2021 Horse Racing Season in Review

Oh yes, it was a very good year. At the end of a memorable 2021 Horse Racing season in review, we look back on the horses who made it so special on both sides of the Atlantic, from the majestic front-runners Knicks Go and Letruska to the outstanding European star St Mark’s Basilica, and many more besides.

Knicks goes all the way

Top older horse

One of the core principles in life is ‘keep it simple’. From those three words, Knicks Go built a year, a career, a legacy. Horse racing can be prone to overcomplication, too much thought involved, too long spent in the devil of the details, but then along comes a horse like Knicks Go to remind us how simple and beautiful this great sport can be.

Knicks Go goes to the lead and stays there. That’s it. This front-running grey is a tactical breath of fresh air, and although all his rivals know what he’s going to do, no-one can stop him. Knicks Go led at every call in the Grade 1 Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park in January, and he was still doing it in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Del Mar in November.

There were nevertheless a couple of mis-steps along the way for the horse who is not named after the New York basketball team, but after the breeding system used by his owner the Korea Racing Authority. K stands for Korea, and nicks are combinations of stallions and mares that work well together. Go? That just means ‘go’. Knicks Go failed to fire in the Saudi Cup when he couldn’t lead, and then he lost the lead in the Grade 1 Met Mile at Belmont Park and finished fourth.

That’s when trainer Brad Cox added a little extra ingredient to the recipe. The Met Mile was a one-turn contest, so henceforth Knicks Go would only run around two turns. It was a masterstroke. The new regime brought wins in the Grade 3 Cornhusker at Prairie Meadows (by ten and a quarter lengths), in the Grade 1 Whitney at Saratoga (four and a half lengths) and in the Grade 3 Lukas Classic at Churchill Downs (four lengths). All were characterised by Knicks Go taking the lead from the gate, stretching his advantage around the turn, and rolling home in splendid isolation.

So the stage was set for the biggest race of the year, the Classic. The major doubt was the ten-furlong distance, a furlong further than Knicks Go had ever run, and all the humans began to over-complicate matters. The five-year-old’s barnmate Essential Quality was the hot favourite, and Knicks Go was overlooked by many.

But as ever, the simple answer was the right answer. Knicks Go went off in front under Joel Rosario and just kept improving his position. He was a length clear at the eighth pole, past which was unknown territory. Would he falter? Would the posse run him down?

No. Knicks Go embraced the unfamiliar in career-defining style, drawing off to win by two and three-quarter lengths and more from the best three-year-olds around, Medina Spirit, Hot Rod Charlie and Essential Quality. It was a stunning performance of pure class.

Knicks Go, Horse of the Year? Remember the life lesson, and keep it simple. Yes.

Did you know? It’s very rare for a champion to be beaten multiple times, but Knicks Go went a whole year without winning a race, going zero-for-eight as a three-year-old in 2019.

Letruska rises above Distaff disaster

Top older female

It was a very disappointing end to the year, but it couldn’t overshadow what had come before. Letruska had lit up 2021 like a Cinco de Mayo firecracker, putting her native Mexico in the racing limelight for once, showing us all the intoxicating variety of this wonderful sport, so it was easy to forgive her that Breeders’ Cup Distaff implosion.

Letruska’s race record speaks for itself, speaks very loudly. She has won 17 of her 23 races, including six out of six in Mexico. She was too good to stay at home, and for a while it looked like she wasn’t quite good enough to make it stick in the States, but over the course of this year the five-year-old mare was transformed by trainer Fausto Gutierrez into a champion.

Even before she started winning big races, Letruska had attracted a public following based on her unusual heritage, her small-team connections (although her owner German Larrea Moto-Velasco is a billionaire) and her willingness to run hard, usually from the front. She was something fresh, and the crowds got behind her. The opposition was usually behind her too.

She began the year with victory in the Grade 3 Ladies Classic at Sam Houston, then missed out in the Grade 2 Azeri at Oaklawn Park by just a head, after being unable to set her own fractions. Perhaps affronted by that, it was as though she made up her mind to never let that happen again.

Gate-to-wire, gate-to-wire, gate-to-wire. Efficient and brilliant. Letruska won four Grade 1s like that, the Apple Blossom at Oaklawn, the Ogden Phipps at Belmont, the Personal Ensign at Saratoga and the Spinster at Keeneland, and only a chart-compiler would point out that she actually lost the lead to champion Monomoy Girl for a few strides in the stretch at Oaklawn. That just made it all the more exciting when she fought like her compatriot Canelo Alvarez to get her nose – always adorned with a scarlet shadow roll – back in front at the wire.

Admiration turned into true affection, especially when Gutierrez opened up about the mare’s character, about her can-do-will-do attitude. “She has a very strong character,” he said. “If she can beat you, she’ll beat you. She has something special. I think that strong character is what she uses for competition, because every day she just wants to run and run.”

The Distaff was expected to be a glorious conclusion to a magnificent year but, provoked by the ridiculously fast pace set by Private Mission, Letruska ran herself into the ground, dropping right out around the turn and trailing home tenth. It wasn’t her; every fiery leading lady is allowed an off-day, especially after so many scene-stealing performances.

Letruska had already done enough to clinch divisional honours, and hopefully she’ll be back next year for more of the same, this mare that loves to run and run. Viva Mexico!

Did you know? When Letruska won the Apple Blossom in April, she became the first horse to have raced in Mexico to win an internationally recognised Group/Grade 1 race.

Baaeed, Palace Pier share crown

Top European miler

Deciding which horse deserves the award of top European miler makes for a difficult choice, for Palace Pier had the superior body of work but Baaeed came out on top the only time they met, and the official ratings rank them equal.

Much of the campaign belonged to Palace Pier, trained by John Gosden and ridden by Frankie Dettori, who was moved to call the four-year-old the best miler he’d ever ridden such was his brilliance, a compliment weighted by the recollection of past glories such as Dubai Millennium, Barathea and Mark Of Esteem. The vastly experienced Dettori was inspired to such comparison after a Group 1 haul that comprised the Lockinge at Newbury, the Queen Anne at Royal Ascot and the Prix Jacques le Marois at Deauville.

The French tour de force gave us Palace Pier at his typical best. He is a horse who never does more than necessary, who would never draw off to win by six lengths if a neck would do. At Deauville, a neck was enough to turn back the hard-charging Poetic Flare, with Palace Pier winning with a little up his sleeve, that last ace he didn’t have to reach for.

Yet while Palace Pier was ruling the roost, another major player was emerging stage left, a new name, a name not easy to pronounce but a name that we would soon get used to. Baaeed didn’t make his debut until June but then rose through the ranks with the speed of a drag-racer, maiden, novice, Listed, Group 3, all done so easily that it was hard to know how high this three-year-old could fly.

The son of the great Sea The Stars, trained by Newmarket kingpin William Haggas, then snapped up the Group 1 Prix du Moulin at Longchamp without any visible exertion, setting himself up for the archetypal end-of-year clash we love to see: four-year-old against three-year-old, champion against pretender, winner take all, Palace Pier against Baaeed in the Group 1 Queen Elizabeth II at Ascot on Champions Day.

Baaeed took it all, this time Palace Pier on the wrong end of a neck defeat, although it might have been different had Dettori not played jockeys at a crucial stage and instead ridden the race as he found it. He should have committed Palace Pier but he waited, and then Baaeed swamped him, and in a battle to the line that brought the crowd to its feet the baton passed to the younger generation.

It’s impossible to fault Baaeed. He’s six-for-six, all at a mile, with two Group 1s, and he beat the old boss, becoming the new boss. Palace Pier was retired to stud after that defeat, his career an outstanding nine-for-11 with five Group 1 scores, while Baaeed will return next year to defend his unbeaten record. Two fine champions; never mind that neck, in reality there was nothing between them.

Did you know? Palace Pier was beaten twice in his life, but in the same race. Last year he was third in the Group 1 Queen Elizabeth II at Ascot, this year he was runner-up.

Basilica stands tallest in Europe

Top European distance horse

There is always satisfaction when a champion two-year-old trains on to become a champion at three, and it’s all the greater when the horse in question runs wild through a perfect season, unbeaten, perhaps unbeatable, the kind of horse dreams are made of.

St Mark’s Basilica did just that, and although his campaign concluded before most of the traditional end-of-year championship events, he was already head and shoulders above the competition. Four runs, four wins, four Group 1s, two Classics. No wonder trainer Aidan O’Brien muttered quietly about this horse being the best he’d ever had.

O’Brien generally sends his best horses into the spring Classics without a prep run, and St Mark’s Basilica won the Poule d’Essai des Poulains (French 2,000 Guineas) over a mile in the Longchamp mud on his seasonal debut in May. He was coming home, the Siyouni colt being a French-bred, and he stayed local for his next start in the Prix du Jockey-Club (French Derby) at Chantilly three weeks later.

Moved up to an extended ten furlongs, St Mark’s Basilica showed both his miling speed and his ability to stretch out in a dazzling performance, quickening clear and winning eased down from Sealiway, who would frank the form with victory in the Group 1 Champion Stakes at Ascot in October. The ability to stay ten furlongs is hugely important for a potential stallion, and St Mark’s Basilica had proved himself. Now he had to prove it against older horses.

The Eclipse at Sandown is often the midsummer highlight in Europe, the first clash at the top level between three-year-olds and older horses. There were only four runners this year, but two of them were champions. One of them showed himself an outstanding champion: St Mark’s Basilica.

There was that mesmerising instant change of gear again, sending him sprinting up the Sandown hill to win by three and a half lengths, with Saudi Cup winner, Dubai Sheema Classic winner and future Juddmonte International winner Mishriff toiling back in third. Mishriff’s six-length Juddmonte win was arguably the finest single performance of the European season, but that only served to underline the brilliance of St Mark’s Basilica.

We had one more chance to see him, in the Irish Champion Stakes at Leopardstown, where he proved he could fight as well when outrunning top-class older mare Tarnawa, winning by three-quarters of a length. Afterwards, the effects of an old injury were found to have returned, and he was retired to stud. Like all the best performers, he left us wanting more.

Elsewhere, the three-year-olds Adayar and Hurricane Lane were majestic at a mile and a half, while the German ace Torquator Tasso sprang a huge surprise in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, the premier race of the European season. There were never any surprises with St Mark’s Basilica, though. We expected brilliance, and he produced it every time.

Did you know? The great Irish trainer Aidan O’Brien has won many Group/Grade 1 races on every continent, but St Mark’s Basilica was his first winner of the French Derby.

Unbeaten youngsters hit the heights

Top two-year-olds (USA/Europe)

In some years, the Eclipse Awards for champion juvenile colt and filly are open to dispute, with the big races won by a number of candidates without any of them being dominant. Not in 2021, however, when Corniche and Echo Zulu reigned supreme on either side of the gender divide, shoo-ins for divisional honours.

Both horses took unbeaten records into the Breeders’ Cup and both emerged with them intact. The Bob Baffert-trained Corniche won his maiden at Del Mar in September and the Grade 1 American Pharoah at Santa Anita the following month with impressive displays of front-running, and was a hot favourite to extend his winning streak in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

Even the perceived obstacle of the outside post position didn’t check his progress, with jockey Mike Smith taking him straight to the lead and staying there. Corniche dug in gamely through the stretch to stay a length and three-quarters clear of Pappacap, continuing his record of having been in front at every call in all his races.

The Quality Road colt is three-for-three and is 8-1 future-book favourite for next year’s Kentucky Derby, although his participation in the big race is uncertain given the ongoing restrictions placed upon his trainer. But there is nothing standing in the way of Echo Zulu, who is favourite for the Kentucky Oaks following a barnstorming campaign.

The daughter of first-season sire sensation Gun Runner went one better than Corniche, going unbeaten through four races beginning with a Saratoga maiden, followed by gate-to-wire Grade 1 wins in the Spinaway back at the Spa and the Frizette at Belmont Park, before meeting her date with destiny in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies.

Such was her obvious brilliance that only five horses took Echo Zulu on, and it wasn’t a race so much as a coronation, with the Steve Asmussen-trained filly leading from the gate under Joel Rosario and drawing off to win by five and a quarter lengths from Juju’s Map, herself a Grade 1 winner.

More than one commentator has suggested that Echo Zulu is the best two-year-old around, superior to the colts, and she is certainly more dominant in her division than Corniche is in his division. Fillies have won the Kentucky Derby before, of course, the last being Winning Colors in 1988, and if it were confirmed that Echo Zulu would take on the colts then it wouldn’t be hard to envisage her as race favourite.

The best two-year-olds on turf are, as might be expected, European horses, with Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf winner Modern Games a very talented colt but not the best in his barn, that position reserved for Native Trail, who was unbeaten in four in Britain and Ireland, including two Group 1 wins. He holds sway in Europe over future-book Epsom Derby favourite Luxembourg, unbeaten in three, a Group 1 winner, and comfortably the best of trainer Aidan O’Brien’s big battalion.

Did you know? Only two horses have won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and then followed up in the Kentucky Derby – Street Sense in 2005/06 and Nyquist ten years later.

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