2021 in review: Seven best storylines in international horse racing

December 31st, 2021

Just as 2021 threw some curveballs in the life of the world at large, this passing year also served up a few unexpected plot twists in international Thoroughbred racing. With a Northern Hemisphere-centric focus, here are my seven favorite storylines of the season, building to number one. 

7. Torquator Tasso’s Arc surprise

Even if you’re generally a fan of German form, Torquator Tasso made more sense as a longshot place chance in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1) than the type to floor the whole field. But that’s just what Germany’s reigning Horse of the Year did in a 71-1 shocker. The heavy going in Paris likely played some role in blunting the principals, while the son of Adlerflug was unaffected.

One might feel especially gutted for runner-up Tarnawa. The Aga Khan homebred could have retired in glory after last fall’s Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1), but she stayed in training precisely for this target. Tarnawa gallantly threaded her way through the field, and outdueled Hurricane Lane, only to be swamped by the clear-sailing Torquator Tasso on the outside.

Yet it wouldn’t be right to dismiss Torquator Tasso’s display as a fluke. Runner-up to 2020 Arc near-misser In Swoop in last year’s German Derby (G1), he had subsequently won a pair of Group 1s, and a placing in the Grosser Preis von Berlin (G1) gave him collateral form with Mishriff. We’ll learn more as Torquator Tasso will try to add to his resume in 2022.

6. Meteoric rise of Baaeed

It was no surprise that top miler Palace Pier would maintain his grip on the division through the spring and summer. Only the clairvoyant, though, could have forecast the fast-track rise to stardom of Baaeed, who wrested the baton on Champions Day.

For starters, Baaeed is bred to go a lot further, as full brother Hukum is a multiple Group 3 winner from 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 miles. Moreover, Baaeed was unraced until June 7, so one could have thought he’d be a second-half staying type. Instead, the son of Sea the Stars flew up the class ladder while looking positively brilliant at a mile. From his maiden score to novice thrashing, listed stakes romp, and Group 3 conquest at Glorious Goodwood, Baaeed performed like a force of nature.

The real test, as ever, came versus the older mile establishment. Baaeed answered that question first in the Prix du Moulin (G1), then passed a stiffer exam in the Queen Elizabeth II (G1) at Ascot, where he prevailed over Palace Pier by a neck. It took only four months for Baaeed to progress from unraced sophomore to 6-for-6 mile superstar. In so doing, the homebred paid a poignant tribute to the legacy of Shadwell proprietor Sheikh Hamdan, who passed away in March.

5. Golden Sixty’s winning spree in Hong Kong

Not since the legendary Silent Witness has a Hong Kong Horse of the Year been so riveting to watch as Golden Sixty. Moreover, it’s incredible that Golden Sixty isn’t a colossus bestriding one division, as Silent Witness was king of sprinters, but that his effective range spans from a mile to about 1 1/4 miles.

With his devastating turn of foot from off the pace, Golden Sixty has overcome the vagaries of particular race circumstances to go 19-for-20 lifetime. His current 16-race win streak includes a sweep of Hong Kong’s Four-Year-Old Series in 2020; the 2021 Stewards’ Cup (G1), Hong Kong Gold Cup (G1), and Champions Mile (G1); as well as the past two runnings of the Hong Kong Mile (G1) during the International Races program.

4. Japan’s strength in depth

Loves Only You flew the Japanese flag to three major wins on the world stage. Most notably becoming the first shipper from her nation to win a Breeders’ Cup race, in the Filly & Mare Turf (G1), she also garnered both of Hong Kong’s premier international events at about 1 1/4 miles. At the same time, it must be pointed out that Loves Only You has not won a top-level race in Japan since the 2019 Oaks (G1).

Hence her success underscored the depth of the turf division back home. Although Loves Only You had beaten Chrono Genesis earlier in their careers, that rival gained revenge in their two most recent meetings – the 2020 Arima Kinen (G1) as well as when they were second and third to Mishriff in the Dubai Sheema Classic (G1).

Chrono Genesis developed into a multiple Group 1 winner as an older horse, and finished a respectable seventh in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe on unsuitably heavy going. Over the course of her career, Chrono Genesis placed to such Japanese heavyweights as Almond Eye, Gran Alegria, and Efforia last out. Loves Only You can’t claim that, and neither she nor Chrono Genesis crossed paths with Contrail.

A similar point applies to other Japanese turf horses with marquee wins on the road in 2021. Two-time Hong Kong Vase (G1) hero Glory Vase and Prix Foy (G2) romper Deep Bond are talented, but not stand-outs on home soil.

Also remarkable is the phenomenon of Japanese dirt horses upping their game. If 2020 Champions Cup (G1) victor Chuwa Wizard was a logical runner-up in the 2021 Dubai World Cup (G1), Marche Lorraine’s dirt record at home didn’t suggest she’d stun the Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1).

Given the outstanding recruitment of stallions and mares by the Japanese breeding industry, on top of their quality of their homegrown champions, this trend should be in force over the long haul.

3. Mishriff’s cross-surface Mideast double

Mishriff’s double in the $20 million Saudi Cup and $5 million Dubai Sheema Classic on World Cup night wasn’t just a monetary windfall. It was an exceptional accomplishment that demanded different aptitudes, thanks to the different distances, surfaces, and race styles.

In the about 1 1/8-mile Saudi Cup on dirt, Mishriff had the tactical ability to stay in range of the pace war between Charlatan and Knicks Go. After Charlatan put away Knicks Go – the future Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) romper and probable Horse of the Year – Mishriff’s stamina came into play as he wore down Charlatan.

Contrast those tactics with the about 1 1/2-mile Sheema Classic on turf, where he loped in last early, then outkicked Chrono Genesis and Loves Only You in course-record time at Meydan.

Mishriff rounded back into top form during the British summer. His six-length rout of the Juddmonte International (G1) proved that he wasn’t just the type to make hay abroad; he’s a serious operator at home too.

2. St Mark’s Basilica the star of Ballydoyle

The maestro Aidan O’Brien added five more classic winners to his CV in 2021, four of them fillies. But the one colt, St Mark’s Basilica, turned out to be the best of the lot. After capturing the French 2000 Guineas (G1) and French Derby (G1), the son of Siyouni reached a higher level versus older horses. Even allowing for the fact that St Mark’s Basilica caught Addeybb and Mishriff off their peak in the Eclipse (G1), his winning move was a thing of beauty.

Less inspiring was his rightward drift as he compromised Tarnawa in the Irish Champion (G1), and he arguably should have been disqualified. Still, St Mark’s Basilica was returning from a setback that day, and in less than ideal circumstances, he showed grit as well as acceleration. Too bad we won’t see him on the racecourse again, as he’s off to stud at Coolmore.

We were also deprived of another Ballydoyle standout, for a much sadder reason, with the tragic demise of Santa Barbara. In time, she might have proved the best of O’Brien’s sophomore fillies. Santa Barbara was still finding her way when fourth in the 1000 Guineas (G1) and fifth in the Epsom Oaks (G1), respectively, to stablemates Mother Earth and Snowfall. Mother Earth was an admirable, hardy servant rather than brilliant, while Snowfall’s stellar form tailed off by season’s end. Santa Barbara was on a rampantly upward curve at the time of her passing, and we’ll never know just how good she was.

1. Godolphin’s banner year

Three Breeders’ Cup wins put an exclamation point on trainer Charlie Appleby’s superb record of plundering North American events this season. But that only grazes the surface of what Godolphin achieved in Europe. Indeed, we didn’t even see the absolute best of the Appleby squad on this side of the pond.

It’s not far-fetched to think that Godolphin won the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1) and Juvenile Turf (G1) with horses who could be described as third on their intramural depth chart. To be fair, Turf hero Yibir has long been highly regarded, and he ended the year on a massive upswing. Nevertheless, on his European accomplishments, he has to take a back seat to fellow sophomores Adayar and Hurricane Lane.

Adayar turned the historic Epsom Derby (G1)/King George VI & Queen Elizabeth (G1) double, while Hurricane Lane swept the Irish Derby (G1), Grand Prix de Paris (G1), and St Leger (G1), and finished a close third as the favorite in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.

Similarly, Juvenile Turf winner Modern Games isn’t quite at the level of his stablemates Native Trail – the unbeaten Vincent O’Brien National (G1) and Dewhurst (G1) star – and the exciting Coroebus.

Godolphin’s annus mirabilis encompassed other divisions too, as exemplified by Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1) victor Space Blues; British Champions Sprint (G1) winner Creative Force; up-and-coming stayer Manobo, who stayed perfect in the Prix Chaudenay (G2); along with the distaffers who took New York by storm over the summer, Althiqa and Summer Romance, and Woodbine sweepers Walton Street, Albahr, and Wild Beauty. And that’s not even including Godolphin’s American-based celebrities like Essential Quality, Maxfield, and Mystic Guide, or their Australians!