The global pandemic stopped the world this year but not the thoroughbred racing industry.
Racing found a way to continue to operate during the worst of the lockdown and beyond, providing a much-needed outlet for many punters and sports fans.
Despite racecourse attendances being limited all year, on track the competition was as even as ever so determining the top 10 races for 2020 was not going to be an easy task.
My list is not definitive, it’s purely opinion-based and determined primarily on races I was able to attend during this travel-restricted year.
But the ranking of The Everest as the year’s most memorable race is hard to argue against. The Everest has only had four renewals but the build-up is like no other and the race has become a compelling watch, particularly this year’s contest.
Another world-class field of sprinters was assembled at Royal Randwick in October and there was a crowd of sorts on track, albeit capped at around 10,000 due to COVID-19 restrictions, it generated an electric atmosphere not felt on a racetrack anywhere this year due to the pandemic.
For months, the maestro Les Bridge had been confident Classique Legend would win The Everest. Even a surprise loss to Libertini in the Premiere Stakes two weeks before The Everest didn’t dent the trainer’s confidence — and he was proven right!
In The Everest, jockey Kerrin McEvoy was able to find cover midfield early on Classique Legend and then the “Grey Flash” did the rest, unleashing a breathtaking burst of acceleration in the straight to win by more than two lengths.
Classique Legend’s win was enough for him to be rated the world’s best sprinter, a lofty ranking he deserved despite a subsequent flop in Hong Kong where he was found to be lame after the race. Bivouac and Gytrash ran the placings in The Everest and both sprinters came out next start to win major sprints impressively to underline the merit of Classique Legend’s win.
For sheer equine quality, it is impossible to ignore the Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Royal Randwick during The Championships.
English raider Addeybb was simply outstanding, relishing the heavy track conditions to beat Verry Elleegant by nearly three lengths with Japan’s Danon Premium third.
Addeybb then returned to England to win the prestigious Champion Stakes at Ascot, beating some of Europe’s best middle distance weight-for-age gallopers. Trainer William Haggas plans to bring his stable star back to Sydney next autumn to try and go back-to-back in the Queen Elizabeth Stakes.
Farnan was the standout two-year-old last season and followed his wins in the Silver Slipper and Todman Stakes with a deserving Golden Slipper triumph, giving trainer Gai Waterhouse a record seventh win in the world’s richest juvenile race.
But what made this race so remarkable was the eerie emptiness at Rosehill Gardens. The grandstands on Golden Slipper Day are usually packed with raucous race fans but this was the first raceday when the pandemic forced racing to be held behind closed doors — a phenomenon that became the new normal during the autumn and winter months.
It was a shame that punters could not be trackside for Nettoyer’s win in the Doncaster Mile at Randwick on Day One of The Championships, either. This was one of the racing stories of the year as the beer-swilling, pizza-loving mare gave trainer Wendy Roche and jockey James Innes their first Group 1 win.
Bivouac came off his second placing in The Everest with another brilliant sprinting effort down the Flemington straight to win the VRC Sprint Classic from Nature Strip and Libertini. This was a carbon copy of his dominant win in the Newmarket Handicap over the same course and distance earlier in the year and earned the Godolphin sprinter equal top ranking as the world’s best sprinter with Classique Legend.
Ole Kirk’s narrow win over North Pacific to give Team Hawkes the Golden Rose quinella was a thriller. Ole Kirk then won the Caulfield Guineas at his next start to frank the form. These two exciting colts could be anything in autumn.
Verry Elleegant was beaten into second place twice by Addeybb last autumn (Ranvet Stakes, Queen Elizabeth Stakes) but she did win The Tancred Stakes in between those losses. The Chris Waller-trained mare went to another level in spring, winning three Group 1 races including her outstanding effort to hold off English Derby winner Anthony Van Dyck in an epic Caulfield Cup.
For sheer drama, I had to include the Golden Eagle. There were plenty of hard-luck stories in this race and although the heavy track conditions might have favoured Colette, her burst of speed to come from near last and win was very impressive, giving jockey Koby Jennings his biggest career win.
The Melbourne Cup attracted a strong field before an empty Flemington but the winning ride of Jye McNeil on front-runner Twilight Payment goes down as one of the best in the race’s long history.
Gytrash’s story and the sprinter’s sheer ability demanded he be included on this list. Trainer Gordon Richards drove Gytrash by float from Adelaide to Sydney via Bourke to beat the border restrictions and the gelding proved he was the real deal when he ran down Nature Strip to score a first-up win in the Concorde Stakes.
#Next week At The Track looks at the 10 horses to follow in 2021.