by Jon White
July 1, 2021
Going all the way back to 2004, I have come up with my list of the Top 10 performances by a Thoroughbred in the United States during the first half of the year for Xpressbet.com.
Starting on New Year’s Day, I keep an eye out for a performance that I deem a possibility for making this Top 10.
A Thoroughbred’s performance can make this list for a variety of reasons, such as:
--A win by a big margin while showing brilliance.
--Recording a fast final time and/or speed figure.
--Being especially game and/or an extraordinary effort in victory or defeat.
--Defeating a particularly strong group of opponents.
--Carrying more weight than usual and/or spotting considerable weight.
--Achieving something historic.
The importance of the race itself also plays a role in determining whether or not I believe a performance deserves to make the list.
Ranked No. 1 halfway through 2020 was Gamine’s scintillating 18 3/4-length win in the Grade I Acorn Stakes at Belmont Park.
Gamine was credited with a 110 Beyer Speed Figure for that win. No 3-year-old of either sex posted a higher Beyer in 2020 from Jan. 1 through June 30.
The margin of victory was the largest in the history of the Acorn, a race that was first run in 1931. Gamine’s final time of 1:32.55 for one mile was a stakes record and just .31 of a second off the 17-year-old track record owned by Najran.
The stakes record for the Acorn once was held by the incredible Ruffian. She won the 1975 renewal of the Acorn by 8 1/2 lengths in 1:34.40.
Gamine’s Acorn turned out to rank No. 2 for the entire year. It was topped only by Swiss Skydiver’s valiant neck victory over Authentic in the Grade I Preakness Stakes on Oct. 3.
Swiss Skydiver became the first filly to win a Triple Crown race since Rachel Alexandra captured the 2009 Preakness.
Only six fillies have won the Preakness: Flocarline (1903), Whimsical (1906), Rhine Maiden (1915), Nellie Morse (1924), Rachel Alexandra (2009) and Swiss Skydiver (2020).
Swiss Skydiver beat the boys in the Preakness. Not only that, by edging Authentic, Swiss Skydiver managed to defeat no less a foe than the Kentucky Derby winner and eventual 2020 Horse of the Year in Authentic.
Swiss Skydiver completed her 1 3/16-mile Preakness journey in 1:53.28, or 1:53 1/5 in fifths. The 1:53 1/5 clocking ranks as the second-fastest clocking ever registered by a Preakness winner.
The legendary Secretariat holds the record for the fastest final time by a Preakness winner. After making a jaw-dropping move from last to first on the clubhouse turn, he won the 1973 renewal in 1:53 flat.
As for the first half of 2021, my list of the Top 10 performances by a Thoroughbred in the United States during the first half of the year is below:
10. MALATHAAT | KENTUCKY OAKS | April 30, 2021 | 1 1/8 Miles (Dirt) | Video
Owner: Shadwell Stable; Trainer: Todd Pletcher; Jockey: John Velazquez
This makes the list due to the gameness displayed by Malathaat to keep her perfect record intact while competing in such an important race.
Fifth early in the field of 13, Malathaat and another undefeated filly, Search Results, staged a fierce battle for the lead throughout the final furlong. Malathaat, sent away as the 5-2 favorite, won by a neck in 1:48.99. Search Results gave it her all, but ultimately had to settle for second at odds of 5-1. Will’s Secret finished third at 26-1.
The Beyer Speed Figure for Malathaat’s victory in the race was nothing to rave about. The 3-year-old Kentucky-bred Curlin filly recorded a 95 Beyer. But if there was such a thing as a number for Malathaat’s determination, it would have been a biggie for this performance.
Additionally, Malathaat’s Kentucky Oaks win was validated to some extent when Search Results subsequently regained her winning ways by taking the Grade I Acorn Stakes at Belmont Park on June 5.
9. MAXFIELD | STEPHEN FOSTER STAKES | June 26, 2021 | 1 1/8 Miles (Dirt) | Video
Owner: Godolphin; Trainer: Brendan Walsh; Jockey: Jose Ortiz
This performance made this list primarily for the electrifying move Maxfield made.
Unhurried early while racing sixth in the field of nine, Maxfield passed rivals with a rush on the far turn, described this way by track announcer Travis Stone: “Around the far turn, Sprawl has taken the lead with three furlongs to go. Empty Tomb gives way toward the rail. Maxfield, with a blitz on the far turn, [is] sixth, fifth, fourth, third, second and now first at the quarter pole! Maxfield takes charge at the top of the stretch!”
After Maxfield opened a commanding lead of about five lengths between the eighth pole and sixteenth pole, Ortiz just allowed the 4-year-old Kentucky-bred Street Sense colt to coast home to a 3 1/4-length victory in 1:48.53 as the 2-5 favorite.
This was Maxfield’s seventh win in eight career starts. His only defeat prior to the Stephen Foster came when he finished third (behind Idol and Express Train) as the 11-10 favorite in the Grade Santa Anita Handicap on March 6.
What Maxfield did on the far turn in concert with Stone’s call is eerily similar to what happened in the 1970 Washington State Breeders Handicap at Playfair Race Course in Spokane, Wash. Early in that one-mile race, Turbulator was last in the field of 10 while racing 20 lengths off the lead.
Turbulator zoomed past rivals on the final turn so rapidly that it was absolutely breathtaking. This was how track announcer Jim Price described it: “Around the far turn, it’s Fosket in front by a length and a half. Feed King is second a head on the outside. Knute K. is third, Melmitch is fourth, and now Turbulator is sixth, he’s fifth, he’s fourth, he’s third, he’s second and going for the lead! They’re into the stretch, it’s Fosket in front by two lengths. Turbulator is flying on the outside! It’s Turbulator now in front, Fosket and Melmitch. Down to the wire, it’s Turbulator!”
Not only did Turbulator win by two lengths after being 20 lengths behind, he did so despite packing 134 pounds. Larry Pierce rode Turbulator. Years later, Pierce talked about the roar that he heard from the crowd of 7,257 screaming fans during Turbulator’s fantastic rally.
“When we were turning for home, I could really hear the crowd,” Pierce said. “I’d never heard anything like it before.”
8. MYSTIC GUIDE | RAZORBACK HANDICAP | February 27, 2021 | 1 1/16 Miles (Dirt) | Video
Owner: Godolphin; Trainer: Mike Stidham; Jockey: Luis Saez
In his 2021 debut, Mystic Guide won this race by six widening lengths at odds of 2-1 while completing 1 1/16 miles on a track labeled sloppy in 1:44.33. Silver Prospector ran second at 6-1. Owendale, the 7-5 favorite, finished third in the field of seven.
Mystic Guide received a 108 Beyer Speed Figure for his win in the Razorback. The 108 tied for the third-highest Beyer during the first half of 2020.
In his next start on March 27, Mystic Guide won the Group I, $12 million Dubai World Cup by 3 3/4 lengths (a performance that does not qualify for this list in that the race was not in the United States).
Thanks to Mystic Guide’s daylight victories in the Razorback and Dubai World Cup, the 4-year-old Kentucky-bred Ghostzapper colt occupied the top spot in the final NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll during the first half of 2021.
Below is the Top 10 in the June 28 NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll:
Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)
1. 305 Mystic Guide (21)
2. 268 Letruska (2)
3. 253 Maxfield (5)
4. 229 Silver State
5. 219 Domestic Spending (6)
6. 185 Essential Quality (1)
7. 87 Monomoy Girl
8. 84 Gamine
9. 37 Knicks Go
10. 32 Charlatan
7. MISCHEVIOUS ALEX | CARTER HANDICAP | April 3, 2021 | 7 Furlongs (Dirt) | Video
Owner: Cash is King & LC Racing; Trainer: Saffie Joseph Jr.; Jockey: Jose Ortiz
Third early in the field of five, Mischevious Alex took command a furlong out and drew away to win in dominant fashion by 5 1/2 lengths as the 4-5 favorite. The 4-year-old Kentucky-bred Into Mischief colt completed seven furlongs in 1:23.97.
Mischevious Alex logged a laudable 109 Beyer Speed Figure for his performance in the Carter. From a Beyer standpoint, no one recorded a higher figure during the first half of 2021. Only one horse matched that figure. Essential Quality likewise received a 109 Beyer for his victory in the Belmont Stakes.
6. LIFE IS GOOD | SAN FELIPE STAKES | March 6, 2021 | 1 1/16 Miles (Dirt) | Video
Owner: CHC Inc & WinStar Farm; Trainer: Bob Baffert; Jockey: Mike Smith
After Life Is Good began his racing career with a 9 1/2-length victory at Del Mar last Nov. 27, some questioned if he also would be able to win going farther.
In his next start, Life Is Good did indeed succeed going farther. He won Santa Anita’s one-mile Sham Stakes by three-quarters of a length on Jan. 2. But the smaller margin of victory led some to wonder if going farther than one mile would prove to be a problem for the 3-year-old Kentucky-bred Into Mischief colt.
Life Is Good demonstrated in the 1 1/16-mile San Felipe Stakes that going farther than one mile was not even close to being a limit for him in terms of distance. He won the San Felipe by eight lengths.
“Life Is Good, breaking from the rail, used his natural speed to open a clear lead into the first turn, and his six rivals never had a chance,” Daily Racing Form’s Jay Privman wrote. “He drew clear through the lane while drifting out, yet still stopped the timer in 1:42.18 for 1 1/16 miles, a time that compares favorably with the 1:43.86 recorded by his older stablemate, Mastering, when winning an allowance race earlier on the card on the fast main track.”
The fractions were :23.63, :46.83, 1:10.55 and 1:35.46. Secretariat.com’s Steve Haskin pointed out that even though Life Is Good “was on cruise control, he still went the three-quarters in 1:10 2/5, which was two full seconds than [older horses] ran in the Big ’Cap” on the same card. The six-furlong fraction in the 1 1/4-mile Santa Anita Handicap was 1:12.26.
“What was noteworthy about this race was that he was setting quick fractions while seemingly doing it under control, not acting like a runaway freight train as in his debut or his similarly headstrong effort in the Sham,” Privman also wrote regarding Life Is Good’s San Felipe. “In the two months since the Sham, Life Is Good has been trained to not blast off.”
Life Is Good drifted all the way out to about the 10 path during the stretch run of the San Felipe. How dominant was Life Is Good? Smith speculated that if the colt had run straight, he might have won by 15.
In Life Is Good’s first two stakes races, the Sham and San Felipe, he ran quite a bit faster than Authentic did in the same two races. Authentic would go on to win the Grade I Haskell Invitational, Grade I Kentucky Derby and Grade I Breeders’ Cup Classic en route to being voted 2020 Eclipse Awards as Horse of the Year and champion 3-year-old male.
Authentic’s final time when he won the one-mile Sham by 7 3/4 lengths was 1:37.57. Life Is Good completed the distance in 1:36.63.
When Authentic won the San Felipe by 2 1/2 lengths, his final time for 1 1/16 miles was 1:43.56. Life Is Good stepped the distance in 1:42.18.
Authentic received a 90 Beyer in the Sham, a 98 in the San Felipe.
Life Is Good was credited with a 101 Beyer in the Sham, a 107 in the San Felipe. The 107 ranked as the third-highest Beyer during the first half of 2021 by a 3-year-old male or female.
The San Felipe turned out to be Life Is Good’s final start during the first half of the year. He emerged from a snazzy six-furlong workout in 1:11.40 at Santa Anita on March 30 with a hind ankle injury that required surgery.
On June 24, Life Is Good returned to the work tab when timed three furlongs in :37.00 at Keeneland. WinStar president and CEO Elliott Walden revealed that same day in a text to horseracingnation.com that Life Is Good will have a new trainer going forward.
“Life Is Good worked this a.m. with our farm trainer, Destin Heath at Keeneland,” Walden was quoted as saying in a horseracingnation.com story written by Victor Ryan. “His team has done a wonderful job getting back to the work tab. He went 37 and out in :49.2. The plan is to ship to Todd Pletcher in the coming weeks with the possibility of running in New York later this year.”
5. ROMBAUER | PREAKNESS STAKES | May 15, 2021 | 1 3/16 Miles (Dirt) | Video
Owner: John & Diane Fradkin; Trainer: Michael McCarthy; Jockey: Flavien Prat
Sixth early in the field of 10, Rombauer charged to the front a little more than a sixteenth from the finish. The 3-year-old Kentucky-bred Twirling Candy colt then drew away to snag the middle jewel of the Triple Crown by 3 1/2 lengths in an 11-1 upset. Midnight Bourbon came in second as the 3-1 second choice in the wagering. Medina Spirit finished third as the 2-1 favorite after having finished first two weeks earlier in the Grade I Kentucky Derby.
Rombauer’s final time of 1:53.62 tied for the sixth-fastest in Preakness history when adjusted to fifths of a second.
These are the 13 fastest final times in the history of the Preakness in fifths:
1:53 flat Secretariat (1973)
1:53 1/5 Swiss Skydiver (2020)
1:53 2/5 Curlin (2007)
1:53 2/5 Louis Quatorze (1996)
1:53 2/5 Tank’s Prospect (1985)
1:53 3/5 Rombauer (2021)
1:53 3/5 Summer Squall (1990)
1:53 3/5 Gate Dancer (1984)
1:53 4/5 Sunday Silence (1989)
1:54 flat Hansel (1991)
1:54 flat Canonero II (1971)
1:54 1/5 War of Will (2019)
1:54 1/5 Codex (1980)
1:54 1/5 Spectacular Bid (1979)
4. LETRUSKA | OGDEN PHIPPS STAKES | June 5, 2021 | 1 1/16 Miles (Dirt) | Video
Owner: St. George Stable; Trainer: Fausto Gutierrez; Jockey: Jose Ortiz
Letruska won with authority by 2 3/4 lengths as the 6-5 favorite. The 5-year-old Kentucky-bred Super Saver mare completed her 1 1/16-mile journey in an excellent 1:41.25. Bonny South ran second. Shedaresthedevil finished third in the field of five.
This was sweet revenge for Letruska. In her only 2021 defeat prior to the Phipps, she had lost by a head when second to Shedaresthedevil in the Grade II Azeri Stakes at Oaklawn Park on March 13.
3. HOT ROD CHARLIE | BELMONT STAKES | June 5, 2021 | 1 1/2 Miles (Dirt) | Video
Owner: Boat Racing, Gainesway Stable (Antony Beck), Roadrunner Racing and William Strauss; Trainer: Doug O'Neill; Jockey: Flavien Prat
It’s highly unusual that a loss would make this list. But that’s an indication of what a wonderful race Hot Rod Charlie ran in defeat when the 3-year-old Kentucky-bred Oxbow colt finished second at odds of 9-2 in the Grade I Belmont Stakes.
Many have expressed the opinion that Hot Rod Charlie ran a better race in the Belmont than the victorious Essential Quality. Look, I get where those who say that are coming from. But the fact is, Essential Quality won.
Nevertheless, there is no question that by going as fast as Hot Rod Charlie did early and still finishing second, he ran a terrific race in the Belmont, an effort considered worthy of ranking No. 3 on this list.
In this year’s Belmont, Hot Rod Charlie seized the lead at once and zipped the opening quarter-mile in :22.78 or :22 3/5 in fifths.
That’s the fastest opening quarter in the long history of the Belmont when contested at 1 1/2 miles. The Belmont was first run in 1867.
The fastest initial quarter before Hot Rod Charlie had occurred all the way back in 1945. That’s when The Doge sped the initial quarter in :22 4/5. Paying the price for such a torrid pace in a 1 1/2-mile race on what was then a deep track, The Doge faltered and finished seventh in the field of eight. Pavot prevailed by five lengths. The Doge lost by a little more than 24 lengths.
There have been 95 editions of the Belmont at 1 1/2 miles. Hot Rod Charlie covered the opening half-mile in :46.49 or :46 2/5 in fifths. The only horse to ever post a faster time for the first half-mile was Secretariat, who was clocked in :46 1/5.
Below are the horses responsible for the only :46 and change fractional times in the history of the Belmont at 1 1/2 miles:
Year Time Horse, Finished (Winner if Different)
1973 :46 1/5 Secretariat, finished 1st
2021 :46 2/5 Hot Rod Charlie, finished 2nd (Essential Quality)
2013 :46 3/5 Frac Daddy, finished last in field of 14 (Palace Malice)
1991 :46 3/5 Corporate Report, finished 4th (Hansel)
1966 :46 3/5 Highest Honors, finished last in field of 13 (Amberoid)
1959 :46 3/5 Manassa Mauler, finished 4th (Sword Dancer)
1996 :46 4/5 Appealing Skier, finished 12th (Editor’s Note)
1957 :46 4/5 Bold Ruler, finished 3rd (Gallant Man)
Secretariat, believed by many to be the greatest Thoroughbred of all time, is the only horse to have ever run the first half of the Belmont as fast as :46 and change and still win.
But the above chart also points out what an admirable race Hot Rod Charlie ran in defeat. Despite recording the second-fastest half-mile time in the history of the race when contested at 1 1/2 miles, he held on well enough to finish second, leaving everyone other than Essential Quality way behind.
Hot Rod Charlie finished 11 1/4 lengths in front of Rombauer, who wound up a distant third in the field of eight.
The following splits all belonged to Secretariat when he won the Belmont by 31 lengths to end a 25-year Triple Crown drought:
:23 3/5, :22 3/5, :23 3/5, :24 2/5, :24 4/5, 25 flat
These were the splits in this year’s Belmont:
:22 3/5, :23 3/5, :25 2/5, :25 1/5, :24 4/5, :24 3/5
Essential Quality, only a head off the leading Hot Rod Charlie at the quarter pole, is the one who ran the final quarter in :24 3/5. All the other splits belonged to Hot Rod Charlie.
Hot Rod Charlie lost by 1 1/4 lengths. Tacking on one-fifth of a second because he lost by that much means that even though Hot Rod Charlie ran the fastest opening quarter in the history of the Belmont when contested at 1 1/2 miles and still managed to run the final quarter in :24 4/5, a fifth of a second faster than Secretariat in his Belmont.
2. DOMESTIC SPENDING | MANHATTAN STAKES | June 5, 2021 | 1 1/4 Miles (Turf) | Video
Owner: Klaravich Stables; Trainer: Chad Brown; Jockey: Flavien Prat
Seventh early in the field of 10, Domestic Spending generated a powerful rally to win going away by 2 3/4 lengths as the 3-2 favorite. He defeated a strong group consisting of Colonel Liam (a multiple Grade I winner), Channel Cat (a Grade I winner), Gufo (a Grade I winner), Masteroffoxhounds (a Grade II winner), Tribhuvan (a Grade II winner), Master Piece (a Group II winner in Chile), Bye Bye Melvin (a Grade III winner), City Man (a multiple stakes winner) and Rockemperor (multiple Grade I placed).
Pacesetter Tribhuvan held on for second. Gufo, the early trailer, came on to finish third.
Domestic Spending completed his 1 1/4-mile trip in a sharp 1:59.08. In fifths, the 4-year-old Great Britain-bred Kingman gelding rocketed home the final quarter-mile in :22 3/5. Domestic Spending registered a 106 Beyer Speed Figure for his win in this race.
The Manhattan was Domestic Spending’s sixth victory in seven lifetime starts. His lone defeat came when he finished third in the Grade II National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame Stakes at the 2020 Saratoga meet.
I consider Domestic Spending’s win in the Manhattan to have been clearly the best performance on the turf in this country during the first half of 2020.
1. ESSENTIAL QUALITY | BELMONT STAKES | June 5, 2021 | 1 1/2 Miles (Dirt) | Video
Owner: Godolphin; Trainer: Brad Cox; Jockey: Luis Saez
Fifth early in the field of eight, Essential Quality won by 1 1/4 lengths. The 3-year-old Kentucky-bred Tapit colt completed 1 1/2 miles in 2:27.11, making it the fifth-fastest Belmont in the last three decades.
The five fastest Belmonts in the last 30 years are listed below:
Time Winner (Year)
2:26.13 A.P. Indy (1992)
2:26.56 Point Given (2001)
2:26.65 American Pharoah (2015)
2:26.82 Tabasco Cat (1994)
2:27.11 Essential Quality (2021)
In fifths, Essential Quality ran the final quarter-mile in the Belmont in :24 3/5. That was faster than Secretariat’s final quarter when he won the 1973 Belmont in the final time of 2:24 flat and smashed Gallant Man’s track record by 2 3/5 seconds. In Secretariat’s fabulous 31-length Belmont victory, he was clocked running the final quarter in :25 flat.
Essential Quality was credited with a 109 Beyer for his win in the Belmont.
To put Essential Quality’s 109 Beyer into historical context, it was the highest figure by a Belmont winner since Empire Maker in 2003.
Essential Quality recorded a higher Beyer in the Belmont than Triple Crown winners American Pharoah and Justify when they took the 1 1/2-mile classic.
American Pharoah’s Beyer when he won the Belmont was a 105. When Justify won the Belmont, his Beyer was a 101.
In fact, Essential Quality’s 109 Beyer is higher than the figures recorded by American Pharoah and Justify in any of their Triple Crown wins.
The American Racing Manual, now digital only and available for free on The Jockey Club’s website, lists Beyer Speed Figures for Belmont winners going as far back as 1990.
Point Given won the 2001 Belmont by 12 1/4 lengths. His 114 Beyer for that race has the distinction of being the highest figure for the Belmont.
The Beyers of 107 or higher for Belmont winners are listed below:
BSF Belmont Winner (Year)
114 Point Given (2001)
111 A.P. Indy (1992)
111 Hansel (1991)
111 Go and Go (1990)
110 Empire Maker
110 Victory Gallop (1998)
110 Touch Gold (1997)
109 Essential Quality (2021)
109 Lemon Drop Kid (1999)
107 Rags to Riches (2007)
Essential Quality’s 109 in the Belmont ranked as the highest Beyer Speed Figure recorded by a 3-year-old male or female during the first half of 2021, as noted below:
Beyer Winner (Finish, Race, Track, Date)
109 Essential Quality (won Belmont at Belmont Park on June 5)
108 Hot Rod Charlie (2nd Belmont at Belmont Park on June 5)
107 Life Is Good (won San Felipe at Santa Anita on March 6)
105 Flightline (won maiden race at Santa Anita on April 24)
101 Life Is Good (won Sham at Santa Anita on Jan. 2)
99 Medina Spirit (2nd Sham at Santa Anita on Jan. 2)
98 Mandaloun (won Risen Star at Fair Grounds on Feb. 13)
97 Proxy (2nd Risen Star at Fair Grounds on Feb. 13)
96 Dream Shake (won maiden race at Santa Anita on Feb. 7)
96 Midnight Bourbon (3rd Risen Star at Fair Grounds on Feb. 13)
96 Essential Quality (won Southwest at Oaklawn on Feb. 27)
Essential Quality’s 109 in the Belmont also tied him with the older Mischevious Alex for the highest Beyer Speed Figure recorded by anyone during the first half of 2021. Mischevious Alex, a 4-year-old colt, also was credited with a 109 for his win in Aqueduct’s Grade I Carter Handicap at seven furlongs.
Below are the highest Beyer Speed Figures recorded during the first half of 2021:
Beyer Winner (Finish, Race, Track, Date)
109 Mischevious Alex (won Carter Handicap at Aqueduct on April 3)
109 Essential Quality (won Belmont at Belmont Park on June 5)
108 Knicks Go (won Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream on Jan. 23)
108 Mystic Guide (won Razorback Handicap at Oaklawn on Feb. 27)
108 Royal Ship (won Californian at Santa Anita on April 17)
108 Country Grammer (won Hol. Gold Cup at Santa Anita on May 31)
108 Hot Rod Charlie (2nd Belmont at Belmont Park on June 5)
The view here is that Essential Quality’s win in the Belmont was the finest performance that occurred on the American racing stage during the first half of 2021.