The year of 2009 will go down as one of the best for fillies, but not just because of Rachel Alexandra, Zenyatta, and Goldikova. It was also the year of the intriguing Sea the Stars, who did just enough to win his races but nevertheless filled a resume with accomplishments that will be hard to duplicate. It was also a year that saw the rise of exceptional horses from places that aren’t routinely covered in the mainstream trades. The Top 10 here may not be the best 10 in the world, but they are some of the most intriguing. Also, each is an icon in its country.
1. Sea the Stars: First horse to win the 2000 Guineas, Epsom Derby, and Arc in the same year. The latter race, particularly, was impressive because of the gear changes he exhibited to extricate himself from trouble. Never one to win by much, he gave the impression that we never really saw his best. That’s a scary thought. He was undefeated in 6 starts in 2009 — all Group 1 races — and was 8 for 9 overall. The Arc is below.
2. Zenyatta: The first filly or mare to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Like the undefeated Personal Ensign, who ended her 13 for 13 career in dramatic fashion at the Breeders’ Cup, Zenyatta had a fittingly similar cinematic send off. On the turn for home, neither filly appeared to have a chance to win, yet both staged improbable, legend-making finishes. Personal Ensign defeated the Derby heroine Winning Colors in the last stride, in the Distaff; Zenyatta, one better, defeated the winners of both the Derby and Belmont, in the Classic, with a stride or two to spare. The Classic, which ended her career at 14 for 14, is below.
3. Rachel Alexandra: She is the first filly winner of the Preakness since Nellie Morse in 1924. Rachel Alexandra, however, has already accomplished more than modern-day filly classic winners Rags to Riches (2007 Belmont Stakes), Winning Colors (1988 Kentucky Derby), and Genuine Risk (1980 Kentucky Derby), who together combined to win only one Grade 1 race after their classic successes. After the Preakness, Rachel Alexandra defeated 3-year-old males in the Grade 1 Haskell and older males in the Grade 1 Woodward and finished 2009 undefeated in 8 starts. The Preakness is below.
4. Overdose: He is the best horse out of Hungary since Kincsem went undefeated in 54 starts in the 19th century. This iconic Hungarian-based sprinter’s heralded 2009 itinerary included the top sprint stakes in the world, but he only made one start at local Kincsem Park in Budapest before chronic feet problems sidelined him for the rest of the year with a 12 for 12 record. The promise of his intriguing “win” in the 2008 Abbaye was never fulfilled in 2009, but his principal owner, Zoltan Mikoczy, made plenty of news by getting arrested and thrown in jail in Romania. Overdose, meanwhile, toured rehab facilities in France and Britain before returning to Hungary in a shroud of secrecy late in the year — while Mikoczy was still in jail. All’s well that ends well, though, because the owner is free now and the Hungarian hero, now healed, will be prepared for a 2010 campaign. The race from Kincsem this year, with Christophe Soumillon up, is below.
5. Goldikova: The two-time French-based Breeders’ Cup Mile winner has been called a better filly than two-time BC Mile winner and racing great Miesque, by Freddie Head, once the rider of Miesque and now the trainer of Goldikova. A winner of 10 of 15 starts, including 7 Group 1 races, Goldikova won the 2009 BC Mile in devastating fashion in 1:32.26 and stays in training in 2010 for a tilt at a threepeat and a unique place in history. Once under the shadow of contemporary Zarkava, the undefeated Arc winner who defeated her in the French Guineas, Goldikova has since swept everything in Europe at a mile. The 2009 BC Mile is below.
6. Vodka: She won the Japanese Derby at 3 in 2007 and became the first of her sex to do so in 64 years. In 2009, the 5-year-old mare won the Group 1 Japan Cup by a nose, and she may be kept in training for one last shot at a prize in Dubai in March. A Group 1 winner in Japan at 2,3,4, and 5, Vodka has more than $13 million in earnings and a record of 10 wins from 25 starts. The mare defeated a Japan Cup field that included King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes winner and dual Breeders’ Cup Turf winner Conduit and covered the 2400 meters in a rapid 2:22.40. The race is below (Vodka is the bay who withstands the late move of the white-faced chestnut, Oken Bruce Lee).
7. Set Alight: She is one of the best horses bred in India, period, with a record of 11 wins from 13 starts. Set Alight showed she was special from the moment she stepped on the racetrack and won her first 10 starts with ease. She entered the McDowell Signature Indian Derby at Mahalaxmi in Mumbai as the overwhelming favorite in April, only to lose the race in a shocker near the wire. Widely considered the victim of an overly confident ride in the 2400-meter race by Malesh Narredu, Set Alight prematurely hit the front with 600 meters to run after racing close to a taxing early pace and was gunned down late in the long Mahalaxmi straight by Antonios, a good colt. She lost her next start, too, which dented her reputation and put in doubt her ability to stay the Derby trip, but in what would be her last start — and too bad, because Dubai was in the plans before she hurt a tendon — she was once again sensational against males in the 2400-meter President of India Gold Cup in September, below.
8. Belle Watling: She won the “quadruple crown” Dec. 27 at Chile’s Club Hipico de Santiago, earned a US$500,000 bonus for the sweep, and is widely considered the best 3-year-old of either sex at the middle distances on turf in South America. A winner of 7 of 10 starts, Belle Watling has won the Chilean 1000 Guineas, the National Ricardo Lyon, and the El Ensayo — all Group 1 races; the latter is the most prestigious race for 3-year-olds in Chile. The filly covered the 2400 meters of the El Ensayo in 2:24.50, which is below.
9. Bambera: She has been hailed as one of the best in the history of the sport in Venezuela. A winner of 16 races from 18 starts, Bambera most recently won the $300,000 Internacional Clasico del Caribe in Puerto Rico from the top-class Mexican filly Vivian Record — both of them far superior to the other top Caribbean colts in a race that’s considered the Caribbean Derby. Before the 1800-meter Caribe, Bambera won the 2400-meter Simon Bolivar at La Rinconada — the most important race in Venezuela — by three lengths in 2:29 on dirt to become the leading money earner of all time in Venezuela. She’s now in Miami preparing for a US campaign in 2010. Below is the Simon Bolivar.
10. Age of Jape: This Polish-bred colt won the triple crown in the Czech Republic in 2009 in Prague at Velka Chuchle — the Guineas, Derby and St Leger — as well as the Derby and St. Leger in Slovakia, at Bratislava, for a tally of 5 classic races and a 10 for 11 record. He has not lost since finishing second on his debut at 2 in Poland. Age of Jape will stay in training in 2010 and will be targeted for international competition in the major centers. Below is the 2800-meter Czech St. Leger (Age of Jape is in the striped colors and breaks on the outside).