Favorite Five: Joe Nevills’ Favorite Races Of All Time

Social media has produced a seemingly never-ending list of conversation starters to pass the time during the COVID-19 pandemic, prompting users to share their favorite horses, races, stories, photos, and videos.

Paulick Report bloodstock editor Joe Nevills has combined a few of those topics to take a look back on the five most important horse races of his life and career – both for what happened on the track and off.

The races are listed in chronological order, not necessarily in order of preference. To ensure variety, the focus horse (or horses) in a race can only be included on the list once.

1) 2004 Belmont Stakes – Smarty Jones’ Triple Crown bid denied
Belmont Park, June 5, 2004

Don’t get it twisted, I was a big Smarty Jones fan. Like most of the folks that crammed around the television sets in the non-smoking section of the Mount Pleasant Meadows simulcast, I watched this race thinking this unbeatable hero would be the one to finally halt the Triple Crown drought and give us a moment I hadn’t experienced in my lifetime.

Then, he didn’t.

I knew plenty about losing. The sports teams I joined in grade school were usually mediocre, and I’d watched plenty of Triple Crown hopefuls get snuffed out at Belmont Park. This one, though, felt different.

The defeat in Tom Durkin’s voice when Birdstone got past Smarty Jones is etched in history. What I’ll remember, though, was the anguish felt by the crush of people in my vicinity. People were openly weeping as they filed out to throw their souvenir tickets in the garbage. We’ve seen plenty of footage of racing fans experiencing the euphoria of victory, but up to that point in my life, I’d never witnessed a horse race that drew out this kind guttural emotion from a group of people who would otherwise be relatively indifferent to the sport – especially for a race where the defeated hero walked off the track perfectly healthy.

In this race, I truly learned the emotional response that a horse in competition can generate. The defeats always stick with you longer than the wins ever could, and even after we’ve had two horses since then win the Triple Crown, the one that got away – and the feeling it gave everyone in that room – remains as fresh as either one.

2) Royal Charley’s debut race
Great Lakes Downs, June 21, 2004

Like it says at the top, these are in chronological order, but this would have been my number one if I were ranking them by preference. Put simply, this was the race that helped me decide what I wanted to be when I grew up.

Royal Charley was one of the final products of my grandpa’s breeding program and the last one he ran as a homebred. At the time, he was an extremely rank 4-year-old making his debut start in a $5,000 maiden claimer. I’d been to plenty of races at Great Lakes Downs and Mount Pleasant Meadows before this, but Charley was the first horse whose presence demanded my attention. This was largely in the interest of my own safety and that of those around me, but I was paying attention all the same.

My family stood in the pouring rain as this rampaging gelding turned his rage into focus for 48 seconds and change and drew off to win a four-furlong race by 5 1/2 lengths. It remains one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen.

From that point on, following Charley became the thing that helped keep me on the path through the end of high school and into college. Five years after he retired from racing – and just days before I was headed out to cover the Preakness Stakes for Thoroughbred Times – I learned that he’d ended up as a foxhunter for a woman just outside of Baltimore. To my amazement, the horse once deemed by a rival trainer to be the rankest animal at Great Lakes Downs was obediently popping over jumps and following his new owner without even a leadrope to command him.

This is very much the Cliff’s Notes version of what happened. If you want the full account of Royal Charley’s first race, his life after the track, and his effect on my life and career, I invite you to read my story “Finding Charley.”

3) 2008 Stephen Foster Handicap – Curlin’s comeback
Churchill Downs, June 14, 2008

I took an internship with Thoroughbred Times during the summer between my junior and senior years at Central Michigan University. It also happened to coincide with the 4-year-old campaign of the best colt of his generation.

Curlin targeted the Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap for his comeback race after winning that year’s Dubai World Cup, and I was pegged to write the race recap for Thoroughbred Times TODAY, the publication’s daily pdf newsletter. This was my first on-site racetrack assignment, and I was getting a crack at one of the tentpole races of the Churchill Downs stakes calendar featuring the defending Horse of the Year. No pressure, kid.

I grew up around Belgian Draft Horses, so I never found the size of a Thoroughbred terribly intimidating. Then, Curlin walked by in the Churchill paddock on his way out to the track and I reflexively blurted out a four-letter word. The horse was a specimen, and at the peak of his game. The aura around that kind of athlete is real.

Curlin shrugged off the dreaded “Dubai bounce” and won the race handily. Then, things started getting fast – run down the jockey, get his thoughts on the trip, get back to Steve Asmussen in time to join the scrum of reporters around him, get back up to the press box, write, and write well, because this is your best chance of getting a full-time job being what you wanted to be when you grew up.

That internship, and especially that race, was a turning point for me. I survived. They didn’t hate the copy. This was plausible. I could do this. I returned to CMU that fall with the sole mission of getting back to Kentucky and getting a job with Thoroughbred Times. I started my own blog – The Michigan-Bred Claimer – took as many trips and freelance gigs as I could, and three years later, that goal became a reality.

4) 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic – Zenyatta vs. Blame
Churchill Downs, November 6, 2010

While Curlin’s Stephen Foster was a big event, this was the first race I covered where it felt like honest-to-God history was being made in front of me.

I was covering the event as a freelancer for Thoroughbred Times, and the buzz around Zenyatta heading into the race was at a fever pitch. Standing between the unbeatable mare and a trip into the sunset with a 21-0 record was arguably her most daunting test to date. A horse and a race of this magnitude drew in fans and media from around the world, many of whom I’d meet for the first time and soon list among my contemporaries and closest friends.

Then, Zenyatta lost the race.

I watched it from the balcony of the old Churchill Downs press box, which had the kind of view that made you feel like a king looking over his subjects. Working out of that press box and having that vantage point of the races is at least 10 percent of the reason why I wanted to have this job once I knew it existed.

Announcer Trevor Denman noted Zenyatta’s usual position at the back of the field across the first turn, and I could hear an audible chuckle from the crowd, who at this point had seen this movie enough times to know how it’s supposed to end. She moved perhaps a little later than usual and got into a bit of traffic trouble, but she was still zeroed in on her prey, top-class older male Blame.

From my vantage point several stories in the clouds, I watched as tens of thousands of spectators leaned hard to the right in unison to will the mare past the leader in those final strides, but there wasn’t enough real estate. Watching Zenyatta come back to unsaddle somewhere other than inside the winner’s circle was an uncanny sight.

What truly stuck out about this race, though, was what happened the morning after. Finally relieved of her duties as a racehorse, Zenyatta’s connections shared her with the bystanders outside her barn, allowing photo opportunities with the fans and media on her side of the fence, and allowing ample time for the masses on the other side of the fence to pour out their affections to the horse. It was a level of love I’d never seen toward a racehorse before or since. Curlin was the first truly great horse I got to cover, but Zenyatta was the first truly special one.

If you’re locked in and especially bored, I wrote extensively about this weekend on my old blog, and shot a bunch of pictures. The links can be found below.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

5) Quick and Rich’s debut race
Mount Pleasant Meadows, August 31, 2013

In truth, the race I should probably put here is Quick and Rich’s incredible upset victory in the 2017 G1 President of the U.A.E. Cup at Churchill Downs, but that effort wouldn’t mean nearly as much if not for this one that preceded it.

Quick and Rich is an Arabian racehorse born about 45 minutes south of Mount Pleasant Meadows in central Michigan. Mount Pleasant was the state’s home for Arabian racing until its closure at the end of the 2013 meet, but that final meet produced what could be the most successful horse of any breed to set foot on its sandy loam.

I’d be lying if I said I saw anything resembling the spark of greatness that would carry Quick and Rich to a pair of Grade 1 victories, two Darley Award nominations, and starts around the country, even globetrotting to Abu Dhabi to run a respectable sixth in what was then the world’s richest race for the breed.

That said, with the benefit of hindsight, Quick and Rich did a few things in his debut start that qualified him as one to improve. Mount Pleasant was traditionally a track where a horse that gets to the first turn in the lead can usually stay clean for the win photo. In contrast, Quick and Rich was last through the clubhouse turn, but he looped around the field with ease, moving ahead with long strides and overtaking the leader with plenty left in the tank to pile on in the stretch.

It was a good win, but the owners had a lot of good runners, so I didn’t think too much of it at the time. That changed the following year when he moved to Delaware Park – the breed’s top circuit – and became a graded stakes winner.

It’s easy to get jaded toward certain aspects of this sport. When horses come and go at such a rapid pace, it can be hard to get attached to even the best runners. In contrast, Quick and Rich flew the colors of my home state and my home track around the world for seven seasons – even after racing in Michigan itself was a distant memory.

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