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Thrills, spills and surprises

As the compilation below indicates, you could hardly argue that 2011 was anything other than a memorable 12 months in the world of horse racing.

From the heady heights reached by National Hunt stars like Kauto Star, Hurricane Fly and Sizing Europe, to the crushing annihilations inflicted upon an array of equine mortals by the unyielding wrecking ball that is Frankel, 'wow' is a word that just about sums up the most of it.

In such an extraordinary year, casualties were inevitable in assembling a summary such as this. The most obvious omission is that of Aidan O'Brien who, in another exhibition of rampant achievement, saddled no less than 20 top-level winners.

Horses of the calibre of Fame And Glory, So You Think and Camelot, in particular, had especially good days, while the Ballydoyle maestro really flexed his muscles in America, where he amassed seven Grade Ones.

Ultimately, though, it was the mighty Frankel that resonated to a far greater extent in the year that was on the Flat.

Here we run through 10 of the highlights that left us all in awe throughout the past year.

The Cheltenham Gold Cup

From now on, whenever lists of the greatest races of all time are assembled, the 2011 Cheltenham Gold Cup will be an automatic entry.

In a breathtaking spectacle, three former winners of the game's showpiece event slugged it out at the business end.

Imperial Commander cracked after a blunder four-out, but Kauto Star and Denman rolled back the years to go toe-to-toe as heads turned for home, a set-to that turned out to be the last glorious chapter in epic rivalry of Paul Nicholls' duo.

By the final fence, the six-year-old Long Run, which had signalled its potential in such commanding fashion in the King George, had assumed control, before striding out to the line to claim a famous triumph. It took a track record to deny the two old bruisers and he was a worthy winner of a mesmerising bout that left Prestbury Park rocking.


Before he set foot on a racecourse last year, Frankel, unbeaten in four as a juvenile for Henry Cecil in 2010, was capturing the imagination, amid stories of his outrunning the Newmarket to Cambridge train during a piece of morning exercise.

Such tall tales are not uncommon in the Flat game, but this one might easily have been true, as Frankel went on to substantiate all the hype.

In arguably the most devastating performance ever seen in a Classic, he and Waterford jockey Tom Queally demolished the 2,000 Guineas field from the front, before wracking up three further Group Ones with equal authority. Right now, there isn't a horse in the world that can touch him, and his status as one of the game's immortals is already assured. Sportingly, he will be back for more in 2012.

Hurricane Fly


hurdling king

Prevented from showcasing his immense talent at the Cheltenham Festival due to training hiccups the two previous years, Hurricane Fly confirmed his place at the head of the two-mile hurdling pecking order by thundering to a stunning victory over Peddlers Cross in the Champion Hurdle last March.

While that was a deserved and fitting pinnacle, four other equally comprehensive Grade One successes throughout the last campaign stretched his unbeaten record at the highest level to six, and few would argue now that Willie Mullins' seven-year-old isn't the best hurdler we've seen since Istabraq.

Indeed, had it not been for his ailments, who's to say that Hurricane Fly wouldn't be well on the road to equalling that one's four consecutive wins at Cheltenham in March. As it is, connections would happily settle for two in a row.

Evergreen Kauto Star

recaptures his sparkle

to silence the doubters

Having turned in the first dismal display of his stellar career at Punchestown in May following his Cheltenham heroics, there was a possibility that Kauto Star's outing at Haydock last month would be a last hurrah.

That sense of occasion was reinforced when he received a standing ovation as he was applauded around the parade ring beforehand, so few could have predicted what happened next. Under a storming front-running Ruby Walsh steer, Kauto Star jumped with the exuberance of a horse half his 11 years, as his nemesis Long Run floundered.

Nothing could lay a glove on him, and a spring-heeled effort at the last sealed a stirring victory that epitomised all that is great about the winter pursuit. From a historic perspective, last week's spell-binding fifth King George success was more significant, but that autumn afternoon in Haydock was what captured the public imagination. It was the comeback of all comebacks.

Nina Carberry's Irish

Grand National success

In a discipline of irrefutably hard knocks, Nina Carberry has long held a position of such esteem that her gender seems inconsequential these days.

Still, as she steered her uncle Arthur Moore's Organisedconfusion to glory at Fairyhouse last April, the magnitude of her achievement was unmistakable.

The third Carberry sibling to win the Irish Grand National, Nina's polished display to enhance her broader family's long and rich association with the Easter Monday highlight was no more than we have come to expect of her. And it came wrapped in an outpouring of emotional sentiment and goodwill towards one of the game's most revered individuals.

She is surely one of Irish racing's most valuable assets.

March merriment for

Irish at Cheltenham

Never before has the Cheltenham Festival been plundered with such unerring prowess as it was in 2011. Forget about the fact that, since the addition of a fourth day in 2005, the number of races has risen to 27, because Irish-trained horses won six of the seven races on Day 2 to bring the running tally to nine.

We closed with a record 13, and it seemed everyone came away with something -- bar the bumper, unusually. It wasn't just numbers either, as Sizing Europe and Hurricane Fly reigned supreme in the Champion Chase and Champion Hurdle.

Both were debut triumphs in any of the three traditional championship events for Henry de Bromhead and Willie Mullins respectively, as Hurricane Fly's coronation completed the set for Ruby Walsh. It's hard to imagine how the week could possibly have yielded any more than it did.

Ger Lyons makes the

big breakthrough

Nine years after sending out Big-And-Bold to secure his first and only Grade One win under Ruby Walsh in the Powers Gold Cup, Ger Lyons completed his transformation into a first-rate Flat trainer when Lightening Pearl justified his decision to supplement her for the Group One Cheveley Park Stakes at a cost of £15,000.

It was a brave call from a man who has carved a niche for himself as a straight-talking, pragmatic operator who gets the best out of middling resources, and Lightening Pearl's decisive half-length verdict under Johnny Murtagh at Newmarket proved that he is equally adept at handling a proper racehorse.

As the new year begins, the team at Dunsany have hunkered down for winter dreaming of Classic glory.

Dermot Weld's spectacular week in Ballybrit

Some are critical of the way in which Dermot Weld targets such a large percentage of his team at the Galway Festival, while others will bemoan the relative paucity of opposition that has emerged to his challenge, but what transpired in Ballybrit in 2011 further augmented the trainer's legendary status at the western gala.

Averaging 2.4 winners a day, Weld had equalled his previous best of 11 by Thursday, as horse after horse romped in to leave him with an incredible final tally of 17 -- or 33pc of the races run -- for the week.

Handicaps, maidens, jump races; you name it, he won them, in an unprecedented display of dominance that was the result of months, maybe even years, of planning. It's an incredible haul that even he could struggle to equal.

Galway Hurdle glory

for former colleagues

The possibility of unlikely success stories is a large part of the appeal of valuable handicaps, especially over jumps.

At Ballybrit last year, racegoers witnessed the ultimate realisation of that fancy, as Paul Flynn sent out Moon Dice from his modest Co Longford base to land the richest jumps race in the land, the Galway Hurdle.

One of the game's rising stars, an emotional Flynn was mobbed by well-wishers -- not to mention a swelled entourage from the successful Three Friers Syndicate -- as he returned to the winner's enclosure to welcome back his hero.

To add to the euphoria, Moon Dice was ridden to victory by Tom Doyle, a late bloomer the 32-year-old Flynn had soldiered with during his riding days in England. It couldn't have happened to two more popular guys.

Joseph O'Brien's arrival

on the big stage

When Joseph O'Brien pinched the 2,000 Guineas at The Curragh with a canny front-running steer on Roderic O'Connor, the then 17-year-old displayed all the hallmarks of a top-class Flat rider.

His breeding apart, the emergence of such a prodigious talent is rare, and he went on to confirm all the initial promise of that debut Group One success with three further triumphs at the highest level.

Cool under pressure on the odds-on Camelot en route to a sensational victory at Doncaster in October, the record-breaking champion apprentice displayed even more composure amidst the razzmatazz of the Breeders' Cup two weeks later.

Riding the previously frustrating St Nicholas Abbey for his father Aidan in the Turf at Churchill Downs, he timed his run with precision to become the youngest rider ever to win at the meeting.

It was the fairytale climax to the Flat season that the American gala rarely fails to throw up.

Irish Independent