The 2017 year in thoroughbred racing was filled as usual with dozens of excellent performances by fit and ready racehorses, excellent jockeys who rode through traffic and other obstacles, as well as so many trainers who worked tireless hours getting horses into tip top shape.
We, of course, had the usual focus on the Triple Crown races during the spring along with the early season victories by 2016 Horse of the Year Arrogate and the corresponding late season triumphs scored by probable 2017 Horse of the Year, Gun Runner.
Yet, as I looked back on the year, trying to identify the very best performers in all of those categories, I did want to give extra credit to the best that occurred on a single day. But, that proved much harder than I thought possible. Moreover, my personal difficulties making such judgments were shared by a large group of racetrack veterans who were unable to zero in on who really did the best on a single day, or during the entire year.
Trainer Bob Baffert was an exception. He nominated jockey Mike Smith for Smith’s five wins on the ultra-rich Belmont Stakes Day card, June 10, and I agreed with his assessment.
It was no small irony that Smith’s terrific day in the saddle did not include a Belmont Stakes victory. Still, he won the first four races on that card, taking the $150K Easy Goer with Baffert’s budding 3-year-old star West Coast. He then proceeded to score with Kentucky Oaks winner Abel Tasman in the $700K Acorn, with Songbird in the $750K Ogden Phipps, and then won the $500K Woody Stephens with American Anthem. Smith then completed his terrific day by taking the $1.2 million Metropolitan (Mile) Handicap with Mor Spirit… and, oh by the way, Smith also finished third with Sadler’s Joy in the $1.2 million Manhattan Stakes.
Smith’s outstanding day was nothing really new. To my eyes, he has ranked among the best jockeys of my 40-plus years covering Thoroughbred racing from coast to coast. As such, I have no hesitation ranking Smith among the top 10 jockeys of my lifetime – along with Bill Shoemaker, Eddie Arcaro, Bill Hartack, Laffit Pincay Jr., Braulio Baeza, Jerry Bailey, Manny Ycaza, Pat Day and Chris McCarron.
As for the very best training performances in 2017, I found it hard to look past the amazing year Chad Brown has produced. Just take a peek at these two inter-related stats that suggest his 2017 training performance may be among the best of all time:
With about two weeks yet to go – Brown’s horses have earned $25,810,846. Equally remarkable, he won all that money with a modest 207 victories from only 788 starters – relatively few trips to the post in this modern age of year-round, coast-to-coast racing.
By comparison, Todd Pletcher, himself a truly great horseman who participates in most of the top stakes races in America, won about $4 million less than Brown while training 999 starters through last weekend. In addition, trainer Karl Broborg certainly enjoyed a fabulous 2017 operating on lower class levels. Yet, Broberg needed 1,765 starters to reach his season leading 401 victories. And yes, Bob Baffert also had a fine year – as usual – winning nearly $27 million while racing at the sport’s highest levels. Otherwise, high profile trainer Steve Asmussen’s horses did earn $19 million from 372 victories, but required 1,838 starters to reach those totals.
Of the top performances among all horses, I rank the emergence of the 3-year-old West Coast at the very top of my personal list.
Here was a colt who not only developed into a true-blue star after the Triple Crown season, but his main competition for my personal ranking came from Baffert’s third stringer Collected. That somewhat underrated horse not only improved sharply at Del Mar during the summer, he confirmed his forward move via a 2nd place finish to Gun Runner in the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic.
The simple reality is both of these horses helped Baffert recover from the loss of form by Arrogate during the summer. Yes, Arrogate did slip down in status during the season, but he did win the $10 million Dubai World Cup early in 2017 to become the all-time money-winning Thoroughbred with more than $17 million from seven wins in just 11 career starts.
Top Filly or Mare: I still like Songbird’s victory on Belmont Stakes Day as the season’s best.
Top Sprinter: I rank two horses very close, previously mentioned Mor Spirit and Sharp Azteca, an impressive late-season, double stakes winner.
Top Turf Horse: Green Mask had three terrific races during the summer in New York and Canada.
Top 2-Year-Old: In last week’s column I listed eight Juveniles to watch as 3-year-olds in 2018. Although Bolt d’Oro earned a season’s best 103 Beyer Speed Figure for his Sept. 30 win at Santa Anita, I rank that performance fifth best of the year to Good Magic, who earned a 100 Beyer while defeating a tough field in the 2017 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.
It’s just one man’s opinion.