2006: The way it was

Debate may rage long into the future over who was the best horse this year. There is no question, however, over who was the most compelling.

Whether it was his effortless 6 1/2-length victory in the Kentucky Derby, or his subsequent struggle to survive in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds after sustaining severe fractures in the Preakness Stakes, Barbaro was the face of racing in 2006.

Barbaro came to encapsulate every possible emotion a racehorse can bring forth. Hardened racing veterans and casual sports fans were awestruck by his sublime performance in the Derby. The injuries he suffered two weeks later in the Preakness were a stark, depressing reminder of the fragility of these noble animals. Since then, Barbaro's prognosis has ranged from guarded, to hopeful, to decidedly grim, to encouraging. More than seven months since that fateful May afternoon, Barbaro continues to tug at the heart.

The care Barbaro has received from his owners - Roy and Gretchen Jackson - and his medical staff at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine at New Bolton Center in Kennett Square, Pa., should make him Exhibit A both to cynical outsiders of how racehorses can be treated, and to the insensitive in the sport of how racehorses should be treated.

Barbaro further ignited a debate over racetrack surfaces. There already was a movement toward synthetic surfaces, with Turfway Park, Keeneland, and Woodbine making the switch. Soon after Barbaro's injury, the California Horse Racing Board mandated that all Thoroughbred tracks in the state install synthetic surfaces by the end of 2007. A rash of injuries in the summer at both Arlington Park and Del Mar kept the topic front and center. And heightened sensitivity over the health of racehorses led to heat-related cancellations of racing during early August at tracks like Saratoga and Monmouth Park.

As if Barbaro's saga was not enough, racing offered repeated reminders this year about the fragility of life. Lost in the Fog, last year's champion sprinter, succumbed to cancer three months after winning a stakes race at Churchill Downs. Saint Liam was named 2005 Horse of the Year in January, but months later died in a freak accident during his first season at stud. Electrocutionist won the world's richest race, the Dubai World Cup, but died during the summer in Great Britain. Pine Island rose to become the pro-tem leader of the 3-year-old filly division, then with one bad step in the Breeders' Cup Distaff suffered catastrophic injuries that necessitated her being euthanized minutes later. The stallions Favorite Trick and Saratoga Six died in a barn fire. And when pilots went down the wrong runway in Lexington, Ky., on the morning of Aug. 27, Comair flight 5191 crashed soon after takeoff, killing several horsemen and casting a pall over that close-knit community.

In New Orleans, where in August 2005 there was death following Hurricane Katrina, a rebirth took place as Fair Grounds reopened. Hall of Fame trainer Scotty Schulhofer passed on, but the Hall of Fame gained new inductees Bill Boland and Carl Hanford, as well as Cougar II. Jerry Bailey retired, joining a lengthy list of Hall of Fame jockeys who have retired in the past five years, but a strong group of apprentice riders, most notably Julien Leparoux, looked ready to help fill the void. And when two-time champion jockey John Velazquez was injured at Keeneland in April, Garrett Gomez headed East to become the first-call rider for trainer Todd Pletcher, which helped propel Gomez into contention for his first Eclipse Award. His main rival is Edgar Prado, Barbaro's rider.

It was a record-setting year on the track and off. Russell Baze roared past Laffit Pincay Jr. with victory No. 9,531 to become the winningest jockey of all time. Pletcher, seeking his third straight Eclipse Award, set a single-season record for purse earnings by a trainer with $27,670,243, including earnings from Dubai World Cup Day. At the sales ring, a 2-year-old Forestry colt subsequently named The Green Monkey brought $16 million, a record for a horse sold at auction.

That brought headlines, as did controversies involving trainers and jockeys. At year's end, Pletcher, Steve Asmussen, and Scott Lake - the top three trainers in victories this year - all were serving suspensions for medication violations. Several jockeys at Tampa Bay Downs and Calder Race Course were barred from riding as an investigation, allegedly regarding possible race fixing, began to unfold. An equine herpes outbreak hit Maryland earlier in the year, then a new outbreak struck Florida and California this month.

Farther up the East Coast, the New York Racing Association, fighting to retain control of New York racing, declared bankruptcy, yet soldiered on. A New Jersey state budget crisis forced the temporary suspension of racing at tracks like Monmouth Park and the Meadowlands.

A number of prominent racing figures passed, including owners Roy Chapman, F. Eugene Dixon, Allaire du Pont, Mahmoud Fustok, Charles Hesse, James Hines Jr., Bob Lewis, Sheikh Maktoum al-Maktoum, and Sam Rubin; trainers Joe Garcia, Jose Martin, Bradley Rollins, John Sullivan, and John Zimmerman; jockey Jerry Nichols, steeplechase great Mikey Smithwick, clocker Mickey Solomon, race caller Costy Caras, journalists Joe Agrella and Debra Ginsberg; and racing officials Allen Dragone, Joe Joyce, Sam Siciliano, and Bob Umphrey.

In addition to Pine Island, several outstanding horses died, including Second of June; the stallions Coronado's Quest, Danzig, General Meeting, and Horatius; the mares Brave Raj and Paseana; old-timers Bowl Game and Dave's Friend; and Hall of Famer Precisionist.

Many may want to bid good riddance to 2006. And with the year's many tragedies, that sentiment would be understandable. But racing this year offered lessons - about living for today, and appreciating what you have right now - that oftentimes need reminding, however harshly they are revealed. An investment in the noble struggles of a favorite racehorse touches emotions that cannot be replicated with a deck of cards, or the tug of a slot-machine lever. That is why we keep coming back, looking for the next Barbaro.

Before the calendar gets turned to the new year, here now a look back at 2006, division by division:

Three-year-old males
Barbaro was universally embraced following his Derby victory, and especially after the Preakness, but it bears reminding that he was a) just as good on turf and b) had enough doubters entering the Derby that he was not the favorite. Barbaro won the first three starts of his career on grass before trainer Michael Matz switched him to dirt in the Holy Bull. Then, owing to Barbaro's talent and Matz's confidence in his horsemanship, and his belief that Barbaro had a legitimate shot at the Triple Crown, Matz embarked on what many viewed as a quixotic quest for the Derby. Barbaro raced just once in the 13 weeks between the Holy Bull and the Derby, and his final prep, the Florida Derby, came five weeks before the Derby. No horse had won the Derby off a layoff of that extent in 50 years. Matz proved he was not tilting at windmills. Barbaro exited the Derby with a perfect 6-for-6 record, and plenty of followers who thought he could become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. A furlong into the Preakness, that dream ended.

However, a new star was emerging. Bernardini won the Preakness in only his fourth career start, and his first race around two turns. Subsequent runaway victories in the Jim Dandy, Travers, and against older horses in the Jockey Club Gold Cup made him the front-runner for Horse of the Year entering the Breeders' Cup Classic. But he finished second in that race to the older horse Invasor, setting off a fierce argument over who deserved this division's Eclipse Award: Barbaro or Bernardini?

Jazil won the Belmont, which did not include the Derby or Preakness winners. Bluegrass Cat, who was second in the Derby and the Belmont, captured the Haskell and was second in the Travers. Brother Derek was the star of Santa Anita's winter meeting, with three stakes wins, including the Santa Anita Derby. The other nugget in this rich vein was Discreet Cat, who beat Invasor in the United Arab Emirates Derby, then returned to the United States and recorded three dazzling victories, the last against older horses in the Cigar Mile, to remain unbeaten after six starts. Bernardini, Discreet Cat, the sprinter Henny Hughes, Invasor, and Jazil were among the many top-class horses who campaigned this year for the ruling Maktoum family of Dubai.

Older males
On May 19, Invasor entered the gate for the Pimlico Special, his first United States start, as a 6-1 shot against four rivals. By year's end, he was the front-runner for Horse of the Year. The Argentine import took the Pimlico Special, Suburban, and Whitney, then came off a 90-day layoff to capture the Breeders' Cup Classic against the two other leading candidates for Horse of the Year, Bernardini and Lava Man. His victory was a testament to his talent as well as the training skill of Kiaran McLaughlin, who had Invasor ready for the race of his life despite the time off.

Lava Man won all seven of his starts in California, including the Whittingham on turf and an unprecedented single-season sweep of the Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup, and Pacific Classic at Del Mar. But he ran poorly when he had to leave the state, which has been his Achilles' heel. Brass Hat won the Donn, then was a gallant second in the Dubai World Cup, but was disqualified from that race for a medication violation that left his handlers livid. Seek Gold was the upset winner of the Stephen Foster. He was luckier than Sun King, who lost heartbreakers in the Met Mile and Whitney, and was third in the Woodward. The Woodward winner Premium Tap improved markedly as the year wore on and finished his campaign with a powerhouse performance in the Clark.

Older fillies and mares
This division had some of the year's best races. Round Pond just held off Happy Ticket in a thriller in the Azeri, and then Spun Sugar narrowly beat Happy Ticket in the Apple Blossom. Happy Ticket finally came out on the front end of a head bob when defeating Oonagh Maccool in the Fleur de Lis. Balletto was the female version of Sun King. She was nosed out by Spun Sugar in the Go for Wand, and just missed catching Fleet Indian in the Beldame. Fleet Indian won her first six starts of the year, including the Personal Ensign, before suffering suspensory ligament damage in the Breeders' Cup Distaff.

Healthy Addiction was the most consistent mare in California, where her four victories included the Santa Margarita. But she lost the Vanity to Hollywood Park specialist Hollywood Story, and Star Parade beat both of them in the Santa Maria. Take D' Tour bloomed at Belmont Park, where she won the Ogden Phipps. Pletcher, who had Fleet Indian, Oonagh Maccool, and Spun Sugar in this division, also sent out Pool Land to a victory in the Ruffian against Take D' Tour. Turf specialist Asi Siempre excelled on Polytrack winning the Spinster, then followed that up with a strong performance despite trouble in the Distaff.

Nine of the aforementioned horses were part of the 14-horse field in the Distaff, which was won by Round Pond. There was tragic irony in the Distaff, though. Barbaro's trainer, Matz, and jockey, Prado, won with Round Pond on the Derby track in a race in which Pine Island was horribly injured.

Three-year-old fillies
Balance zoomed to the top of the class at the beginning of the year with victories in the Las Virgenes and Santa Anita Oaks. Bushfire beat her in the Ashland, but then 47-1 shot Lemons Forever knocked off both of them in the Kentucky Oaks. Bushfire rebounded to take the Acorn and Mother Goose, the latter against Pine Island, but then Pine Island exacted revenge in the Gazelle. Wonder Lady Anne L upset Pine Island in the Coaching Club American Oaks, but Pine Island evened that score in the Alabama. The ill-fated Pine Island began the year an unraced maiden, but by her third start was racing in Grade 1 company. She was so highly regarded by Breeders' Cup Day that she was accorded a strong chance to beat older fillies and mares in the Distaff, but she took a tragic final step three furlongs into that race.

Male turf horses
Long-distance specialists Cacique and English Channel had four memorable battles preceding the Breeders' Cup Turf. The pint-sized English Channel won the Turf Classic at Churchill Downs, Cacique took the Manhattan, English Channel fought off Cacique in the United Nations, and then both futilely chased The Tin Man in the Arlington Million, in which Cacique was second. In their final preps for the Breeders' Cup Turf, Cacique captured the Man o' War, and English Channel the Joe Hirsch. But in the Breeders' Cup, they were upset by British invader Red Rocks. Go Deputy won the Sword Dancer before finishing second in the Man o' War and Canadian International. The Tin Man was second in the Dubai Duty Free, then returned home and scored front-running wins in the American and Clement Hirsch in addition to the Arlington Million.

Trainer Eduardo Inda deftly guided T. H. Approval to victories in the San Juan Capistrano and Sunset before a narrow loss to The Tin Man in the Clement Hirsch. The consistent, underappreciated Better Talk Now won the Dixie and was a strong second in the Breeders' Cup Turf. Another old-timer, Collier Hill, relished soft turf in the Canadian International. The best 3-year-old grass runner was Showing Up, who won the Secretariat and Hollywood Derby but could not quite handle older horses in the Man o' War. Perhaps his ascension was due to karma - he is owned by Barbaro's owners, the Jacksons.

Among milers, the brilliant Aragorn polished off four straight victories in California, including setting a course record in the Eddie Read, before finishing second to Miesque's Approval in the Breeders' Cup Mile. Aragorn's trainer, Neil Drysdale, also sent out Becrux to a victory in the Woodbine Mile.

Female turf horses
Two of the most memorable races of the year were the sensational closing charge unleashed by Gorella in the Beverly D., and the popular victory of England's queen, Ouija Board, in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf. Gorella won all four of her starts against females, her only two losses coming against males in the Turf Classic at Churchill Downs and the Breeders' Cup Mile. The well-traveled Ouija Board became the first European-based horse to travel to the Breeders' Cup three straight years. She made it worthwhile, adding a second Filly and Mare Turf victory to her win in 2004.

How good were Gorella and Ouija Board? Ask Film Maker. She was second in both the Beverly D. and the Filly and Mare Turf. She finished in the money in three straight runnings of the Filly and Mare Turf. Talk about being born the wrong year! Wait a While was good on dirt, even better when switched to turf. She was sent West by Pletcher to take the American Oaks and Yellow Ribbon. Pletcher also won the Flower Bowl with Honey Ryder, and the Garden City with Magnificent Song.

Two-year-old males
This was a particularly strong group, and many of the divisional leaders showed up for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. It looked to be a wide-open race on paper, but Street Sense turned it into a laugher. He unleashed a wicked run on the turn and kept on rolling to win by 10 lengths, the largest margin in the history of the Juvenile and the second-largest in Breeders' Cup history. Street Sense tuned up for the Juvenile with a third-place finish at Keeneland in the Breeders' Futurity, which was won by Great Hunter, who downed Hopeful winner Circular Quay. When those three took the first three spots in the Breeders' Cup, it provided a major boost for Keeneland's Polytrack surface.

Horse Greeley defeated Great Hunter in the Del Mar Futurity, but was injured in the Norfolk. The Norfolk winner Stormello was fifth in the Breeders' Cup, but came back to take the Hollywood Futurity. Scat Daddy won the Champagne, but the horse who caught the eye that day was runner-up Nobiz Like Shobiz, who bypassed the Breeders' Cup and then scored a resounding victory in the Remsen. Another colt who skipped the Breeders' Cup, Tiz Wonderful, finished an unbeaten season with a victory in the Kentucky Jockey Club.

Two-year-old fillies
Dreaming of Anna won her debut sprinting on dirt at Arlington Park, took a turf sprint stakes at Colonial, beat the boys in a one-mile grass race at Woodbine, then completed her undefeated, unorthodox season with a front-running victory in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies. Breeders' Cup runner-up Octave won the Adirondack and was second in three stakes, including the Matron behind 34-1 winner Meadow Breeze. Point Ashley looked like a budding superstar with her win in the Del Mar Debutante, but she was upset in the Oak Leaf by Cash Included and did not race the rest of the year.

The fastest guns were in California, which sent out a 1-2-3 sweep of Proud Tower Too, Thor's Echo, and Jet West in the Dubai Golden Shaheen. Another Cal-bred, Bordonaro, won the Ancient Title and the Count Fleet, and lost a controversial Bing Crosby when struck in the face by the whip of jockey Jon Court, who was on the victorious Pure as Gold. Thor's Echo, second in Dubai and in the Ancient Title, made a late-season bid for a championship with victories in the Breeders' Cup Sprint and De Francis Dash. Siren Lure used his powerful late run to claim the Los Angeles, Triple Bend, and Pat O'Brien.

Back East, Henny Hughes looked sensational in the King's Bishop and Vosburgh, but flopped in the Breeders' Cup Sprint. After his win in the Met Mile, Belmont Park specialist Silver Train took the Tom Fool.

McDynamo put himself in position to win his second straight Eclipse Award, and third overall, with late-season victories in the Breeders' Cup Steeplechase and Colonial Cup.