A writer should be held accountable for what he/she writes. Unless, of course, you don’t count midnight rage tweets or messages in empty Boochcraft bottles.
In that spirit, a month-by-month tour of the 2018 inventory from this reporter seemed to be the best way to put the year in the rearview, while at the same time highlighting some ends left agonizingly loose.
January, now a busy month with the Eclipse Awards-Pegasus World Cup mash-up at Gulfstream Park, tends to hide any mundane news from the trenches. To these eyes, once Gun Runner had left the scene, one of the most interesting items was the endorsement of the federal legislation to nationalize racing’s drug-testing program by Graham Motion.
Motion was motivated in part by his ongoing frustration with a controversial Kentucky medication ruling working its way through the appeal process (the ruling was eventually upheld).
“I do have certain reservations about the federal government overseeing what we do,” Motion said. “But at the same time I just see that we as an industry are spinning our wheels and not coming any closer to a governing body.”
In a mid-February column, your humble scribe was prescient enough to note that Drayden Van Dyke was a young rider on the rise and had an especially good day the previous Sunday when “… he won with three of five mounts Sunday, including a breathtaking romp aboard the promising 3-year-old Justify for Bob Baffert.”
After which I promptly turned my Kentucky Derby attention to Good Magic, Bolt d’Oro, and McKinzie.
A few weeks later, in what a screenwriter would call a clumsy piece of foreshadowing, Victor Espinoza nearly missed the mount on Accelerate in the Santa Anita Handicap when he was grazed on the shoulder by the hooves of a panicking 2-year-old in the starting gate for an earlier race on the card.
“I looked to the side and the horse is coming over the top at me,” Espinoza said later that day. “He almost hit me in the face.”
Four months later at Del Mar, Espinoza suffered a spinal injury that forced him to miss Accelerate’s victories in the Pacific Classic, Awesome Again, and Breeders’ Cup Classic.
In April, the trainers displaced by the burned barns at the San Luis Rey Downs Training Center returned to work in the two huge new Clearspan canvas-topped structures. Among them was Pierre Bellocq, husband of trainer Martine Bellocq, who nearly lost her life while trying to save one of her horses in the blaze.
“Most of the skin grafts have finished and are succeeding,” Pierre said at the time. “She is breathing on her own now, although she’s still being fed on an IV, and she can’t talk because of the tracheoscopy. They also had her eyelids sewn shut, but now they’re open so she can see.”
By December, Martine Bellocq, still being subjected to grafts and surgeries, was the guest of honor at a memorial luncheon for the San Luis Rey Downs family.
In May it rained on both the Derby and the Preakness which was, like, not news.
In June, there were any number of ways to enjoy Justify’s victory in the Belmont to become the 13th winner of the Triple Crown. I liked Mike Smith’s post-race shout-out to the badly injured Marlon St. Julien, who was in a hospital at the time.
“All the disabled riders, I dedicate this to you,” Smith said as NBC’s Donna Brothers rode alongside Justify. “And Marlon St. Julien – get better, brother. We’re praying for you.”
“The next morning I called him, and I told him how much he lifted me up,” St. Julien said. “I told him I couldn’t thank him enough. He was my angel with a heart of gold. Of platinum!”
In July the game lost Victor Espinoza for who knew how long (he hopes to return early this year) and Justify forever, at least as a racehorse.
August and early September were given over to Chad Brown’s record Saratoga season, while out West, John Sadler stole the show at Del Mar with eight stakes wins, including Accelerate’s 12 1/2-length victory in the Pacific Classic.
“I was exhausted,” Sadler said when the meet wrapped. “I took a four-hour nap.”
Squeezed in between the late October World Series (go Dodgers?) and the mid-term elections, the Breeders’ Cup at Churchill Downs was an orgy of excess crowned by the performance of Enable in the Turf.
John Gosden, his baritone barely above a whisper, called the tune as his filly went to the post.
“Magical is the danger,” he said.
And then, when Enable had turned back Magical’s stubborn challenge, Gosden offered a trainer’s highest praise:
“She’s done it.”
Finally, December 2018 will forever be known as the first month since May of 1979 that Gary Stevens, a jockey for whom the Hall of Fame was designed, was neither racing, injured and recovering, or temporarily retired.
“Those other ‘retirements’ were just rehearsals,” said Stevens, 55, who suffered a severe whiplash injury. “This is the real thing.”
It was the toughest column of the year to write, simply because the subject distilled so much of the game’s soaring highs and desperate lows. Cue here the joke from “Annie Hall,” about the restaurant that serves such terrible food, and in such small portions.
So 2018, thanks for the wild ride. Here we go again.
This story originally appeared on DRF.com.
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