Look through the past performance lines of Horse of the Year honorees. Look down the left-hand column which lists the dates and the tracks of their races.
You’ll find Del Mar in that column, at least once, for nine of those champions. And California Chrome, the 2014 Horse of the Year, all-time leading North American money winner and current No. 1-ranked runner on the continent, will make his third appearance “where the turf meets the surf” in the San Diego Handicap this Saturday.
In chronological Horse of the Year order they are: Seabiscuit (1938), Ack Ack (1971), Ferdinand (1987), Cigar (1995-96), Tiznow (2000), Azeri (2002), Zenyatta (2010), California Chrome (2014) and American Pharoah (2015).
In deference to the Millennial generation, let’s take a look at them in reverse historical order.
As a 2-year-old American Pharoah ran the first race of his career at Del Mar in August of 2014 and was an inauspicious fifth as the 7-5 favorite in a field of nine. He came back 25 days later in the Grade I Del Mar Futurity and won it powerfully, virtually wire-to-wire from the No. 1 post while drawing away at the end to win by 4 ¾ lengths.
That was the first of eight straight victories en route to being the first Triple Crown champion in 37 years. American Pharoah spent the summer of 2015 at Del Mar training for a fall campaign that would conclude with a Breeders’ Cup Classic win and coronation as Horse of the Year.
California Chrome appeared to be a pretty good California-bred, nothing more, when he came to Del Mar as a 2-year-old in 2013 to win the Graduation Stakes and finish sixth in the Del Mar Futurity, beaten only two lengths with a rough trip.
From late 2013 to mid-2014, however, California Chrome shone brightly, making the Kentucky Derby and Preakness wins No. 5 and 6 in succession. When a third-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Classic created concern regarding Horse of the Year credentials, ‘Chrome came to Del Mar in the fall and displayed his versatility by winning the Grade I Hollywood Derby in his first start on turf to tilt the vote his way.
Zenyatta won Del Mar’s Clement L. Hirsch Stakes annually from 2008-2010 the seventh, 12th and 18th triumphs in an incredible 19-race winning streak from the start of her career. The 2010 Hirsch was followed by a victory in the Lady’s Secret at Santa Anita, and even a subsequent narrow loss to Blame while Zenyatta tried for a second straight Breeders’ Cup Classic to end her career didn’t keep her from outpolling Blame in the Horse of the Year voting. Zenyatta had beaten 11 male rivals in the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic, but lost out to the filly Rachel Alexandra for Horse of the Year.
Six years in advance of Zenyatta’s exploits in the Hirsch, Azeri notched the first of back-to-back wins in the event. Azeri went on to capture the Lady’s Secret Handicap and the Breeders’ Cup Distaff following the 2002 Hirsch for Rancho Santa Fe resident trainer Laura de Seroux, then prevailed in the voting to become the first female to win Horse of the Year since Lady’s Secret in 1986.
As a 3-year-old, Tiznow finished second to Skimming in the 2000 Pacific Classic, then strung together wins in the Super Derby, Goodwood and Breeders’ Cup Classic in a fall campaign blitz that had him named Horse of the Year.
Cigar was an allowance level turf horse owned by aerospace and racing magnate Allen Paulson and trained by Alex Hassinger when he notched a win and a second at Del Mar in the summer of 1993.
Switched to dirt, however, he became Cigar The Invincible, rolling to 16 straight stakes victories — from the 1995 NYRA Mile in November at Aqueduct to the Citation Challenge at Arlington Park in July of 1996 – for trainer Bill Mott and jockey Jerry Bailey when he returned to Del Mar three years later. Then came the Pacific Classic in one of the most iconic days in Del Mar history and Cigar’s quest to break Citation’s record was foiled by Dare And Go.
The upset didn’t keep Cigar from being accorded a second straight Horse of the Year honor in 1996.
Ferdinand was eighth of 11 in his career racing debut for Hall of Fame trainer Charlie Whittingham at Del Mar on September 8, 1985 with the only comment in the Daily Racing Form chart being “outrun.” But the legendary trainer didn’t expect much in a six-furlong inaugural for a horse that in Charlie’s eyes had “distance” written all over him. That same year, Whittingham had taken jockey Bill Shoemaker to Ferdinand’s Del Mar stall and said, “This is the one we’re going to win the Derby with.” The following May, they did,
In 1987, Ferdinand was back at Del Mar to win the since-discontinued Cabrillo Handicap, the second of four straight stakes victories — the others being the Hollywood Gold Cup, Goodwood and Breeders’ Cup Classic (by a nose over 1987 Kentucky Derby winner Alysheba) that made for Horse of the Year acclaim.
Ack Ack was shipped west and turned over to Whittingham’s care early in 1970 and made his only Del Mar appearance an impressive one with a five-length allowance level victory in a time for 5 ½ furlongs of 1:02 1/5, a track record that stands to this day. A year later, Ack Ack – a winner of 19 of 27 career starts — became the inaugural Eclipse Award winner as Horse of the Year.
The Eclipse Awards are voted upon by members of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, Daily Racing Form and National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association. Prior to 1971, the TRA and Daily Racing Form separately chose their own champions.
Seabiscuit’s 80th career start, and his only one at Del Mar, was in the match race against Ligaroti on August 12, 1938, a nation-gripping event broadcast coast-to-coast on network radio that is said to have put Del Mar “on the map.” A similar showdown victory for “The Biscuit” over War Admiral three months later at Pimlico left no doubt as to who would be Horse of the Year.
And, as things have turned out, the first of nine to have left indelible hoofprints at Del Mar.
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