had come in 4th five weeks earlier at the Kentucky Derby had won every race of his career prior to that outing in Louisville. Meanwhile, Hot Rod Charlie has a fun, young ownership group, and had run a very game third place behind Medina Spirit and Mandaloun at the Derby. Both horses skipped the Preakness to ensure they were fresh for the 1 ½ mile Test of Championships. Surprisingly, a speed duel broke out at the beginning of the race as Hot Rod Charlie set the Belmont record for the fastest first ¼ of a mile in the history of the race while keeping up extremely hot fractions down the backstretch. With so much speed up front, Essential Quality was getting an ideal trip where he could take advantage of fatigue while his Tapit pedigree would allow him to gallop the challenging distance. As they turned for home, you would have thought that Hot Rod Charlie would fade after setting such a blistering pace, but he dug in and fought back against Essential Quality when he made his move. Ultimately, Essential Quality, as he typically does, just wore down his opponent and pulled away for the most impressive victory of the Triple Crown season. Essential Quality’s race at the Travers against Midnight Bourbon may have been more thrilling, but his performance on one of the biggest stages in sports with the nation watching was incredibly impressive. Additionally, I am on the record that I thought Hot Rod Charlie’s performance at the Belmont was the best second place performance I have seen all year. Combining all those factors let to this race being number three on my list.
2. Forego Stakes (G1) – Saratoga won by Yaupon
The most indelible image from horse racing in 2021 likely will come from my second race on the list, the Forego Stakes. Before we get to the moment in question, it’s important not to sell the race short. The Forego showcased a stacked field of dirt sprinters such as fan favorite Whitmore, Lexitonian, and Mischevious Alex not to mention the two horses at the center of things, Firenze Fire and Yaupon. Those five horses had combined for 23 graded stakes victories at the time of the running of the Forego and represented the past, present, and potential future of the dirt sprint division. Early on, Yaupon showed tremendous speed to take the lead with Firenze Fire off to his outside while past champions Whitmore and Mischevious Alex were further back. As they turned for home, Firenze Fire drew up to Yaupon and as they passed the eighth marker and started to pull away from the field, Firenze Fire made a slight motion with his head in the direction of Yaupon but his jockey, Jose Ortiz, seemed to get it straightened out. However, within about five strides, Firenze Fire tried to savage (bite) Yaupon, which amazingly continued for the next five strides as he went after Yaupon’s bridle. Jose Ortiz finally got control of Firenze Fire, who had lost some ground to Yaupon amid all the biting, and while Firenze dug in, he ultimately came up a head short of Yaupon. The image of Firenze Fire savaging Yaupon will live in Saratoga and horse racing lore and may become one of the more famous images in the sport. Another image from the race that always makes me smile is the reaction Yaupon’s jockey Ricardo Santana Jr. has with Firenze Fire’s jockey Jose Ortiz after they crossed the finish line. Santana Jr. reaches over to pat Ortiz on the arm to let him know it’s okay and has a huge smile on his face from the thrill of victory while also recognizing the unprecedented event that had just taken place. Ortiz, meanwhile, is earnestly apologizing while appearing flabbergasted by what just happened. After the race, everyone in the sport attested they had never seen anything like this, and the irony was that Firenze Fire had been on the receiving end of a savage attempt years earlier at Parx Racetrack. Sadly, Yaupon suffered an injury after the race and was forced into retirement while Firenze Fire ran two more races before retiring. However, their performance at the Forego will outlive all of us.
1. Apple Blossom Stakes (G1) – Oaklawn won by Letruska
The number one race of 2021 features the horse that had everyone talking and many claiming she was the best horse in racing for most of the year. The Apple Blossom Stakes at Oaklawn featured two incredible female horses, Swiss Skydiver and Monomoy Girl, and one, Letruska, that ended up dominating the remainder of the year. In 2020, Swiss Skydiver achieved legendary cult status when she took down the boys at the Preakness, which evoked comparison to the great super filly Rachel Alexandra. It has not just been a one-time fluke either has she ran a game second against the boys earlier that year at the Blue Grass Stakes, losing to Art Collector. Prior to the 2021 Apple Blossom, she has already racked up another Grade I victory at the Beholder Stakes at Santa Anita. Monomoy Girl was already a legend as she had amazingly won 14 of her 16 career races including seven Grade 1 races and two Breeders’ Cup Distaffs. Meanwhile, Letruska entered the race as somewhat of an unknown. She had started her career in Mexico and has a solid, but not spectacular 2020 campaign that featured a few Grade 3 victories but she had always come up short when stepping up in class. Everything changed that day at Oaklawn. Letruska beat Swiss Skydiver to the early lead and set the pace all the way around as the three champions separated from the rest of the field. As the turned for home, Swiss Skydiver fell back, and Monomoy Girl moved up to challenge Letruska and got in front of her. In 99% of the race, when the champion horse makes their move and pulls ahead of the pacesetter, it’s over. However, this was not 99% of races. Letruska, under the strong ride of Irad Ortiz Jr., showed the heart of a champion, dug in and fought back. Over the final eighth of a mile, the two battled it out with Letruska just barely edging out Monomoy Girl by a nose at the wire. The race went on to be the final one in Monomoy Girl’s career but it propelled Letruska to new heights. She used that performance to springboard herself to five consecutive victories including four Grade 1 races. Unfortunately, the fairytale story didn’t finish the way many fans had hoped as Letruska got caught up in a speed duel at the Breeders’ Cup Distaff and finished a distant 10th but the Apple Blossom was the race that catapulted her onto the national scene gave the sport a new champion.
Make sure to get all Matthew’s content with the Win Place Show podcast by following on the podcast platform of your choice, subscribing to the Win Place Show YouTube channel, and following him on Twitter at @failedtomenace.