My oh my how time flies. A couple of blinks and 2021 is in the history books. As we reflect on this past revolution around the sun, it’s time to do a little ciphering and figure out just who will be named as winners in the Hillbilly Horse Awards for 2021. The great thing about Thoroughbred racing is just being a part of the game makes you victorious. Like a good friend once told me “In this sport, the next best thing to winning is losing”. Without further ado…the envelope, please.
ASTRONAUT-THE MILLER PONY BOTTLE
My great uncle, J.O. Brewer, was one heckuva man. Couldn’t read or write but was one sharp cookie. Educated in life and the ways of solid country living he was. We would go to his house early on Saturday and Sunday mornings to rabbit hunt and he would tell us teenage boys to go fetch him one of those little Miller Pony bottles out of the fridge. The top was just kind of pressed down on it and there was a clear liquid in it. A big swallow would quickly tell you this was not at all what it seemed. Something tame like the self-proclaimed champagne of beers it was not. Some highly intoxicating shine straight out the still it was. The winner of the Miller Pony Bottle Award is Astronaut. Trained by John Shirreffs, this strapping son of Quality Road strode into the Del Mar Handicap on August 21st as a 24-1 shot. Looking like less than the backwash in a beer bottle on the tote board, this star-studded field might just swallow him up. Given little shot of blasting off, Astronaut was not viewed as much by the betting public. And then the gates opened and the top came off that Miller Pony. Under an exceptional ride from jockey Victor Espinoza, this fleet-footed four-year-old rolled up the backside and turned for home while keeping the heavily favored United bottled up.Brilliantly breaking to the front Astronaut was a double glugger of that 120 proof. As he crossed under the wire ahead of everyone else it was obvious Astronaut was certainly more than what first glance revealed. And for those that backed him that day, his run was like the contents of that little bottle…Intoxicating!
KNICKS GO- THE BOB-TAILED BEAGLE HOUND
A hillbilly and a hound dog definitely go in the same sentence. My old Pappy had one of the runningest rabbit dogs you would ever find. His name was Jack and he was a tri-color with a bobtail. Fast as lightning and full of spirit, we loved to watch him work in the woods because he hunted with a passion like no other. Afraid of nothing and always ready to run, his ability to track a bunny was top-notch. The heart of a champion and fleet feet to boot made ole Jack awful hard to beat. The Bob-Tail Beagle for 2021 is Knicks Go. If you happened to see this gorgeous gray son of Paynter run you understand the passion of a real racehorse. A romp in the Pegasus Cup was the first of five front-running wins for this Brad Cox-trained superstar. A couple of hiccups around one turn didn’t exactly suit him after the Pegasus, so Cox made the decision to only run him around two turns. Then, like a beagle that jumped a bunny out of a brush pile, Knicks Go was a running machine. His conquering of the Cornhusker at Prairie Meadows was scorching. The Whitney win at Saratoga was more than wow. A romp in Churchill Downs’ Lukas Classic left jaws agape. And then there was the Breeders’ Cup Classic. The best way to describe his effort in this, his first run at a mile and a quarter against the toughest competition… HE FLAT TOTED THE MAIL. Doing what he does best, Knicks Go broke like a shot and completely controlled the biggest race on the U.S calendar. Refusing to be denied, he would not settle for second best…kinda like that old bob-tailed beagle hound.
CeCe- THE FRIED BOLOGNA SANDWICH
When some folks think about bologna they might not totally understand just what kind of delicacy it truly can become. At first glance, you might not think the Frosty Morn or the Elm Hill has a chance to be a winner but then low and behold it gets tossed in the cast iron skillet and Bam!!! Next thing you know a piece of cheese is melted on the slightly charred thick slice and some of Aunt Lilah Belle’s homemade chow-chow relish is dabbed on your mayonnaise toasted bread. So now, here we are looking at a high-rise masterpiece, but then it gets even better. You take a bite out of it and suddenly you are locked in a feeding frenzy. Rapidly closing like a fox on the henhouse when the gate is left open, you devour that fried bologna sandwich with a feeling of deep satisfaction. The Fried Bologna Sandwich for 2021 is a fast closing female named CeCe. Trained by Mike McCarthy, this five-year-old daughter of Elusive Quality has enjoyed a very nice career. Coming into the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint, CeCe was a bit under the radar. That was understandable as a speed demon named Gamine was thought to be the biggest slam dunk on the Cup’s card. Having won this same race in 2020 while establishing a record time, most thought a horse like CeCe was just some simple lunch meat compared to the mighty Gamine. That’s when the Oscar Mayer hit the frying pan. As was expected Gamine broke to the front and CeCe settled off the pace. Pressed every step of the way through solid early fractions, Gamine entered the far turn with a tenuous lead. Swinging wide as the runners turned for home, CeCe bolted to the lead under the expert guidance of jockey Victor Espinoza. Rolling down the lane with authority, CeCe was much the best as she kicked clear by a widening 2 ½ lengths. Underestimated and overdelivering, CeCe provided a quite delicious result for her backers …same as that fried bologna sandwich.
MEDINA SPIRIT-TOP SHELF SHINE
When you think about moonshine, how do you really know if this particular batch is top shelf? With store-bought liquor, it’s easier because of the label on that fancy bottle. We understand that Glenlivet 12 belongs up there because it is identifiable. Same with some Woodford or even a little Remy Martin. But with real shine, you can’t know from a casual look just where it belongs. Housed in some type of container, whether it be re-used (Miller Pony Bottle) or new, it has no label. So how do you know if it should be placed higher up?… You gotta taste it. Medina Spirit is the Top Shelf Shine of 2021. When the year began, at first glance, this son of Protonico was not one you would think of as upper echelon. His pappy had 7 wins in 16-lifetime starts but none came in a grade 1. Originally auctioned for $1,000, he was then sold for $35,000, which is not a top-shelf price for those on the Triple Crown trail. The fact he was trained by Bob Baffert is likely the only reason this batch of corn liquor was even considered for any shelf. But then the cork was pulled out the bottle and we all took a few swallows. Ten-lifetime starts saw him finish in the top three EVERY time. Always running hard once the gates opened, there was never a question about this super competitive Spirit. His win in the Kentucky Derby was simply storybook. Dismissed as an afterthought, his conditioner brilliantly prepared him for a fantastic front-running performance and he delivered a 100 proof effort that needed no chaser. Any questions about which shelf he belonged on were answered with powerful gate-to-wire wins in the Shared Belief Stakes and the Awesome Again Stakes. His final start was a solid second to a dominant Knicks Go in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Unfortunately for all of us, we will never taste the moonshine named Medina Spirit again. The Good Lord called him home in December. When we first saw him we may not have realized who he was, but after a few drinks, we all knew where he belonged. All the human-created drama surrounding Medina Spirit really doesn’t matter when it comes to who HE was. A real racehorse that loves to compete is a special thing…just like that bottle of top-shelf shine.