2021 Racing Recap — Knicks Go Headlines the Year In Horse Racing

  • The following piece was written by by Gene Kershner of The Buffalo News and is a recap piece of the national racing scene in 2021. The Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont all returned to their regular spots on the calendar as opposed to 2020 when the Covid-pandemic forced dates to be switched around.
  • Mark your calendars for 2022. The Kentucky Derby is May 7 followed by the Preakness May 21 and the Belmont Stakes on June 11. Opening day of a 9-week summer racing season at Colonial Downs is July 11.

A new star emerged in racing during 2021 as Knicks Go dominated the older horse division on his way to being named Horse of the Year at the Eclipse Awards in January.

Kicking off the year with a victory in the $3 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational and bookending it with a victory in the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic, the son of Paynter completed a season to remember last month at Del Mar.

The Triple Crown returned to normalcy with respect to the schedule, at least.

Not without controversy, the horse that crossed the wire first in this year’s Kentucky Derby, Medina Spirit, tested positive for an illegal drug and could be disqualified. The son of Protonico, trained by Bob Baffert, subsequently died of a heart attack Dec. 6 after a workout in California. Baffert was suspended by Churchill Downs for two years and will not be allowed to enter horses in the 2022 or 2023 Kentucky Derbys.

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Medina Spirit (inside) in deep stretch en route to a Kentucky Derby victory in 2021. Coady Photography.

Three different horses captured each leg of this year’s Triple Crown as Rombauer won the Preakness and Essential Quality claimed the Belmont Stakes.

Locally, the Canadian Triple Crown remained in drought status as Queen’s Plate winner Safe Conduct skipped the Prince of Wales at Fort Erie. It’s been  18 years since Wando completed the triple in 2003.

Let’s take a look at the year in review by month.

January: Authentic was selected as the 2020 Horse of the Year in a landslide at the annual Eclipse Awards in a virtual ceremony. Life Is Good emerged as the top 3-year-old in the Baffert barn, defeating stable mate Medina Spirit in the Sham. Knicks Go won the fifth annual Pegasus Cup Invitational in South Florida for trainer Brad Cox, kicking off a big year for a trainer on the rise.

February: The Derby trail was hot and heavy with a slew of prep races highlighted by 2-year-old champion Essential Quality’s win in the Southwest Stakes. Mishriff surprised in the Saudi Cup by beating Santa Anita-based Charlatan and Knicks Go in Saudi Arabia.

March: Life Is Good beat Medina Spirit again in the San Felipe, but suffered a setback when he was injured in a workout and went off the Derby trail. Hot Rod Charlie captured the first 100-point Derby race when he won the Louisiana Derby at the Fair Grounds. Known Agenda gave trainer Todd Pletcher his record-extending sixth Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park. U.S.-based Mystic Guide won the $12 million Dubai World Cup for Godolphin with Luis Saez aboard.

April: The final major Derby preps resulted in several upsets with only Essential Quality winning the Blue Grass as the race favorite. Rock Your World upset Medina Spirit in the Santa Anita Derby and looked like a world beater heading to Louisville. Bourbonic upset the Wood at 72-1 at Aqueduct. Malathaat captured the Kentucky Oaks for Pletcher on the last day of the month.

Preakness Stakes winner Rombauer. AP Photo by Julio Cortez.

May: Medina Spirit holds off a late-closing Mandaloun to win the 147th Kentucky Derby before a capacity limited crowd of approximately 52,000. The winner tested positive for the steroid betamethasone and is still embroiled in litigation, and the connections await a decision by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission regarding possible disqualification. An ointment used to treat the colt for a skin condition was the likely source of the positive test.  The second jewel resulted in an upset when Rombauer roared down the middle of the track past Midnight Bourbon and Medina Spirit to win the Preakness at 11-1 for trainer Michael McCarthy. The Preakness was limited to 10,000 fans at Pimlico.

June: Essential Quality, after suffering a wide trip in the Derby, emerged as the top 3-year-old in the country, holding off a game Hot Rod Charlie in a duel to remember in the Belmont Stakes. Cox won his first Classic race as did jockey Saez. A reduced crowd of 11,238 took in the final leg of the American Triple Crown. Maxfield won the Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs and moved up the ranks in the handicap division.

July: Mandaloun won the Haskell at Monmouth off a disqualification of Hot Rod Charlie, who tripped up Midnight Bourbon in deep stretch. Saratoga Race Course opened back up to fans in the Adirondacks and Essential Quality delighted the Toga faithful with a win in the Jim Dandy.

August: Knicks Go captured the Whitney to kick off the month at Saratoga, while Tripoli upset the Pacific Classic at Del Mar. Malathaat redeemed herself in the Alabama for Pletcher, turning back Coaching Club American Oaks winner Maracuja. Safe Conduct and Irad Ortiz Jr. took control at the top of the stretch and held on to win the Queen’s Plate at Woodbine. Essential Quality pulled off the 29th Dandy-Travers double barely getting by Midnight Bourbon at the wire to win the Midsummer Derby. Gov. Kathy Hochul was in the crowd of 44,507 at the 152nd running of the Travers. 

September: Haddassah pulled the upset in the Prince of Wales at the border oval in Fort Erie for father-son owners Bill and Al Ulwelling. Hot Rod Charlie captured his first Grade 1 win in the Pennsylvania Derby, his final prep for the Breeder’s Cup Classic.

November: The Breeders’ Cup is held at Del Mar Thoroughbred Club for the second time in beautiful autumn weather in suburban San Diego. Life Is Good returned to win the Dirt Mile and is prepping for the 2022 Pegasus. Knicks Go all but captures Horse of the Year honors with a defining gate-to-wire win in the Classic

December: The headlines turned ugly in December as trainer Jorge Navarro was sentenced to five years in jail for the abuse of animals through the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Medina Spirit collapsed after a workout and died. A necropsy disclosing the cause of death is pending. On a more upbeat note, New York-bred Americanrevolution won the Grade 1 Cigar Mile.

It was a memorable 2021, and 2022 looks to be getting off with a bang as the Pegasus in January is shaping up to be competitive with both Knicks Go and Life Is Good pointed toward the $3 million race.