-By Dick Jerardi
You know it’s been an unusual year when Horse of the Year voting will come down to a grass horse or a sprinter. No Triple Crown winners like American Pharoah or Justify. No dominant older dirt horses like California Chrome or Gun Runner.
Just an unbeaten in 2019 five-time Grade I winner in great turf horse Bricks and Mortar or a once-beaten four-time Grade I winner in great sprinter Mitole who was versatile enough to win the most prestigious Mile race in America.
I am not sure there is any right or wrong vote here, but, judging by the polling after the Breeders’ Cup, it certainly looks like Bricks and Mortar is going to win when the votes are counted and eventually announced at the Eclipse Awards in January. Bricks and Mortar is going to be my vote and that is no reflection on Mitole.
Beyond having an amazing 2019, it was perhaps even more amazing that Bricks and Mortar made it back to the races at all following a career-threatening right hind leg condition that required surgery by Dr. Larry Bramlage.
Bricks and Mortar probably would have been unbeaten in a brilliant three-year-old season in 2017 were it not for two troubled trips in his final two races when he finished third.
After the surgery, trainer Chad Brown brought the horse back very slowly and brought him back even better than when he left.
Bricks and Mortar won an optional claimer in December after a 14-month layoff. It seemed rather audacious to make the horse’s next start and first of 2019 in the Pegasus Turf at Gulfstream Park. Brown, however, knew exactly what he had and what he was doing.
Bricks and Mortar, under Irad Ortiz, his rider all year, won convincingly. Then he won at Fair Grounds, Churchill Downs, Belmont Park, Arlington Park and, finally, at Santa Anita Park, picking off the Muniz Memorial, the Turf Classic, the Manhattan, the Arlington Million and the Breeders’ Cup Turf over distances ranging from 1 mile to a mile and a half.
In the BC Turf, Bricks and Mortar was stuck in traffic much of the race, surrounded by inferior horses. When he finally got a clear run in the stretch, the five-year-old son of Giant’s Causeway had to make up a few lengths in the final hundred yards to run down 51-1 United just before the wire. It was the perfect ending to a perfect campaign.
Brown had expressed reservations about the mile and a half BC distance, but, in the end, decided to give perhaps his greatest horse a chance. And Bricks and Mortar, who raced in January, March, May, June, August and November, delivered with one final reminder of how consistently great he had been all year.
Mitole raced seven times in 2019 with six wins and a third. The four-year-old son of Eskendereya (interestingly a son of Giant’s Causeway) won at Oaklawn Park (twice), Churchill Downs, Belmont Park, Saratoga and, finally, Santa Anita Park, winning the Count Fleet, Churchill Downs, Metropolitan Mile, Forego and Breeders’ Cup Sprint over distances between 6 furlongs and 1 mile.
His lone loss, a third behind Imperial Hint in the Vanderbilt at Saratoga, can be excused in two ways. Mitole was caught up in a speed duel on a dead rail and had the misfortune of running against Imperial Hint when the “Little Rocket Ship” set the track record for 6 furlongs at Saratoga.
Otherwise, Mitole was perfect, versatile enough to hold off McKinzie in the Met Mile and brave enough to run down the supersonic Shancelot in the BC Sprint.
Mitole’s season was absolutely Horse of the Year worthy, but Bricks and Mortar was just a bit better in races that were a touch more prestigious. So Bricks and Mortar gets my vote, but not without a lot of thought as to just how good Mitole was in 2019.