J.N. Campbell's 2021 North American Thoroughbred Racing ... The Year in Review

The sun is setting on 2021, and for this turfwriter it was a year filled with magnificent moments. Here is a rundown of the stories we chased. It all started with this runner, Letruska.
The sun is setting on 2021, and for this turfwriter it was a year filled with magnificent moments. Here is a rundown of the stories we chased. It all started with this runner, Letruska.

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And so it went ... Medina Spirit/Baffert, Navarro/Servis, Arlington Park/CDI, HISA/USADA ... I think once 2021 is put to bed ... after all the coverage that we at Horseracing.net/us have provided, I am sure of 2 things. The first? All Thoroughbreds are created with equal wonder, it's just the humans that are the ones who are significantly flawed. And second? Our decentralized "industry" continues to take a couple of steps forward, but in many cases, a few too many back. I could quote Shakespeare, drawn from some arcane historical reference found in the appendix of an old dusty book, or toss pithy phrasing from Twain or Orwell at you, but instead, maybe it is just best to remind readers about some of the people, places, and most importantly, the Thoroughbreds, that we watched, wagered on, and were wowed by. Here were some of the highlights ... 

People ...

I was totally impressed with all sorts of humans that I encountered this year in both interviews and for feature pieces. As a turfwriter you always want to expand the scope beyond the most visible in the sport. Sure, talking to "super trainers" like Brad Cox, Todd Pletcher, Steve Asmussen (now the winningest trainer in North American history), and Bob Baffert are always absolute highlights. However, there are personalities and styles that are just as special and unique among other conditioners that are not as acknowledged. I interviewed Todd Fincher for a pair of stories, one at the beginning of 2021, and one at the end. I found him affable, focused, and candid when it came to the challenges of COVID and racing outside of New Mexico. I also spoke to Karl Broberg, a trainer based in Dallas, Texas, who has had major success running at a number of tracks. His personality is vibrant; he thinks deeply about ideas, and his recent purchase of a training track just down the road from Delta Downs exhibits true vision. Others in the "business" were kind enough to give me time, and even though they are not the most "visible" around a racetrack, they are absolutely integral to its function. Down at Sam Houston Race Park, Dwight Berube helped me to understand how the track made it through COVID, weather, and the expansion of purses, and Don Ahrens, a long-serving member of the TRPB and Director of Security at SHRP, was so giving when it came to telling the story of his career. Along the road, I also spoke to Nathan Horrocks of JockeyCam about his role at the Kentucky Derby, I understood Hank Nothhaft's "Broodmare Band" strategy, spoke to Travis Tygart and Tessa Muir about USADA (before the deal was nixed), and caught up with MyRacehorse's Paige Albarado concerning Thoroughbred micro-shares, and her own Preakness "divided house." I did not shy away from seeking out the words and phrases from the race calling community. I spoke with Jason Beem concerning why small tracks matter, got down to cases with Matt Dinnerman about handicapping, and had the pleasure of seeing through the binoculars of John G. Dooley, as he readied himself to call his last "Arlington Million" up in Chicago. These "voices" all resonated with me ... speaking to their passion, drive, and determination. What a sample!

Places ...

It is interesting ... the feel of a racetrack is both familiar and unique in its architectural reverberations. Del Mar is not Keeneland ... Keeneland is not Saratoga ... and Saratoga is not Oaklawn ... and on, and on ... They can't be "like one another," but they still have all of those physical landmarks that let you know exactly where you are. As a turfwriter, you gain access to certain places buried within the grandstand, and you can feel the echo of the past calling to you. Attending my 1st Breeders' Cup at Del Mar, I found the Press Box both daunting and exhilarating. Different camps of writers ... Blood Horse, DRF, The Paulick Report, etc. were all present, and I must admit I was awestruck. I felt like a rookie (and was) ... just happy to have a seat at the dinner table. Thanks go to Jim Gluckson for being my guide, and to Dora Delgado for her leadership ... both made my 1st time around a great one. Walking out onto the apron at Del Mar was an experience I will never forget. Standing near the Paddock the day before it started, typing on my laptop was a dream come true. Not only did I get a taste of the frontside, but the backside was just as pleasurable. Embedded with the Equine Security Team, an All-Star Team of investigators and former law enforcement (which included Don Ahrens), I learned their trade, and reported on how they go about protecting these highly-prized Thoroughbreds. They let me peek behind the curtain, and it was the chance of a lifetime. Speaking of those moments, I spent a rainy, but glorious Friday afternoon being led into the past with Spendthrift Farm's General Manager, Ned Toffey. I wanted to know how Authentic, the former Kentucky Derby victor, was doing after his 1st year at stud. The result of that trip was a deeper understanding of the challenges of running one of the premier breeding operations in the heart of Central Kentucky. The racetrack is not the only place where meaningful stories can be uncovered. 

Thoroughbreds ...

As for the Thoroughbred ... we made countless picks this year, and offered all sorts of betting advice. Sometimes we were dead right, and other times, it was a bit of a miss. We tried to figure out their level of fitness, whether they could really stretch out, and if a surface switch was really what they wanted to do. We commented on their treatment, examining how different organizations tried to make the game fair (NYRA and Monmouth come to mind). And of course, we debated Bob Baffert, and his choices when it comes to these equine athletes. These creatures amaze me, and getting to cover their activities, seeking out their tendencies, is just such a privilege. This year we watched Cox's Essential Quality run wide in the Kentucky Derby, reacted with such emotion at the terrible passing of Medina Spirit, cheered Knicks Go in the Classic, and witnessed every single runner that took to the track compete to the best of their ability ... claiming or otherwise. We went around the world to bring you North American selections from Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Royal Ascot, and Longchamp on Arc Day. Seeking "best play," while keeping an eye out for a long shot, was our dual objective. We were struck by a number of efforts that were really so numerous, it is difficult to summarize them all. What we do know is that a flood of emotions are tied up in these athletes. A piece I did on the retirement of Eclipse Thoroughbreds' Sharing, trained by Graham Motion, spoke to that. One image that I witnessed, and happened to snap through my lens, was the one you will find at the head of this piece. It is from January back at Sam Houston Race Park. That is the mighty Letruska on her way to the track to compete in the Grade 3 Houston Ladies Classic, a race in which she performed impressively. It would not be the last ... I was struck by her power, strength, and fortitude. She is literally dragging her assigned groom along. As the bright sunshine is on its way out, she is ready to race. I happened to catch her trainer, Fausto Gutierrez, at the Breeders' Cup, and I showed him this picture I had taken. He beamed with pride, admiring the heart and soul of a champion. Talk about meaningful stories, the Thoroughbred, all of them, were the stars of the show.

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It was some 2021 ... I cannot wait to see what the next year will bring ...

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