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Memories of 2014

The image of the late Juan Saez on the Big Board provided the backdrop for a Churchill Downs remembrance for the late jockey Juan Saez.

The image of the late Juan Saez on the Big Board provided the backdrop for a Churchill Downs remembrance for the late jockey Juan Saez.

As another year edges toward becoming the stuff of memories, most of us will be taking the opportunity in the coming days to look back and assess the achievements, smiles, sorrows and opportunities it held.

Two sure-to-be enduring personal memories of 2014 both involve farewells, which is surprising in that my sport and business looks to the future as much or more than it does to a long and storied past.

And as special as the celebration in the Kentucky Derby Winner’s Circle is, both of my special 2014 memories occurred in the so-called “everyday” winner’s circle located across the track from the Derby’s hallowed ground.

The first occurred on Oct. 26, the opening day of Churchill Downs’ Fall Meet, during a salute to fallen jockey Juan Saez. An incredibly promising talent, Saez lost his life in a riding accident on Oct. 14 at Indiana Grand in Shelbyville, Ind.  The fatal accident occurred not long after his 17th birthday.

Regular readers of this column were familiar with the rising fortunes of the young star.  He made his U.S. debut very late in the Churchill Downs Spring Meet, but made a sparkling and immediate impression.  He followed that with a “leading rider” title at Kentucky’s Ellis Park. During his brief time in the spotlight, Saez became known for two things: ability in the saddle that stamped him as both a dazzling natural talent and a future star, and an ever-present smile.

The imposing Dortmund had many fans thinking of the Kentucky Derby following a Fall meet allowance win at Churchill Downs.

The imposing Dortmund had many fans thinking of the Kentucky Derby following a Fall meet allowance win at Churchill Downs.

When fellow jockeys gathered in that everyday winner’s circle to honor the memory of Saez, patrons at the track were asked to join in a moment of silence in his honor.  From a personal standpoint, I have never experienced a time of more quiet intensity than those moments beneath the Twin Spires.

The other memorable farewell, this one far happier and optimistic, came just three weeks later in the same location.  History-making jockey Rosie Napravnik, the first woman to ride a winner of the Kentucky Oaks, received a warm embrace from Churchill Downs fans on Nov. 15 as she celebrated retirement from riding and preparation for her surprising new role as a mother.

Along with a pair of victories in the Kentucky Oaks, Napravnik’s fifth-place finish aboard Mylute in the 2013 Kentucky Derby was as close as any woman has come to riding a Derby winner. Many onlookers felt that Napravnik will someday be back in the saddle, and that she will eventually be the individual who shatters the glass ceiling for female riders and become the first of her gender to win the Kentucky Derby.

Let us hope that Rosie Napravnik enjoys the best, regardless of the world, or combination of worlds, that she eventually chooses.  The brief arc of her riding career has been a wonderful thing to witness, and the combination of the appreciation of her accomplishments and hope for whatever future she chooses made her on-track farewell a very special personal memory of the year.

While those alternately somber and uplifting events were important moments in 2014, there were plenty of thrills provided by horses in the soon-to-be old year.

Primary among those was the win by the Bob Baffert-trained Dortmund in an allowance race for 2-year-olds on “Stars of Tomorrow II” day on the final Saturday of the Fall Meet.  An imposing physical specimen, the son of 2008 Kentucky Derby winner Big Brown simply galloped away from a group of promising young horses for his second win in as many starts.  This weekend, Dortmund will attempt to score his first stakes victory in Southern California’s  Grade I Los Alamitos Futurity. I’m excited by both what I saw from him in 2014 and of what 2015 could bring.

Thank you for being a reader of this space and a fan of Thoroughbred racing in 2014.  I wish you many blessings during the Christmas and holiday season, along with hope for a wonderful New Year.

As we share this moment, we’re closing in on 130 days until Kentucky Derby 141.  I’m looking forward to joining you on that road to Churchill Downs and whatever 2015 will bring.