Hollywood Park ended its historic run while Japan, for the second time this month, celebrated the retirement of a superstar.
But from California to Florida -- and at points in between -- 2-year-olds continued to provide hope that the coming New Year will include the joys, surprises and opportunities that make racing unique among sports.
Now that trainer Shug McGaughey has finally won the Kentucky Derby, can he make it two in a row? See the Gulfstream Park report. And how can 2014 be a bad year if it includes the promising colt Extrasexyhippzster? See Aqueduct, below.
Let's zip right along to the details, shall we?
For the second time in two weeks, a Japanese superstar has been retired in a blaze of glory. On Dec. 8 in Hong Kong, crack sprinter Lord Kanaloa called it a career with a smashing win in the Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Sprint. Sunday, at Nakayama, it was Orfevre's turn in the Group 1 Arima Kinen, or Grand Prix, and he did not disappoint. Held up at the back of the pack until the stretch turn, the 5-year-old son of Stay Gold easily accelerated past most of the field into the stretch. He angled in to take the lead 300 meters from home and left the competition in his wake, winning by 8 lengths in a hand ride. A huge crowd was cheering wildly and throwing confetti into the air well before the chestnut horse passed the winning post. Win Variation finished second and Gold Ship was third.
"It might have been a bit earlier to make our bid than usual," said winning rider Kenichi Ikezoe. "But he responded so well, I was confident making the last turn that no one would ever be able to catch him. He is definitely the strongest horse in the world."
Orfevre closed out his career with six Group 1 wins and two disappointing second-place showings in the Group 1 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. After Orfevre won this fall's Group 1 Prix Foy at Longchamp and then suffered his second setback in the big race, Trainer Yasutochi Ikee withheld him from the Group 1 Japan Cup in favor of the Arima Kinen. That left the way clear for the 4-year-old filly Gentildonna to capture the Japan Cup -- and now she is the sole remaining runner from the stellar trio that started the year.
In California, it was the race track that retired. After a distinguished run that started in a blaze of Tinseltown glory in 1938, Hollywood Park ran its last race Sunday and will be shut down by the end of January. As the industry adjusted to a new schedule for 2014 racing, backstretch workers were even seeking new homes for the resident barn-area cats.
But there was racing at the venue down the street from Los Angeles International Airport and the biggest events of the final weekend pointed directly to the future in the shape of 2-year-olds California Chrome and Swiss Lake Yodeler.
Swiss Lake Yodeler wore down pacesetting long shot Rovenna in the final yards of Saturday's $200,000 Soviet Problem Stakes for state-bred 2-year-old fillies and won by 1 length over that rival. Sprouts got show money. Swiss Lake Yodeler, a Swiss Yodeler filly out of the Meadowlake mare Domasco Lake, ran 7 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:23.90 with Rafael Bejarano up. It was another win for trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, who has been going so well in the past few weeks, he will especially hate to see the track mothballed.
"I think this filly needs more ground," he said. "I wasn't sure she had enough going to get there but she kicked in real late. Rafael has a magical way of getting the job done."
There is an echo of the past in Swiss Lake Yodeler, too. Her sire won his first five races in 1996, including the Grade I Hollywood Juvenile Championship Stakes. While he continued to run well in top company, he subsequently won only one of his remaining 19 starts -- that the Grade I Hollywood Juvenile in December of 1996.
California Chrome has the distinction of winning the last stakes race at Hollywood Park after kicking loose in the stretch to take Sunday's $200,000 King Glorious Stakes for state-bred juveniles by 6 1/4 lengths. Life Is a Joy was along for second and the early leader, Pray Hard, got show money. California Chrome, a Lucky Pulpit colt, ran 7 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:22.12 with Victor Espinoza up for trainer Art Sherman.
"In a way," said Espinoza, "it's sad. But you have to move on in life."
Added Sherman, a former rider: "I started here as a young kid. Rode my first race here (in 1955). Going back through the years, we had a lot of fun here with the big crowd and the great horses."
The track's final race, a $25,000 starter handicap dubbed the "Auld Lang Syne," went to Woodman's Luck, a 5-year-old, California-bred gelding who rallied from far back to win by a nose in the final jumps. Corey Nakatani had the mount for trainer Vladimir Cernin. A $2 win ticket on No. 5 paid $13.60 for anyone not keeping it as a souvenir.
Strapping Groom put a whipping on the favorite, Palace, in Saturday's $100,000 Gravesend Handicap, kicking clear in the lane to win by 6 1/2 lengths over that rival. Abra was 4 1/2 lengths farther back in third. Strapping Groom, a 6-year-old son of Johannesburg, ran 6 furlongs on the good inner track in 1:09.74 with Junior Alvarado at the controls. Strapping Groom, winner of the Grade I Forego at Saratoga this summer, was coming off a second-place finish in the Grade III Fall Highweight Handicap last month.
"Turning for home, I asked him, but I didn't think I'd get beat with the way he kicked in at the end," Alvarado said. "It worked out pretty good. He was 100 percent on his game today."
Extrasexyhippzster proved he's more than a pretty name with a mild upset win in Saturday's $100,000 Don Rickles Stakes for 2-year-olds. With Julian Pimentel up for trainer Michael Trombetta, the Pennsylvania-bred son of Stroll dueled to the lead on the turn and easily drew off to score by 5 lengths over Oliver Zip. The odds-on favorite, Pure Sensation, contested the pace but faded to finish third, another neck in arrears. Extrasexyhippzster got 6 furlongs on the good inner track in 1:10.86. Wouldn't that name look nice on a 2015 Kentucky Derby glass, right after Orb? So far, though, he's never run farther than 7 furlongs. Owner-breeder Michael Kirwan said he will leave the choice of a next start up to the trainer. He now has two wins from four starts.
Mr. Speaker relaxed behind the leaders in Saturday's $100,000 Dania Beach Stakes for 2-year-olds on the Gulfstream Park grass, got through along the rail turning for home and won off by 2 3/4 lengths. Cabo Cat also came from well back to finish third with Pleuven getting show money. The favorite, Request, finished last in a steady fade. Mr. Speaker, a Phipps Stable homebred colt by Pulpit, ran 1 mile on firm going in 1:36.60. Jose Lezcano applied the winning ride for trainer Shug McGaughey.
"Yes, I will try him on the dirt," McGaughey said. "Maybe even next time. He's matured a lot since he left Belmont in November and I hope he continues to go that way."
Mr. Speaker is descended, on his dam's side, from the great Personal Ensign -- a measure of the worth of the Phipps multigenerational commitment to the sport.
In Sunday's $100,000 Harlan's Holiday Stakes, River Seven came three-wide into the stretch, overtook the leaders and quickly cleared the field, winning by 4 lengths. Csaba finished second and the favorite, Bourbon Courage, got home third. River Seven, a 3-year-old Johannesburg gelding, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:41.73 with Joe Rocco Jr. in the irons.
Class Included surged to a big lead at the top of the lane in Saturday's $75,000 Blushing K.D. Handicap for fillies and mares and hung on to win by 1 1/2 lengths over Bluegrass Sapphire. Twirl finished third. Class Included, a 5-year-old Include mare, ran about 1 1/16 miles on firm turf in 1:45.93 under Shaun Bridgmohan.
You don't tug on Superman's Cape and, at Fair Grounds, you're at your own risk betting against the combo of owner/breeder Brereton Jones, Trainer Larry Jones and jockey Rosie Napravnik. That trio helped Divine Beauty to a 6 1/2-lengths vicory in Saturday's $60,000 Letellier Memorial Stakes for 2-year-old fillies and Napravnik virtually eased her at the end. Street Story was the best of the rest with Toni's Hollyday third. Divine Beauty, a Divine Park filly, got 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:10.66.
In Saturday's $75,000 Sugar Bowl Stakes for 2-year-olds, Albano caught pacesetting D'cajun Cat with plenty of room left and went on to win by 1 1/4 lengths. Be Well was along for second and D'Cajun Cat finished third. Albano, an Istan colt, ran 6 furlongs on the main track in 1:11.50. He also is a Jones-Jones runner but had Kerwin Clark in the irons. Albano is the younger brother of Mark Valeski.
"We felt that Mark was speedier and had more acceleration than this horse but we are high on him," said Larry Jones. "We hope he does what Mark Valeski did and maybe one better."
Mark Valeski finished second in last year's Grade II Risen Star and Grade II Louisiana Derby but then skipped the Kentucky Derby in favor of the Grade II Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park, which he won.
Napravnik doesn't just win for the Joneses, either. Riding for trainer Tom Amoss, she guided Sum of the Parts to a front-running, 2 3/4-lengths victory over Channel Marker in Saturday's $75,000 Bonapaw Stakes. Strong Impact was third and the favorite, Great Mills, faded to finish fifth. Sum of the Parts, who played no part in last month's Breeders' Cup Sprint, finishing 12th, ran Saturday's about 5 1/2 furlongs on firm going in 1:04.30.
Prayer for Relief shadowed the leaders early in Saturday's $75,000 Tenacious Handicap, got to the front with an inside move on the turn and got clear, winning by 6 1/4 lengths. Ground Transport finished second, a head in front of Agent Di Nozzo. The favorite, Grand Contender, was fourth after an awkward start and a wide trip. Prayer for Relief, a 5-year-old son of Jump Start, got 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:43.78 with David Flores up.
Daddy Nose Best came from the back of a field of 12 to win Saturday's $75,000 Buddy Diliberto Memorial Handicap by 3 1/2 lengths. Daddy Nose Best, with Flores in the irons, got by pacesetting with a furlong and a half left, quickly opened a big advantage and was virtually eased late. Adios Nardo held second after showing the way and Compliance Officer finished third. Daddy Nose Best, a 4-year-old Scat Daddy colt, completed about 1 1/16 miles on the grass in 1:44.53.
Cyber Secret forged to the lead turning for home in Saturday's $50,000 Prairie Bayou Stakes and got clear late, winning by 4 1/2 lengths. Stormy Going made all the early going and held on for place money, 2 3/4 lengths ahead of Occasional View. Cyber Secret, a 4-year-old Broken Vow colt, ran 1 1/16 miles on the all-weather track in course-record time of 1:42.26 with Israel Ocampo up for trainer Lynn Whiting. The race is named for the winner of the 1993 Jim Beam Stakes at Turfway, who went on to finish second to Sea Hero in the Kentucky Derby and won the Preakness before breaking down in the Belmont Stakes, won by Colonial Affair.
Rebranded also was relocated for new ownership for Sunday's $100,000 Riley Allison Futurity for 2-year-olds and found his new surroundings just enchanting. After stalking the pace, the regally bred colt took his time gaining the lead in the lane but finally got home first by 2 lengths despite drifting out in the late going. Lawly's Goal came from last to finish second and the pacesetter, Alsono, held third. Rebranded, with Ry Eikleberry up, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:38.73. The colt is by Tiznow out of the A.P. Indy mare Bayou Breeze. He was unsuccessful in four tries at Saratoga, Belmont Park, Parx Racing and, most recently, Aqueduct when owned by Fog City Stable and trained by Todd Pletcher. He now is trained by Justin Evans and runs in the colors of Tony Pennington.
Warrens Venedalucy stalked the pace in Saturday's $50,000 Bold Ego Handicap for fillies and mares, engaged pacesetting Crafty Contessa in the lane and finally prevailed by 3/4 length. The favorite, Wine Thief, was up for third. Warrens Venedalucy, a 4-year-old daughter of Doc Gus, ran 5 1/2 furlongs on a fast track in 1:03.74 with Alfredo Juarez Jr. in the irons.