Lady Eli photo courtesy of NYRA/Adam Coglianese Photography/Susie Raisher.
The Reilly Turf Awards apparently have nine lives, since 2015 marks the ninth year for my idiosyncratic season-in-review honors.
The latest incarnation has a new home on the TwinSpires blog, but the categories have a familiar ring. And I’m once again dividing them into two volumes, the first reviewing the U.S. turf scene and the second surveying the internationals.
My original rules remain iron-clad: as the Empress/Kaiserin/Tsarina of these awards, I abide by my decree that a horse may be honored in only one category.
If you would prefer to see others recognized, or placed in a different category, be sure to state your case in the comments. I am a benevolent autocrat, after all.
Now here are my most enduring impressions from 2015:
MOST TANTALIZING WHAT-MIGHT-HAVE-BEEN
While there was a tinge of sadness to bid adieu to the now-retired Wise Dan and Main Sequence, we’d already seen them at their devastating peak. And although it would have been interesting to see California Chrome back on turf, the dirt will always be his calling card. Thus the performer who was most acutely missed in the second half of the season can only be Lady Eli. Chad Brown’s unbeaten superstar could easily have qualified in the “Most Arrogant Display” category for her romps in the Appalachian (G3) and the Belmont Oaks Invitational (G1). But wouldn’t it have been electrifying to watch her mete out the same punishment to her elders? Thankfully, Lady Eli has beaten up on her deadliest foe, laminitis, in just the same way. So please God, we’ll see this lady hold court again in 2016:
COMEBACK PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Gabriel Charles, who missed all of 2014 with a bowed tendon, dominated the Eddie Read (G1) in his third start off a nearly 18-month layoff. Sadly, the Jeff Mullins charge was sidelined again by emergency colic surgery a week before the Arlington Million (G1). Bal a Bali beat laminitis to capture his U.S. debut in the American (G3). Although the Brazilian celebrity didn’t garner any other stakes last season, he’ll always be a hero just for making it back to the racetrack and competing at a high level. Her Emmynency survived a potentially fatal attack of colitis late last year, and crowned her comeback with a fittingly determined success in the Queen Elizabeth II Cup (G1).
MOST CAPTIVATING STORY
The Mongols aren’t just for medieval history buffs anymore, thanks to Mongolian Saturday’s victory in the TwinSpires Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint (G1). What a spectacle – in the best sense of the word – to behold his connections in their finest Mongolian dress, a heartwarming celebration of national pride. Extra credit goes to trainer Ganbat Enebish, who honors the ancient horsemanship of his culture while adapting its lessons to the vastly different environment of turf sprints.
BEST LATE BLOOMER
Prior to her four-year-old campaign, Tepin was tepid, but by its conclusion, the Mark Casse filly was as hot as her peppery name. Few could have envisioned how she progressed from an allowance score, through the Churchill Distaff Turf Mile (G2) and Just a Game (G1), to utterly dominant triumphs in the First Lady (G1) and Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1). Five-for-seven on the year, Tepin was two agonizing photos away from a perfect 2015. Note that both losses came at Saratoga, at trips beyond her mile wheelhouse (see the category below). We could have had a battle of late bloomers in the BC Mile, if Ironicus hadn’t gotten hurt. The Stuart Janney III homebred’s development last term was no laughing matter. He bolted up in an otherwise competitive-looking Dixie (G2), reaping the rewards of Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey’s patience. A flying, near-miss second after a wide trip on Saratoga’s inner turf in the Fourstardave (G2), Ironicus rebounded in course record-breaking style in the Bernard Baruch (G2) over the Mellon course. Honorable mention goes to Mr Maybe, a last-to-first, 4 1/4-length winner of the Red Smith (G3) in the manner of a budding star.
MOST DRAMATIC LATE SURGE
Hard Not to Like could have earned this trophy for her escape act in the Gamely (G1), but her nailing Tepin in the Diana (G1) was more striking. Chilean import Dacita similarly mugged Tepin at the wire of the Ballston Spa (G2) in her U.S. premiere. Divisidero exploded in deep stretch of the American Turf (G2) on Kentucky Derby Day, as did Hit It A Bomb in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1). The common denominator? At the top of the lane, you wouldn’t have given any of them a realistic chance of getting there.
GOOD CITIZENSHIP AWARD
Veterans Big Blue Kitten and The Pizza Man, both sons of turf champions, consistently did their sires Kitten’s Joy and English Channel proud. Big Blue Kitten, who was initially expected to retire to stud, instead stuck around for a 7-year-old campaign and made the most of the opportunity. Best of the North Americans when third in the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1), he finished in the top two in all of his other outings. Aside from joining an exclusive club when regaining his United Nations (G1) title, the Ramsey homebred landed the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic (G1) in course-record time. And Big Blue Kitten came up a neck short of The Pizza Man in the Arlington Million (G1), at a 1 1/4-mile trip on yielding turf that didn’t suit him as well. The Pizza Man’s only unplaced effort of the year was a fifth in the Breeders’ Cup Turf, which he exited with a lung infection. And his only other loss was a hard-charging second in the Shadwell Turf Mile (G1) to course specialist Grand Arch, who previously edged Ironicus at the Spa and went on to finish third in the BC Mile. In addition to his Million coup, The Pizza Man was a gutsy repeat winner of the Stars and Stripes (G3) and proved much the best in the Hollywood Turf Cup (G2).
MOST FRUSTRATING TRIP
Twilight Eclipse, who finally earned a Grade 1 victory in the Man o’ War (G1), would have been a lot closer to another but for costly trouble in the Joe Hirsch. Watch him get eclipsed, I mean shuffled back, behind the flagging pacesetter cornering for home. Earlier in the Belmont Park summer, Filimbi sat and suffered in the pocket and likewise broke free too late in the Just a Game.
MOST CONTROVERSIAL DISQUALIFICATION
Secret Gesture’s demotion in the Beverly D. (G1). Her starboard drift wasn’t so secret, and she likely cost Stephanie’s Kitten second. But the disqualification elevated the lucky Watsdachances, who wasn’t even involved in the skirmish.
BEST FRONT-RUNNING TOUR DE FORCE
Highland Reel twirled his foes into dizzying submission in the Secretariat (G1). Making abundant use of his stamina in an Arlington downpour, the Aidan O’Brien invader opened up by more than five lengths in the stretch. Om was in no meditative mood in the 1 1/8-mile Twilight Derby (G2), where he blitzed them under a hand ride in 1:45.90. Honorable mention goes to Goldy Espony, who accomplished her heists by craft rather than force majeure. Her haul of the River Memories, Waya (G3), Long Island (G3) and La Prevoyante (G3) qualifies her as a kleptomaniac. (Addendum: the brilliant sprinter Lady Shipman would definitely belong here, but I prefer to concentrate on those carrying their speed over a route.)
SPECIAL AWARD FOR HISTORIC ACCOMPLISHMENT
Found became the first 3-year-old filly to win the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1), a hard-fought verdict accomplished after a pulsating, stretch-long battle with Golden Horn. Stephanie’s Kitten scored a rare double in different Breeders’ Cup races by adding the Filly & Mare Turf (G1) to her 2011 victory in the Juvenile Fillies Turf (G2).
MOST ARROGANT DISPLAY
Flintshire must have heaved a sigh of relief just prior to the Sword Dancer (G1). The Andre Fabre raider peered about, but didn’t glimpse a formidable rival anywhere in sight. Thus emboldened, he went on to mop up a soft field. His joy at the confidence boost is almost palpable:
Every year, this list of our fallen gladiators seems to grow longer. We suffered the shocking losses of Talco, Diversy Harbor, Innovation Economy, Skyring, Shore Runner, Pure Tactics, Helwan, and past steeplechase champion Divine Fortune.
But our list would not be complete without Marine Major Taj Sareen, of the Sareen Family which campaigns Om. An F/A-18C pilot whose latest deployment was against ISIS, Sareen was making his way back home when his Hornet experienced mechanical difficulties and crashed in the English countryside. According to eyewitness reports, Sareen steered his stricken craft to save lives on the ground, and in so doing, sacrificed his own. The tragedy occurred only three days before Om’s Twilight Derby. The star colt may have another hand, beside Gary Stevens, in the cockpit guiding him.