2023 in review: Seven favorite races

January 7th, 2024

An annual look back on notable races of the year can easily devolve into a laundry list of obligatory inclusions. For greater variety, I’d prefer to highlight my favorite performances that took place outside of the U.S. Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup festivities that are already well covered. 

Let’s start with a trio of stateside events and conclude with a quartet from the international scene. 

Coolmore Turf Mile (G1) – Up to the Mark

To put it mildly, the Oct. 7 Coolmore Turf Mile (G1) was a fall-back position for Up to the Mark. After devastating victories over further in the Turf Classic (G1) on Kentucky Derby Day and the Manhattan (G1) on Belmont Day, the plan was to target a natural stepping stone to the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1). A summer setback, however, forced Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher to go to Plan B. 

Thus Up to the Mark’s feasible comeback spot was Keeneland’s one-mile feature, which would set him up for either the Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1) or Turf. His class alone could have carried him against purely domestic opposition, but the presence of Godolphin’s globetrotter Master of the Seas ensured a stiff task in what was chiefly a prep for Up to the Mark. 

Indeed, when Master of the Seas made the first move under an impeccable James Doyle ride, Up to the Mark appeared to have too much to do. But he somehow quickened enough in deep stretch to snatch the victory on the wire. Master of the Seas paid Up to the Mark quite a compliment by coming back to win the Breeders’ Cup Mile, while Up to the Mark confirmed himself as the best of the U.S. division with a bang-up second to Auguste Rodin in the Turf. 

Ballerina H. (G1) – Echo Zulu

The Aug. 26 Ballerina H. (G1) would be memorable just as a battle between Eclipse Award honorees, but the context of the Echo Zulu-Goodnight Olive rematch raises it to the level of an epic. The two had met only once before, in the 2022 Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint (G1), where the older Goodnight Olive bested Echo Zulu to clinch divisional honors. 

Yet there was a suspicion that the result might not be conclusive. Echo Zulu, the unbeaten champion two-year-old filly of 2021, was at the end of a sophomore campaign that had begun with trying to stretch out for the 2022 Kentucky Oaks (G1). 

Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen was delighted to concentrate on her one-turn prowess in 2023, and an ultra-sharp Echo Zulu turned the tables on Goodnight Olive at Saratoga. As Echo Zulu zipped to the front, reigning Ballerina champion Goodnight Olive tried to take it to her, and challenged at the top of the lane. But Echo Zulu found more gears to rebuff her and pull 2 1/2 lengths clear in a stakes-record 1:20.95.

With that blistering exhibition of speed, Echo Zulu ran herself into consideration for the Breeders’ Cup Sprint (G1) versus males, or another shot at the Filly & Mare Sprint. Sadly, we’ll never know how she might have fared, since she sustained a career-ending injury in an Oct. 13 workout.

Delaware H. (G2) – Idiomatic 

Although Idiomatic scored the narrowest, and hardest-fought, of her wins in the July 8 Delaware H. (G2), she did well to maintain her streak at all after a significant stumble at the start. That’s not helpful in itself, but two aggravating factors made it much worse than the usual pratfall from the gate: Idiomatic’s own forward running style, and the way that the Delaware Park main track was playing.

The dirt favored on-pace types throughout the card, a profile that should have only magnified Idiomatic’s superiority. Instead, the Juddmonte giantess found herself at a decided disadvantage. Loping as far as 5 1/2 lengths back early, Idiomatic advanced into the fastest sectional of the race to put her head in front passing six furlongs. Longtime leader Classy Edition made full use of the bias to fight back in a protracted duel, but Idiomatic always appeared to have her measure by a head.

Idiomatic went on to establish her championship credentials in the Personal Ensign (G1), Spinster (G1), and Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1), in race scenarios that played to her strengths. Still, the Brad Cox trainee arguably proved her character most in an unfavorable Del ‘Cap.

For my selections for the international scene, I’ve again sided with events that resonate personally.

Derby (G1) at Epsom – Auguste Rodin

As the swoon-worthy son of Japanese legend Deep Impact and champion Rhododendron, herself a daughter of supersire Galileo, Auguste Rodin raised hopes that he could be the one to sweep the elusive English Triple Crown

Those dreams were peremptorily snuffed out when he showed virtually nothing in the 2000 Guineas (G1). Was he really just the latest hype job from Ballydoyle? Or could the Aidan O’Brien colt redeem his reputation in the Derby (G1)? 

Such were the stakes when Auguste Rodin lined up June 3 at Epsom. As if he knew how much were riding on this one day of his life – the day he was born and bred for – he fulfilled his destiny with a scorching turn of foot over that historic proving ground. Rattling off his final three furlongs in :33.01, including a last quarter in :22.18, Auguste Rodin demonstrated why he was held in such esteem at home.

Considering how Auguste Rodin crowned his campaign with marquee wins over elders in the Irish Champion (G1) and aforementioned Breeders’ Cup Turf, it’s remarkable that the Coolmore brain trust opted to keep him in training in 2024. I would’ve expected the “collector’s item,” in O’Brien’s phrase, to be whisked off to stud. 

Champion (G1) – King of Steel

From the perspective of pure racing merit, the 2023 Ascot showpiece of the greatest import would be the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth (G1) – a titanic struggle between Hukum and Westover, with Derby runner-up King of Steel soldiering on for third, and Auguste Rodin shockingly eased. 

But if you’re moved by multi-layered sporting sentiment, it’s a fall highlight at Ascot, the Oct. 21 Champion (G1), that captures the imagination. King of Steel richly deserved a Group 1 title after a series of respectable performances at the top level, and he achieved it in storybook fashion as the last Ascot mount for Frankie Dettori.

Adding to the atmosphere was the fact that King of Steel was going absolutely nowhere for at least the first mile of the 1 1/4-mile prize. Dettori was already niggling him along at the back of the pack before the turn, and the big gray was spinning his wheels on the soft going. The bell rang as the field cornered for home, and still he was churning fruitlessly. 

Then the crowd roared for Dettori’s final passage down the stretch, and King of Steel responded. Incredibly, he began to gain ground on the mudlark Via Sistina, overhauling her to bring down the house on a Champions Day that will live long in the memory.

Cox Plate (G1) – Romantic Warrior

While Hong Kong great Golden Sixty could well be included for his spine-tingling third victory in the Dec. 10 Mile (G1) during the HKIR program, fellow Sha Tin celebrity Romantic Warrior showed ferocious heart both home and abroad. He plundered Australia’s weight-for-age championship, the Oct. 28 Cox Plate (G1), and shipped back to defend his title successfully in the Dec. 10 Hong Kong Cup (G1). I’m not sure that we saw Romantic Warrior at his pitch-perfect best in either race, but he displayed a warrior’s courage to prevail narrowly in dramatic finishes. 

Romantic Warrior’s exploits in the Cox Plate cemented his status as a legend, not only because he hoisted a major international trophy for Hong Kong, but the way he did it. Navigating wider than ideal around the final bend of the notoriously tight Moonee Valley, he had to run down multiple Group 1 winner Mr Brightside, who benefited from a dream run up the fence. Somehow Romantic Warrior nipped him on the line.

Tenno Sho Autumn (G1) – Equinox

You just knew that Equinox had to feature in my favorite races of the year, but which tour de force best represents the Japanese phenom? His record-setting Dubai Sheema Classic (G1) established a benchmark of international form that was upheld all year long. His Takarazuka Kinen (G1) was accomplished despite a ludicrously wide trip. And the Nov. 26 Japan Cup (G1) put the seal on his career.

Yet I’d say that his penultimate start, the Oct. 29 Tenno Sho Autumn (G1), underscores just what made Equinox other-worldly. Stalking a wildly unsustainable pace over Tokyo’s stiff 2000 meters (about 1 1/4 miles), Equinox breezed past the exhausted leaders and readily held the deep closers in a record time of 1:55.2 – not a typo. 

The respective second and third, Justin Palace and Prognosis, had bided their time in the last two spots of the 11-horse field before unleashing their pent-up energy. Conversely, the stalking Gaia Force folded to fifth, and pacesetter Jack d’Or imploded to last.

Equinox had the cruising speed to race in striking range, the stamina to maintain it, and the preternatural quality to make it look easy. That’s why he’s the world’s best horse of 2023.