Hibiscus Punch
Hibiscus Punch scored a stunner in the Fritchie. Photo by Jerry Dzierwinski.

With racing back in full swing in 2021, there was plenty of great racing action in the Mid-Atlantic: dazzling performances, surprising upsets, milestone wins and much more.

Here, in chronological order, are some of our favorites and some we’ll remember:

Barbara Fritchie Stakes, Laurel Park, February 20

There were several live contenders in the Grade 3 Fritchie, including 2-5 Hello Beautiful, 3-1 Dontletsweetfoolya, and 7-1 Sharp Starr. But they were all left in the wake of Hibiscus Punch, who went off at 41-1 under Horacio Karamanos and paid $85.60 to win.

“To win it was just over the top,” said Justin Nixon, who trains the mare for owner-breeders Edward Selzer and Beverly Anderson.

Preakness Stakes, Pimlico, May 15

“Rombauer spells relief” is how our headline put it, and after the circus came to town – in the form of the endless “will he or won’t he” questions of whether Bob Baffert’s horses would be permitted to run – it was nice to focus on racing and the big performance of the 11-1 Michael McCarthy-trained winner. Flavien Prat rode the winner.

Rombauer raced only once more, finishing third in the Belmont, and has now been retired.

Race 9, Delaware Park, May 29

When jockey Jaime Rodriguez piloted Muchacho Macho home to win the nightcap at Delaware Park on May 29, it put the cap on quite a start to the season. It was the fifth win of the day for Rodriguez and seventh in the first two days of the meet, and it served notice that he would be a major player during the Delaware meet.

Riding first call for leading trainer Jamie Ness, Rodriguez went on to win 114 races, score at a 27% clip, and dethrone Carol Cedeno as leading rider.

Shine Again Stakes, Pimlico, June 13

The two best sprinting fillies in the region only met once – but what a meeting it was.

It was in the sixth start of her career – when she won the Skipat on the Preakness Stakes undercard – that the then-undefeated Chub Wagon began to garner much attention. But it was this event, when matched against $500,000 earner Hello Beautiful, that brought out her very best.

Chub Wagon was 1-2 and Hello Beautiful 5-2 in the Shine Again, and what a show they put on. Hello Beautiful led most of the way, with Chub Wagon her nearest pursuer. In the lane, a determined Chub Wagon, with regular pilot Jomar Torres up, wore down Hello Beautiful (Sheldon Russell up) to win by a neck.

They would not meet again in 2021. Chub Wagon, trained by Guadalupe Preciado, won three more races but tasted defeat for the first time two races after this. Hello Beautiful, trained by Brittany Russell, also won three more times.

Stormy Blues Stakes. Photo Jerry Dzierwinski.

Stormy Blues Stakes, Pimlico, June 13

Maryland-bred and -based Street Lute had a huge two-year-old season, and, in 2021, a pretty sizable three-year-old campaign, as well, winning four stakes and placing in three others. This five-furlong, off-the-turf contest might have been her best.

Left with a lot to overcome after a tardy beginning and wide every step of the way, Street Lute and Xavier Perez nevertheless rallied four wide to run down Malibu Beauty with those two and Prodigy Doll all within a half-length at the finish.

Street Lute is trained by Jerry Robb for Lucky 7 Stables.

Goldwood Stakes, Monmouth Park, June 25

Pennsylvania-bred Caravel’s time in the spotlight was brief, but still, ya know, spotlighty. She won The Very One in a frantic finish at Pimlico in May, but it was in the Goldwood that she stamped herself a player in her division, winning by over four lengths in a sharp time that was not far off the track record.

Caravel went on to win the Grade 3 Caress for owner-breeder-trainer Elizabeth Merryman before being transferred into Graham Motion’s barn for the latter part of the season. Things didn’t quite pan out thereafter – she lost her final three starts of the season and was sold – but for a couple of months, she turned some heads.

Race 1, Pimlico, June 26

She’sarollingstone, a Bourbon Courage filly owned by Rosalee Davison, debuted a winner wearing her owner’s pink and red silks.

That last – the silks – wouldn’t generally warrant mention, except for what John Davison had to say afterwards: “It was the lucky silks,” he joked following the race. “We had the wrong silks for about six months: they were fuschia and red as opposed to pink and red.”

She’sarollingstone, trained by Damon Dilodovico, hasn’t won since, but at least she was well dressed for her coming out party.

Photo by Allison Janezic.

Delaware Handicap, Delaware Park, July 10

Pace makes the race, so they say, and anyone looking for evidence of that need look no farther than the ’21 Grade 2 Delaware Handicap.

Sent off at 9-2 under Daniel Centeno, Miss Marissa got to the front early and set glacial fractions – 25.15 for the opening quarter-mile, 50.10 for the half – with 8-1 Gibberish her nearest pursuer but always at least a length back. Those two were then able to dash home, running one-two all the way around the track with Miss Marissa winning by a length-and-change.

Miss Marissa, trained by Jim Ryerson for Cammarota Racing LLC, didn’t win in four subsequent starts but now owns two graded triumphs and more than $700,000 in earnings.

Paco Lopez on the deck as Haskell horses fly to the finish. Photo Mark Wyville/EQUI-PHOTO.

Haskell Stakes, Monmouth Park, July 17

It was perhaps the year’s scariest moment and ended up being one of its most compelling pictures.

In Monmouth’s signature event, Hot Rod Charlie and jockey Flavien Prat seemed poised for victory before drifting over in front of a tiring Midnight Bourbon, causing that runner to clip heels, lose his rider, and nearly fall. Hot Rod Charlie crossed the wire first, but was disqualified for the incident, placed last, elevating Mandaloun to the victory.

Midnight Bourbon was fine – he returned to finish second or third in three more Grade 1 events on the season – as was jockey Paco Lopez. But the image of the riderless Midnight Bourbon pursuing the leaders while rider Lopez writhes on the Monmouth dirt will be with us for a long time.

Robert Hilton Memorial, Charles Town Races, August 27

Like singer James Taylor, Exculpatory has seen fire – he was one of the horses in the Anchor and Hope Farm main barn when it burned in 2019 – and he’s seen rain.

In a career in which he’s seen more than most horses – despite having made only seven starts – the Mineshaft colt hit his highest high to date when he won the $150,000 Robert Hilton Memorial Stakes on the undercard of the Grade 2 Charles Town Classic won by Art Collector.

Under jockey Carol Cedeno, Exculpatory pulled away to win the Hilton by a half-dozen. Trained by Mark Reid, he’s a homebred for Grace Merryman and Anchor and Hope Farm.

Virginia Derby, Colonial Downs, August 31

A pretty good case can be made that 2021 was the best year in Colonial Downs’s history, and Virginia Derby day – with nearly $5 million in handle – was probably the track’s greatest day ever.

Wootton Asset sure liked it. The French-bred, trained by Graham Motion, had been brought to the US by owner Madaket Stables LLC to run on firm turn in middle distance races. But he’d had a heckuva time finding those conditions, often running on softer turf, or at longer distances.

Finally, in the Virginia Derby, with Jose Ortiz in the irons, Wootton Asset found firm going and a nine-furlong trip that were both to his liking, and the horse his trainer called “honest” responded with a win by three parts of a length.

Pennsylvania Derby, Parx Racing, September 27

Hot Rod Charlie’d drifted in on Midnight Bourbon in the Haskell, and he drifted out on that rival on Parx’s biggest day. But this time he outgamed that rival to the wire, and there was no change in the order. The win under jockey Flavien Prat earned the horse a kiss from trainer Doug O’Neill.

In earlier Grade 1 starts, Hot Rod Charlie had been DQed in the Haskell (see above), second in the Belmont, third in the Kentucky Derby, and second in the prior year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

Muad’dib after the WV Breeders’ Classic. Photo Allison Janezic.

West Virginia Breeders’ Classic, Charles Town Races, October 9

Muad’dib entered the $300,000 West Virginia Breeders’ Classic with a spotless seven-for-seven record and a last-out win in a running of the Frank Gall Memorial that some called the toughest West Virginia-bred race in years. But could he handle the Classic’s nine-furlong, three-turn distance?

The answer was an emphatic yes, as the Fiber Sonde gelding, ridden by Arnaldo Bocachica, powered to a two-length win to remain undefeated, Trained by Jeff Runco for David Raim, Muad’dib put the exclamation point on a memorable WVBC night, as Raim won five races, Runco took seven, and Bocachica won eight of the nine contests.

Race 4, Presque Isle Downs, October 20

As September turned to October, jockey Mario Pino had a problem. He intended to retire at the close of the Presque Isle Downs season October 20. But he wanted to reach 7,000 wins, and he needed 12 to get there.

Pino, 60, did what he’d done so many times on so many racetracks over so many years: he finished with a rush, and when he steered Enjoy the Music to victory October 20, he had become just the tenth rider to reach that milestone.

He didn’t walk away, though. Instead, Pino kept his remaining mounts on Oct. 20 and honored his commitments the next day.

“This’ll be the last day of riding in my career, so I want to enjoy it,” Pino said. He climbed in the saddle eight more times on Oct. 21 and winning once to end the meet with 7,001 victories.

Maryland Million Distaff, Laurel Park, October 23

Sophomores Street Lute and Malibu Beauty added intrigue to the Maryland Million Distaff, but in the end they were no match for Hello Beautiful, who rolled to a 3 ½-length victory. That gave her three Maryland Million wins in all – two in the Distaff and one in the Lassie.

In so doing, she became just the seventh horse to win three Maryland Million races. She joins national Hall of Famer Safely Kept, win machine Ben’s Cat, and millionaire Eighttofasttocatch, among others, on that small roster.

Hello Beautiful was ridden to victory by Jevian Toledo, and the daughter of Golden Lad was trained throughout her career by Brittany Russell.

What races would you put on the list?