1. CURLINThe decade's only two-time Horse of the Year was a tough-as-nails gamer who, according to trainer Steve Asmussen, "got better the more he got stretched out [pushed hard] in a race." Curlin came back on Street Sense in the 2007 Preakness to score one of the grittiest big-race victories in recent racing history, and then became just the second three-year-old in the 2000s to win the Breeders' Cup Classic. His owners did racing a favor by keeping him on the track as a four-year-old, and he won three more Grade I races before retiring.
2. ZENYATTANever beaten in her 14-race career, this Amazonian mare was named by owner and former music executive Jerry Moss after a Police album called Zenyatta Mondatta that he produced in 1980. She closed her career with a dramatic victory as a five-year-old in the 2009 Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita. Bigger and more imposing than many of her male contemporaries, Zenyatta will be ranked as one of the greatest mares of all time.
3. TIZNOWThe only horse in the 26-year history of the Breeders' Cup to win the featured Classic twice -- as a three-year-old in 2000 and four-year-old in 2001. In each case, he held off a top European champion: Giant's Causeway in 2000 and Sahkeein 2001. Both were courageous efforts with victory earned in the final jump. Tiznow won his second title despite a series of injuries that made training and racing difficult.
4. GHOSTZAPPERA true ''freak'' (meant in the most flattering way), the 2004 Horse of the Year's ability to milk uncommon speed over long distances was best evidenced by his dominant victory in the that year's Breeders' Cup Classic. His last race, as a five-year-old, was a breathtakingly easy romp in the 2005 Metropolitan Mile at Belmont Park even though he sustained the injury that ended his career. Probably the best horse -- among many good ones -- ever trained by Bobby Frankel, who died on Nov. 16.
5. POINT GIVENOf all the near-Triple Crown winners in the 2000's -- and there were six who won two of the three races -- none deserved to break the long drought more than the powerful Bob Baffert-trained Point Given. Compromised by a fast pace in the Kentucky Derby, he dominated the Preakness and Belmont and finished his career with a victory in the Travers at Saratoga in August. No three-year-old was better for a season.
6. RACHEL ALEXANDRAHer 2009 campaign may have been the best by any three-year-old filly in history. Twice she beat peers by 20 lengths. She won the Preakness 15 days after winning the Kentucky Oaks. She dominated Belmont-winner Summer Bird in winning the Haskell and closed out her campaign by beating older males with a gutty, hang-on performance at Saratoga in the Woodward. Best part: She might be on this list again in 10 years, because she'll be raced as a four-year-old in 2010.
7. INVASORThe 2006 Horse of the Year had won the Uruguayan Triple Crown as a three-year-old in 2005 before being sold to Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum. His 2006 season included four Grade I victories, culminating with the Breeders' Cup Classic, in which he ran down favored Bernardini in the home stretch at Churchill Downs.
8. AZERIOne of the decade's most decorated horses of any gender, Azeri was voted Horse of the Year in 2002 after winning what was then called the Breeders' Cup Distaff (now the Ladies Classic). She was also voted champion older female for three consecutive years (2002-'04).
9. SMARTY JONESWith a furlong left in the 2004 Belmont Stakes, it seemed certain that he would end the 26-year gap between Triple Crown winners, but after repelling challenges from Rock Hard Ten and Eddington, Smarty Jones was run down in the stretch by Birdstone. Still, his romp through the preps, Kentucky Derby, and Preakness with his wheelchair-bound owner, Roy (Chappie) Chapman, made for a terrific story.
10. HIGH CHAPARRALThe only two-time winner of the Breeders' Cup Turf: in 2002, the same year he won the Epsom Derby and Irish Derby, and in 2003 at Santa Anita, where he dead-heated with Johan. High Chaparral was twice voted the Eclipse Award as champion turf horse.
11. BIG BROWNUnfortunately, he will be remembered for his mysterious last-place finish in the 2008 Belmont Stakes while chasing the Triple Crown. It would be more appropriate to recall the brilliance that preceded it: a five-length romp in the Florida Derby despite breaking from post 12; a 4-3/4-length victory in the Kentucky Derby from post 20; and a laughably easy 5-¼-length win in the Preakness.
12. LAVA MANA modern-day Seabiscuit, Lava Man once ran as a two-year-old for a $12,500 claiming tag and retired four years later having earned nearly $5.2 million in purses and 12 major stakes races in California. He won the Hollywood Gold Cup three times and twice he took the big 'Cap at Santa Anita, the second time in 2007. Although he never won outside California, Lava Man will be remembered as one of the most inspirational horses of the decade.
13. FUNNY CIDEThis speedy son of Distorted Humor did plenty on the track, winning the 2003 Kentucky Derby (he was the first gelding since 1929 to take the roses) and Preakness, the latter by nearly 10 lengths, before falling shy of the Triple Crown by losing to Empire Maker in a muddy Belmont Stakes. Of no use in a breeding shed, Funny Cide ran four more years before retiring in 2007, but will be best remembered for his Everyman ownership that included five high school buddies from a small town in upstate New York, who bought him for a paltry $75,000 in 2002. They rode to races in a yellow school bus and made greatness seem possible for commoners against the wealthy kings of racing.
14. AFLEET ALEXLike Point Given four years earlier, Afleet Alex won the final two legs of the 2005 Triple Crown. His victory in the Preakness, in which he was knocked nearly to his knees by Scrappy T at the top of the lane and recovered to win going away, was one of the most remarkable big-race recoveries in racing history. He blew away the field in the Belmont Stakes, in what would be his final race.
15. SAINT LIAMA late-blooming colt who was unraced as a three-year-old, Saint Liam began to blossom at four and was narrowly beaten by the great Ghostzapper (No. 4 on this list) in the 2004 Woodward Stakes. That paved the way for a brilliant 2005 in which Saint Liam won four Grade I stakes, culminating with the Breeders' Cup Classic, and was voted Horse of the Year.
16. RAGS TO RICHESPrior to 2007, no filly had won the Belmont in more than a century, but on June 5, 2007, Rags To Riches beat the tough and brilliant Curlin (No. 1 on this list) by a desperate nose. That performance may have required everything that the filly had to give, as she ran only once more.
17. STREET SENSEFor 22 years, no winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile had gone on to win the Kentucky Derby the following year. Street Sense broke the curse by winning the 2006 Juvenile with a brave, rail-skimming trip under jockey Calvin Borel. Six months later in the Derby, Borel took him down low again to bag the roses. Before the '07 campaign was finished, Street Sense would tack on wins in the Jim Dandy and Travers at Saratoga.
18. MINESHAFTWinner of seven major races in 2003, Mineshaft did not run in that year's Breeders' Cup because of injuries that caused his retirement with a 10-3-1 record in 18 starts and earnings $2,283,402. However, his July victory over eventual Classic-winner Volponiin the Suburban Handicap at Belmont Park helped make him the overwhelming choice as Horse of the Year as well as champion older horse.
19. BIRDSTONEHe's here not just for his stunning upset that denied Smarty Jones the 2004 Triple Crown (after which trainer Nick Zito said to Smarty's John Servis, "I'm sorry'"), but for his impact in the breeding shed. In 2009, Birdstone's progeny won two legs of the Triple Crown, as Mine That Bird stunned the field in the Kentucky Derby and Summer Birdwon the Belmont.
20. PEPPERS PRIDEThis mare never ran outside her home state of New Mexico, which means that she never faced top-class competition. She also never lost in 19 career starts, a record for any North American racehorse. Peppers Pride broke the previous record of 16 consecutive victories with a win at Zia Park Racetrack on Oct. 4, 2008. She was retired in 2009 and bred to the regal Tiznow, which will provide a interesting test case as to whether a mare from the wrong side of racing's tracks can combine with a Prince Charming to produce greatness.
BEST RACE OF THE DECADE: The 2007 Belmont StakesThe filly Rags to Riches hung on to beat future two-time Horse of the Year Curlin in a stirring duel down the long homestretch. She became the first filly in more than 100 years to win the Belmont, but Curlin distinguished himself even in defeat, flashing the toughness and stamina that marked his career.
BEST JOCKEY: Jerry BaileyHe rode barely half the decade and retired in January 2006 with a career total of $295 million in purses (second only to PatDay's $298 million), but Bailey won the last four of his unprecedented seven Eclipse Awards from 2000-'03. Not only did he ride a long list of great horses -- including Congaree, Empire Maker, Uo, Medaglia D'Oro and Saint Liam -- he also became the prototype for the bi-coastal, jockey-on-call for nearly every big trainer looking to get a competitive edge in a major stakes race. (All this overlooks the 2004 Belmont; see below).
Honorable mention: Calvin BorelNeither Borel's wins nor purses stack up against the Eclipse-winning jockeys of the decade, but no other rider won the Kentucky Derby twice, and certainly no other rider won two by diving to the inside rail where the racetrack is most dangerous.
BEST TRAINER: Todd PletcherAlas, Pletcher is best known by a Triple Crown-centric public for failing to win the Kentucky Derby with 22 starters since 2000. Outside of that one race, however, Pletcher was a machine, particularly through the middle of the decade, when he won four consecutive Eclipse Awards (2004-'07). In 2005, he set a record that still stands by saddling 93 stakes winners in a single year.
Honorable mention: Steve AsmussenLike Pletcher, Asmussen trains a huge stable of more than 300 horses owned by the some of the wealthiest people in the world. And like Pletcher, he produces for his owners, with a record 622 wins in 2008 and brilliant work with the likes of Curlin and Rachel Alexandra.
BEST PERFORMANCE: Afleet Alex, 2005 PreaknessThe little colt and his rider, former high school wrestler Jeremy Rose, both displayed stunning athleticism after being clipped and pitched forward at the head of Pimlico's stretch. Rose stayed on board and Alfeet Alex righted himself to win the second jewel of the Triple Crown going away. Most horses that are hit so hard fall down, often seriously injured. Of those who stay upright, most are too discouraged to carry on. Of those who carry, most would be too disrupted to win. A truly epic effort by a great athlete. Make that two great athletes.
Honorable mention: Bellamy Road, 2005 Wood MemorialOn the second weekend in April, Bellamy Road ran what may have been the greatest Kentucky Derby prep race in history, winning the venerable Wood Memorial by a record 17 lengths under a hand ride from Javier Castellano. Bellamy Road seemed certain to give George Steinbrenner a Derby winner in his dotage. Instead, the colt was cooked by a fast pace on Derby day and raced just once more, finishing a game second in the Travers at Saratoga.
BEST INNOVATION: The Medication MovementThoroughbred racing is enmeshed in a confusing and often harmful medication culture. Horses have long been administered a variety of drugs to help them run faster or, in some cases, to simply allow them to run, often at great risk to the animal. As the decade drew to a close, a Racing and Medication Consortium had been formed to help create uniform policies. Steroids had been outlawed in the Kentucky Derby as well as in most states where racing is conducted. Testing procedures had been tightened in many jurisdictions. Much work remains to be done, but important steps were taken.
Honorable mention: The Blimp-CamTelevision had never quite been able to portray the split-second timing that is involved when jockeys ride racehorses in intensely competitive and dangerous races. That changed on the first Saturday in May 2007. Minutes after Calvin Borel rode Street Sense to victory, NBC showed a replay from a blimp cruising above Churchill Downs. It captured him gunning his mount from last to first, almost entirely through tiny holes on the rail. NBC did it again two years later when Borel won from the inside on Mine That Bird. His last hole, in the homestretch, was barely wider than the horse.
WORST INNOVATION: Synthetic tracksThe jury remains out. Synthetic racing surfaces, as an alternative to traditional dirt tracks, have been portrayed by supporters as a panacea that will help drastically reduce catastrophic injuries. Critics argue synthetics have introduced an entirely new set of soft-tissue injuries that will have equally damaging effects on the sport. Data released by a California commission just before the Breeders' Cup indicates that synthetic tracks might be reducing injuries, but anecdotal evidence is less supportive. Aside from injuries, synthetics have altered handicapping and historical perspective by introducing a third surface (in addition to dirt and grass) that makes comparison of horses and eras almost impossible.
BIGGEST NEAR-MISS: Smarty Jones's Belmont lossFans will remember him staggering in the final furlong as Birdstone inexorably ran him down. Racing insiders will always recall how the esteemed Bailey, on board no-hoper Eddington, pressured Smarty Jones and in-over-his-head jockey Stewart Elliott on the backside, forcing them into an early speed duel. Maybe Elliott could have done a better job of pulling off the heat, but Smarty Jones was a speed horse. He wanted to run. It's part of Bailey's otherwise sterling legacy that on one big day, he rode not to win, but to prevent somebody else from winning. Had Smarty Jones won, racing could have finally taken a deep breath and ceased to wonder when its next Triple Crown winner would arrive.
MOST PAINFUL MOMENT (besides Barbaro): Eight Belles dies at the Kentucky DerbyBig Brown impressively won the 2008 Kentucky Derby, drawing away in the homestretch. He was chased home by a brilliant filly named Eight Belles. While the crowd and Churchill Downs saluted a new champion, Eight Belles galloped around the turn and suddenly pitched forward into the dirt, with both of her front ankles shattered. It was a rare injury, from which there was no hope of recovery. Eight Belles was euthanized on the track as the sport was once again forced to temper a celebration of greatness with heavy sadness.
BEST USE OF $2: Straight-up exacta, Giacomo over Closing Argument in the 2005 Kentucky DerbyThey went 22.28 seconds for the ¼-mile, 45.38 to the half, and 1:09.59 for six furlongs that day at Churchill Downs. Everybody up front got cooked, and Giacomocame rolling down the lane to win at 50-1 odds. Closing Argument was second at 72-1, even longer than Spanish Chestnut, a rabbit. "We were longer than a horse that wasn't even trying to win the race," trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said. The exact payoff: $9,814.80 for a $2 wager.
Barbaro breaks down in the Preakness; May 20, 2006After his dominant performance in the Kentucky Derby, it looked like Barbaro might be racing's next super horse. Tall and powerful, he gobbled ground like a machine. Two weeks later, he suffered a catastrophic injury to his right rear leg in the first furlong of the Preakness, breaking down in front of a full grandstand and a TV audience of millions. Thanks to the largesse of his owners and the work of gifted surgeon Dr. Dean Richardson, Barbaro lived eight more months before succumbing to complications from laminitis, but his battle for life engaged fans in ways that merely competing on the track could not have. That is his enduring legacy.
Zenyatta wins the Breeders' Cup Classic; Nov. 6, 2009As the crowning moment in her unbeaten career, five-year-old mare vanquished the boys in the 2009 Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita Park. Her stretch-run victory left fans gasping for air and media searching for superlatives as Zenyatta came from a hopelessly beaten last to circle the field and win going away.
Kentucky pols vote down slots; June 22, 2009It bothers purists that the Sport of Kings and its grand (sometimes crumbling) racetracks might no longer be able to survive without giving a little bit of their souls to slot machines and other gambling enterprises designed to engage the modern player. Several states have used slots to generate revenue that keeps their purse structure viable. It is an arrangement that the Whitneys and Vanberbilts never envisioned -- racetrack visitors camped in front of slot machines instead of gazing upon horseflesh in the paddock between races or sipping champagne in the clubhouse. But it is reality, and every jurisdiction needs to embrace it.
Girl Power; 2000-2009Not only did Zenyatta become the first female to win the Breeders' Cup Classic, but three other brilliant fillies -- all certain to make some future "Greatest of All Time" list -- also competed in the 2000s. Azeri was voted Horse of the Year in 2002 and best female horse three times (2002-'04). In 2007, Rags to Riches became the first filly in more than a century to win the Belmont Stakes. And in 2009, Rachel Alexandra twice beat three-year-old males (in the Preakness and Haskell) and older males in the venerable Woodward.
Smarty Jones falls short in the Belmont; June 5, 2004Four three-year-olds in the decade reached the Belmont Stakes with a chance to win the Triple Crown. Of those four, Smarty Jones came closest, losing to fast-closing Birdstone in the final sixteenth of a mile. His defeat left Affirmed in 1978 as the last Triple Crown winner, a distinction he still holds.